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Mississippi Delta Road Trip

What is it about the Mississippi Delta? Places like Mecca, Jerusalem and Lourdes evoke images of religious pilgrimage. The Mississippi Delta is a sacred journey of sorts for fans of the blues.

Planning a trip to this area involves solving logistical challenges, with scores of sites scattered around the state.  The following trip intertwines blues and American race history points of interest into one long day trip, beginning in Memphis and ending in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  It’s just one of countless iterations of possible trip itineraries, but one our group enjoyed.

You may want to queue up the Delta Influences playlist as you drive. It serves as the soundtrack for the first leg of your journey, pairing rock songs and bands everyone in our group would know with the original Delta Blues version of the songs. It features a lot of Robert Johnson as the plantation he lived on was one of our first stops.

Let’s Roll!

Mississippi was among the top slave holding states. Most slavery era plantations, however, were in the southern end of the state, not the Delta. The reason being that the Delta was Chickasaw and Choctaw Indian land, occupied by the tribes until the Indian Relocation Act of 1830 moved them to Oklahoma on the trail of tears.  

The land of the Delta was heavily wooded prior to the settlement of plantations. As you head south on Highway 61, you will notice some small swathes of woodland amid the huge farming tracts along the way. Imagine this entire area being forested, much of it swampy.

Hollywood Café –

As you head south on Highway 61 look for the Green River Rd exit, as you pass it, queue up the Delta Influence playlist. The first stop is the Hollywood Café in Tunica, Mississippi. “Tunica” is a Tunica Indian word meaning “the people.” In recent years most of the people visiting Tunica have come to gamble.

The Hollywood was immortalized in the Marc Cohn magnum opus “Walking in Memphis.”

Now Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
She said
“Tell me are you a Christian child?”
And I said “Ma’am, I am tonight”

Back in the sharecropper era (post 1865), this area of the northern Mississippi Delta was home to several plantations. The building that houses the Hollywood Cafe was the Commissary of the Frank Harbert plantation a one-time home of bluesman Son House and place where he would perform. Howlin’ Wolf occasionally played on the plantation at his aunt’s house.

The Hollywood Café opens at 11am most days, but if you stop bye before opening, as we did, you may still be able to wander in and check it out. Folks in Mississippi were all very welcoming everywhere we went, as you will see if you read on or read my travelog(link).

It should go without saying (but I will anyway), keep in mind that this is and other spots like it are operating businesses, not tour operations, so please be respectful. You will probably find, as we did, that a little bit of R-E-S-P-E-C-T goes a long way, and most folks will be very generous with their time.

On your way out you may want to pick up some Hollywood merch or leave a tip at the bar to support these folks. The Hollywood Café is also a good place for lunch (according to reviews) if your timing is right.

Abbay & Leatherman Plantation

Heading west, Old Commerce Rd will lead you to Casino Strip Resort Road, named for the numerous gaming establishments now in Tunica. Continuing west you will come to the Abbay & Leatherman plantation where “King of the Delta Blues Singers” Robert Johnson lived from the ages of 8 to 18 years old with his mother and second stepfather (Dusty Willis). It was while living here in 1926 that he began to play guitar and quickly established himself as a bluesman.

Beyond the commissary to the west, you will get a good view of the Mississippi River levee. The levee breached bringing devastation to the Delta in 1927, inspiring songs such as Memphis Minnie and Kansas City Joe’s “When the Levee Breaks.” Most of us are more familiar with Led Zeppelin’s cover version, recorded over 40 years later.

Today the A&L Commissary serves as the office of 4th generation farmer Gary Bailey (contact?). Gary is the managing partner along with his father-in-law, Brad Cobb, of a multi-crop farming operation over approximately 5 square miles of leased Delta land. This modern “sharecropping” arrangement uses relatively little manual labor. And instead of just farming cotton, they rotate between soybeans, corn and recently added rice to the mix.

Manual labor was largely replaced years ago by a mix of basket harvesters, boll buggies and mole builders. Today, the entire picking process can be handled by one machine, an on-board module harvester.

Fun Fact: Brad Cobb’s son is pop star Katy Perry’s long-time manager.

By the time that Johnson was 17, he was playing all over the upper Delta. The Clack Grocery Store (now a dirt lot), about 5 miles from the Johnson’s home at Abbay & Leatherman, was particularly significant.

It was while playing outside the Clack Grocery Store were Johnson met 14-year-old Virginia Travis, who would soon become his wife. She would soon become pregnant and die during childbirth. One of many tragedies in Johnson’s short life.

The Clack Grocery was also where Son House was recorded by Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress who was traveling the Delta with John Work III of Fiske University in Nashville. Lomax and Work carried recording gear in their car, seeking to document examples of the local folk music, the Delta Blues.

