The Down Low
Geographical definitions of the Delta vary, and you can find quality live blues from Memphis and Oxford south to Vicksburg and Jackson, but the core of the scene is the triangle formed by Clarksdale, Greenwood, and Greenville.
If you’re searching for live blues in this triangle, your first stop absolutely must be Cat Head. (I know, I know. I said there’s no “right” way. But trust me on this one.)
Located in downtown Clarksdale, Cat Head is a music store, folk art gallery, recording label, and more. There’s no one more well-informed about the Delta’s regular blues festivals, showcases, nightly juke joint performances, old-timers, or up-and-coming artists than the folks here. Period.
Call ahead, check out the extensive resources on their website, email a question, or simply walk in and ask what’s on the go.
While you’re at it, think about doing some shopping: these guys know their stuff, and will give you tailored recommendations to add some legit Delta blues to your collection, beyond those Greatest Hits albums from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
When I visited Cat Head, I ran down a list of my dad’s favorite big-name blues artists, and asked them to recommend someone similar, but someone he’d never discover anywhere else.
The result? Super Chikan. Here he is, live in Clarksdale:
As any purist will tell you, the old Delta juke joints ain’t what they used to be. But there are still a few spots to hear live blues on a nightly basis.
Here are a few reliable options:
Best known as “Morgan Freeman’s juke joint,” and located next door to the Delta Blues Museum in downtown Clarksdale, the Ground Zero Blues Club naturally attracts a few more visitors than some.
But it also attracts talent, so don’t sniff at it just ’cause it’s only seven years young and owned by a celebrity.
Widely considered one of the last legit Delta juke joints, Po’ Monkey’s is located in tiny Merigold, outside Clarksdale. It’s as old school as they come, offering live blues just one night a week in an aging shack surrounded by cotton fields. Atmospheric, much?
Walnut Street Blues Bar:
Further afield, in Greenville, is the Walnut Street Blues Bar — also known as the Walnut Street Blues Club or the Walnut Street Bait Shop. (Have you guessed yet? It’s on Walnut Street.) Good blues and good food, and the ownership is active in some of the festivals and area blues preservation efforts that go on.
Sure, you probably know that Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil at the infamous crossroads in Clarksdale. But what else do you know about the people that created the blues, and the places that created them?
Several area museums are happy to tell all:
Delta Blues Museum:
In downtown Clarksdale, this is the place most folks end up. It’s got an array of Delta blues memorabilia, and is probably best known for the reconstructed shack that Muddy Waters grew up in.
The music selection in the gift shop is disappointing, though — head to Cat Head up the block for your shopping.
Rock’n’Roll & Blues Heritage Museum: Another Clarksdale institution, this one is dedicated to more than just the blues — it also touches on rock, soul, gospel, funk, and how they all fit together.
Opening hours are limited: check the website or call ahead.
Highway 61 Blues Museum:
If you’re headed down to Greenville from Clarksdale, you’ll pass through quiet Leland just after you exit Highway 61 heading west. The folks here are heavily involved in festivals and live shows, keeping the music alive outside the museum, too.
B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center:
This brand-new museum, in King’s hometown of Indianola, is a new breed of tourist attraction in the Delta — the $14-million facility is a state-of-the-art homage to one of the greatest of the Delta blues masters.
Be sure to check out the accompanying article, “Highway Blues: Essential Tunes for a Delta Road Trip.”
For more on the Delta, check out Travelling Riverside Blues, or read personal blogs from Matador members who’ve recently made the pilgrimage themselves: try New Orleans to Memphis: Searching for the Soul of the Delta or Seen & Heard.
Also, don’t miss Worth the Trip: Bluesfest in Ottawa.