What to See, Hear, and Eat in the Mississippi Delta—Birthplace of the Blues

Guitar close-up Pixabay

You could argue that no other region better exemplifies the American story in all its glory, folly, promise, and sorrow than the sliver of northwestern Mississippi lining the banks of the state’s namesake river. A bumper crop of important national developments—from the rise and fall of cotton farming as a major economic force to the indelible cultural contributions of literary innovators and creators of homegrown musical art forms like the blues and its overgrown offspring, rock-and-roll—has its roots right here, in the fertile soil of the Mississippi Delta. Here are some of the best ways to experience this fascinating part of the country when you visit the Deep South. 

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A Tunica RiverPark paddleboat on the Mississippi River Visit Mississippi

A fitting place to begin your exploration of the area is on the powerful behemoth that did so much to shape it—the Mississippi River. Confusingly, the region known as the Mississippi Delta is quite a ways north of the actual mouth of the waterway, which means the Delta is not technically a delta. But the river's frequent flooding over the years did help to create the rich soil that made these parts a strong agricultural force starting in the 19th century. At Tunica County's RiverPark and Museum (about a 45-minute drive southwest of Memphis), you can learn all about local history and marine life before boarding a paddleboat for a turn on the water yourself.

  • Stand in de Soto's foosteps (more or less) at Hernando DeSoto River Park, a 41-acre waterside spot 20 miles or so north of Tunica. The site is named after the Spanish explorer credited as the first European to cross the Mississippi River, in 1541.
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Horseshoe Casino in Tunica, Mississippi Sean Davis / Flickr

In the early 1990s, Tunica went from being a hard-luck town to a town where luck is courted. With the construction of several enormous casinos, the city became primarily a gambling destination, replacing its previous status as one of America’s poorest places. Each of the major gaming palaces has a theme of some sort: classic movies (Hollywood, which has a memorabilia collection), the wild West (Sam’s Town and Tunica Roadhouse), old-school Vegas-style glitz (Horseshoe), contemporary Vegas-style glitz (Gold Strike), and—why not?—Ireland (the Fitz). In addition to acres of slots and table games, they all have bountiful dining and entertainment venues. Prices for hotel rooms and meals are a fraction of what you'll find in Nevada and Atlantic City.

  • Fill up at the Blue & White, a former gas station turned diner that has been serving mouth-watering, made-from-scratch Southern food on Highway 61 since 1937. Whatever you do, don’t forget to order a side of fried dill pickle chips.     
 
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Dockery Farms in Cleveland, Mississippi NatalieMaynor / Flickr

Drive deeper south into the Delta along the legendary Highways 49 and 61, and Tunica’s splashy casinos quickly give way to flat, dusty expanses where cotton and other crops are grown amid hardscrabble, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them towns in what appear to be varying stages of abandonment. Together, these unassuming locales gave birth to the blues, producing a remarkable parade of gifted African American musicians, including Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Memphis Minnie, and B.B. King. Any Delta blues pilgrimage has to make time for a stop at Dockery Farms, the turn-of-the-century cotton plantation and sawmill in Cleveland, where Patton mentored fellow worker-musicians Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and others in their off hours (you can stroll the grounds or arrange a tour). In Clarksdale, the Delta Blues Museum tells the form’s story in meticulous detail via photos, music, artwork, and an impressive collection of guitars once owned by blues masters.

  • Bluesy birthplaces: A replica of the shotgun cabin where Muddy Waters was born and a sleek museum chronicling B.B. King’s life can be found in the musicians’ respective hometowns of Rolling Fork and Indianola.        
 
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2009 photo of musicians at Po' Monkey's in Merigold, Mississippi Visit Mississippi

Don’t let this emphasis on the origin of the blues give you the impression that the genre belongs in the past. The best way to experience Delta music is to hear it played live. Clarksdale’s Ground Zero Blues Club (387 Delta Ave.), co-owned by movie star Morgan Freeman, offers a reliable showcase of local talent as well as a menu of Southern comfort food. But for those seeking an experience akin to something Muddy Waters would recognize, nothing less than a good old-fashioned juke joint will do. The most famous one, a former sharecropper’s shack in Merigold known as Po’ Monkey’s, closed when longtime owner Willie Seaberry died in 2016. There’s talk of reviving the club, but in the meantime you can check out other worthy spots like Red’s Lounge (398 Sunflower Ave.) in Clarksdale and the Blue Front Café (107 W. Railroad Ave.) in Bentonia.

  • At the crossroads: If you’d like to achieve mastery of the blues yourself but don’t have time to develop talent, try selling your soul to the devil at the intersection of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale. It worked for Robert Johnson. 