Heading south on Highway 61, you will reach Clarksdale in about 45 minutes. If you need to make a pit stop for some excellent coffee, a snack and a bathroom break, Meraki Roasting Company in Clarksdale is the perfect spot. I also recommend making Clarksdale your home base for at least two nights in order to further explore the town and surrounding area.

At this point in the journey, you have a decision to make. Our group wanted to include a slavery era plantation tour into our trip, so we headed to the Lakeport Plantation which is another 1:45 south of Clarksdale. Come along with us on this trip (by reading on) or alternatively, you can bypass the Lakeport and include more blues related stops in Indianola, Greenwood, Tutwiler as well as locations related to Emmett Till in roughly the same amount of time. If you decide to stay multiple nights in Clarksdale, you can visit these sites on a half-day trip.

Alright, on to the Lakeport Plantation. But first, a quick stop along Highway 1 at the Winterville Mounds a route that changes up the scenery but does not add time to your trip. By entering the Winterville Mounds in your GPS as a stop on the way to Lakeport, you will be routed via Highway 1, providing some varied scenery on this southbound leg of your trip. You will travel the same section of Highway 61 that you bypassed on your way back to Clarksdale in the late afternoon.

Winterville Mounds Detour

Winterville is one of the largest Native American mound sites in the United States, the largest of the at least 23 mounds on this site, constructed between 1100 A.D. and 1450 A.D., stands 55 feet tall. These mounds were once the highest point between here and the mounds in Cahokia, Illinois, over 400 miles to the north.

Ruled as a chiefdom, as opposed to tribal societies such as the Choctaw, the society that constructed these mounds inhabited this area between 10th and 16th centuries. Archeologists believe that this society may have been decimated following the arrival of Hernando De Soto in 1540 due to lack of immunity to diseases carried by the Europeans.

These mounds were built by hand, by loading dirt into baskets and carrying it to the site, where it was then dumped and stamped down by foot. The mounds were believed to have been constructed as temples where sacred ceremonies were held and as residences for the chief, who carried authority over life and death of his subordinates. In contrast, tribes such as the Choctaw were egalitarian societies, therefore all tribe members had equal rights and multiple chiefs each with varying authority in the tribe.

The visitors center at the Winterville Mounds has been closed for some time, so there is nothing to get out of the car for, especially since there is no climbing allowed on the mounds. But worth a quick stop, especially if you have not seen Indian mounds before.    

If like us, you got an early start out of Memphis, you are probably ready for lunch before visiting the Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, Arkansas. If you get hungry earlier, get your hot tamale fix at The White Front Café in Rosedale, Mississippi. You will pass in on Highway 1 about an hour before you get to Rhoda’s.

We stopped at Rhoda’s Hot Tamales and Pies in the town of Lake Village. Being a lifelong Californian, I thought a hot tamale was a chewy, cinnamon flavored candy. The Mexican delicacy I grew up with is simply a tamale, which of course was served hot. Anyway, now I know they are basically the same thing!

The Lakeport Plantation – 601 Highway 142, Lake Village, Arkansas

This plantation was restored and is operated by Arkansas State University and is the last surviving plantation on the Mississippi River in Arkansas. As you will see by visiting the Lakeport Plantation, while construction began in 1859, finishing details were not completed at the outbreak of the Civil War in April of 1861.

Birthplace of Kermit the Frog – 415 S Deer Creek Dr E, Leland, Mississippi

If you want to lighten the mood, make a stop at the Birthplace of Kermit the Frog, An Exhibit of Jim Henson’s Delta Boyhood in Leland, Mississippi.  This small, two room exhibit space contains many items donated by Henson and provides some fun photo opportunities.

Fun Fact: Jim Henson grew up playing along Deer Creek in Leland with his good friend, Kermit Scott.

Ruby’s Nite Spot – 33°24’27.7″N 90°54’03.1″W

If you stop in Leland, you may want to take a detour to the site of Ruby’s Nite Spot. It’s just a short hop over the Rainbow Connection Bridge. You will drive a brief stretch of Old Highway 61 on your way to your next stop, Dockery Farms. This photo from goggle maps shows Ruby’s as it existed in 2013, in a dilapidated state prior to demolition.

According to the Mississippi Blues Trail marker, Ruby’s was one of the most prominent blues clubs in the Delta during the 1940’s and 50’s. The club would stay open long after competitors in Greenville and Indianola closed.

Owner Ruby Edwards (1910-2001) booked top touring blues and R&B performers such as Ray Charles, Little Richard, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Big Joe Turner, Elmore James, Little Walter and Junior Parker as well as local bluesman.

