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The Mississippi Music Pilgrimage
If you've ever listened to the blues, or R&B, or hip-hop, you need (that's right, need) to make a pilgrimage to the land that started it all: the Mississippi Delta.
Text by Kimberly Brown Seely   Photographs by Andrew Kornylak

Photo: Paddling the Mississippi

See and hear the musical legacy of the Mississippi
in photographer Andrew Kornylak's audio slideshow >>
 
Plus: Delta Music  |  Adventure Guide

There's a reason the Mississippi Delta is called the "cradle of the blues." It was here that rich dirt, baking heat, racial oppression, and rampant poverty conspired to produce more legendary bluesmen (and women), than anywhere else. Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Willie Brown, B.B. King … they all came from the Delta—and to hang around their old stomping grounds is to feel how deep the blues roots go.

Live blues can be hard to find these days; you have to hunt it down. Start with a night on Beale Street in Memphis, the focal point of the Delta even though it's in Tennessee. See who's playing at B.B. King's Blues Club or the Rum Boogie Cafe—don't miss the gator gumbo (Stevie Ray Vaughan would order two cups), and the signed guitars hanging on the walls like ghosts from a bygone era. The next day cruise south on Highway 61, toward Clarksdale. After a whole lot of casino billboards you'll reach the heart of the Delta, with its flat fields, broken-down shacks, barbecue joints, cotton gins, and of course, the Big River.

In Clarksdale, stop by the raffish Riverside Hotel where Bessie Smith died (and everyone else from Sonny Boy Williamson II to Robert Nighthawk slept); walk by WROX studio where Ike Turner was a janitor and Mississippi's first black DJ, the legendary Early Wright, pumped out the blues for more than 50 years; then pull up to a $7 plate lunch at the gritty Ground Zero Blues Club (co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman). Beyond that head over to Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, a funky outpost for everything blues (CDs, vinyl, DVDs), to find out who's playing where. If you're lucky, James "Super Chikan" Johnson, James "T-Model" Ford, or the Wesley Jefferson Band might be playing at juke joints such as Red's Lounge or Sarah's Kitchen.

During daytime in the Delta, you can tool around looking for Robert Johnson's grave and Muddy Waters' birthplace, or you can hop on the Mississippi and take out five days later at Greenville (then catch some music at the Walnut Street Blues Bar). Either way, don't expect anything to move any faster than the river.
 
Vitals: The Mississippi Blues Commission (www.msbluestrail.org) has launched a project to identify 150 Mississippi Blues Trail sites; the first ten were marked in December 2006. For music and info, check out: B.B. King's (memphis.bbkingclubs.com); Rum Boogie Cafe (www.rumboogie.com); Delta Blues Museum (www.deltabluesmuseum.org); Ground Zero Blues Club (www.groundzerobluesclub.com); Cat Head (www.cathead.biz); Red's Lounge
(+1 662 624 5992); Sarah's Kitchen (+1 662 627 3239); Walnut Street Blues Bar (+1 662 378 2254).

See and hear the musical legacy of the Mississippi
in photographer Andrew Kornylak's audio slideshow >>


Plus: Delta Music  |  Adventure Guide

        

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