Pictured: Musicians at Po' Monkey's in 2009

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Hopson Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi Instagram / @ericcoy
Nineteenth-century cotton farming required multitudes of manual laborers to do the back-breaking field work—one reason why the Southern states were determined to hold onto their captive pool of enslaved African Americans. After the Civil War, the work continued, and so did the exploitation of black labor, via sharecropping and tenant farming. Even those difficult jobs dried up in the years following the Great Depression, when large-scale mechanization came to the Delta, effectively displacing thousands of workers, many of whom moved north in the second wave of the Great Migration. This history is all around you at the Hopson Plantation outside of Clarksdale. The grounds, cotton gin, commissary, and outbuildings have been preserved to look much as they did in 1944, when International Harvester put the first mechanical cotton picker to work right here. Nowadays there's a full bar and live music venue amid the vintage industrial signs, rusty farm machinery, and comfortably ramshackle furnishings.

  • Spend the night in one of the renovated sharecropper's cabins operated by the Shack Up Inn (motto: "the Ritz we ain't").
 
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Cutrer Mansion in Clarksdale, Mississippi Martin Ely / Flickr

Playwright Tennessee Williams spent his early childhood in Clarksdale, absorbing source material for the haunted, doomed, and delicate Southerners who would populate so much of his work. You can take a walking tour of his neighborhood (maps are available at the Delma Furniss Hospitality Station on Highway 49 in nearby Lula), stopping at a park named in the author’s honor; St. George’s Episcopal Church (106 Sharkey Ave.), where his grandfather served as rector; and the Cutrer Mansion (109 Clark St.; pictured), said to be the model for Belle Reve, the lost ancestral home of sisters Stella and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. Visit Clarksdale in October to catch the annual Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival, which features full theatrical productions, “porch plays,” lectures, and concerts.

  • Moon Lake Casino, a lyrically named nightspot once located north of town, is mentioned by several Williams characters—Blanche DuBois reports that her young husband shot himself here. That place is long gone, replaced by an eccentric inn and restaurant called Uncle Henry’s Place
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Kermit the Frog at the Jim Henson museum in Leland, Mississippi Visit Mississippi

Musicians weren’t the only creative types to have sprung from the Delta in the 20th century. The town of Greenville has produced a remarkable number of published writers, perhaps most notably historian Shelby Foote, novelist Walker Percy, and progressive journalist Hodding Carter. An exhibit at the William Alexander Percy Memorial Library (341 Main St.), named for another Greenville literary notable, pays tribute to the town's many wordsmiths. Yet another hometown hero, Muppets creator Jim Henson, is celebrated in nearby Leland with a small museum full of videos and memorabilia including an original Kermit the Frog. The facility stands on the banks of Deer Creek, the renowned amphibian’s officially designated birthplace.

  • Another literary landmark is Greenwood’s Turnrow Book Company (304 Howard St.), an independent bookstore with a drool-worthy selection of Southern fiction and many other genres. Readings and signings featuring famous authors are frequent.  
 
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Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi Mr. Littlehand / Flickr

Several spots marking the way along Mississippi’s long and troubled (and far from finished) road to racial equality can be found in the region. Surely the most forlorn is the now-abandoned and dilapidated Bryant’s Grocery Store on County Road 518 in rural Money; it was here that black 14-year-old Emmett Till, visiting from Chicago, was accused in August 1955 of flirting with a white woman, for which he was murdered by her husband and half-brother. Another historic stop from the segregation era is the still-operating Riverside Hotel (615 Sunflower Ave.) in Clarksdale. When it opened in 1944, the one-story brick building became known for welcoming traveling musicians (Sonny Boy Williamson, Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk, and many others) who couldn’t stay at whites-only accommodations.

  • A previous incarnation: Before it was a hotel, the Riverside’s location was used by the G.T. Thomas Afro American Hospital, another service provided in response to the officially sanctioned division of the races. Singer Bessie Smith died here following a car accident in 1937. 
 
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Mississippi-style tamales at Delta Fast Food in Cleveland, Mississippi lucianvenutian / Flickr

One of the great sensory joys of traveling through the Delta is digging into down-home, deliciously greasy, deliciously affordable Southern cooking served at family-run restaurants. Disregarding all calorie counts, you’ll need to try the burgers and fried dill pickles at the Hollywood Café (1585 Old Commerce Rd.) in Robinsonville, the catfish and fried green tomatoes with hollandaise and crabmeat at Rusty’s Riverfront Grill (901 Washington St.) in Vicksburg, and the acclaimed homemade pies (chocolate, coconut, lemon icebox) at the Crystal Grill (423 Carrollton Ave.) in Greenwood. You can go back to kale when you return home.

  • Delta-style tamales (pictured) are another regional specialty—they’re smaller, spicier, and juicier than the Latin version. You can try them at Delta Fast Food (701 S. Davis Ave.) in Cleveland.
 
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