Ruby had a long-term relationship with a rambling high stakes gambler who on many occasions hosted big games as Ruby’s with players traveling from as far away as Chicago, according to Janice Branch Stacy in her book Mississippi Moonshine Politics. By the mid-50’s Ruby took over Club Ebony in Indianola where her daughter would meet her eventual husband, B.B. King.

As you head back north toward the Dockery Plantation, take a short detour at Cleveland, Mississippi for three interesting sites.

1) Amzie Moore House – 602 S. Chrisman Avenue, Cleveland, Mississippi

In this modest home, Civil rights leader Amzie Moore hosted meetings with legends of the Civil Rights Movement including Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, John Lewis and Thurgood Marshall.

2) The Country Platter – 700 Ruby Street, Cleveland, Mississippi

Meetings at the Moore residence would often end up with a meal at the restaurant around the corner. Bobby Kennedy also dined at the Country Platter during his 1967 trip to the South. Reportedly, these civil rights leaders did not typically exit through the door they entered in fear of being an easy target for would be assassins.

3) – The Grammy Museum – xxxxx W. Sunflower Road, Cleveland, Mississippi

Looking at this shiny glass, steel and concrete edifice built next to Delta State University at a cost of $20 million, I can’t help but think that the money would have been better spent preserving historical places like Ruby’s into interpretive exhibit spaces. But maybe that’s just me.

Dockery Farms

Our next stop is Dockery Farms – Birthplace of the Blues, in rural Cleveland, a few miles beyond the modern “crossroads” of highways 8 and 278 with a gas station, a Walgreens and a Burger King anchored strip mall. As you head east on Sunflower Rd (highway 8) though, the modern sprawl melts away into rural farmland and one of the most important and best-preserved historical spots on the Mississippi Blues Trail.

Dockery Farms is considered by many to be the Birthplace of the Blues. Of course, blues music was not birthed in any single place, but if you had to pick just one, this would be the place. Consider the following:

  1. W.C. Handy, who considered himself the Father of the Blues because he was the first to publish blues music, first heard “this weird music?” on a train platform in nearby Tutwiler. Historians believe that the musician he heard was from Dockery, very likely Henry Sloan who was a mentor of Charley Patton.
  2. Charley Patton, the trailblazing bluesman and entertainer, moved to Dockery as a youth, in the plantation’s first years. He would learn his craft from Henry Sloan and go on to inspire every musician of his era living in the Delta.
  3. Howlin’ Wolf and Pops Staples lived at Dockery while Robert Johnson and Son House visited and played at the plantation.

Dockery Plantation became a self-sufficient town with two churches and two schools, a physician, post office, railroad line and currency which was honored in nearby towns.

Several original buildings still stand and are in excellent condition. The cotton gin houses a video screen which tells of life on the plantation. Unfortunately, the audio was not working on our visit. The video is available on YouTube if you would like to play it on a personal device.  

Po’ Monkey’s

Po’ Monkey’s Lounge was one of the last rural juke joints, located just outside of Merigold down an idyllic gravel lane past neatly maintained homes. Po’Monkey’s was opened in 1963 by Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry who worked as a farmer by day and operated the juke two nights a week, in his home. It closed following his death at age 74 in 2016.

The club attracted national media attention and photographers including Annie Leibovitz have shot there. Despite the fame Po’ Monkey’s continued to typify the rural juke joint, furnished with a jukebox, a pool table, beer posters stapled to the walls, and Christmas lights strung across the walls and ceiling. A diverse crowd of locals, students from nearby Delta State University and blues tourist would share in the good times.

By April 2022, all the exterior signage that made Po’ Monkey’s such as interesting photo opp have been removed. The place is still well worth a visit as it is easy to imagine visitors flocking there for some Monday and Thursday night magic.

Your last detour on the way to Clarksdale is the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi.    

Mound Bayou, Mississippi

Just up the road from Cleveland is the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Mound Bayou was an all-black community founded in 1887 by former enslaved, Isaiah T. Montgomery and his cousin Benjamin T. Green who bought 840 acres of forested swamp land to embark on their vision of establishing an autonomous, self-reliant community.

The town flourished for many years with President Theodore Roosevelt proclaiming the town “the Jewel of the Delta,” on a train stop in 1907. Civil rights leader Medgar Evers moved to Mound Bayou after graduating college, selling insurance door to door and organized new chapters of the NAACP.

Ironically, desegregation led to the town’s demise, according to Rolando Herts of Delta State University. Play the audio of this NPR story as you drive through town, then stream the song “Mound Bayou” by Henry Levine and his Strictly from Dixie Jazz Band on your way out.

Fun Fact: Mound Bayou Resident Ed Townsend co-wrote with Marvin Gaye every song on side one of Gaye’s classic album “Let’s Get It On.”

On to Clarksdale!

jorge@tripsntunes.com