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Exterior Photo of gas station at Dockery Farms.

Mississippi Blues Trail – Road Trip #1

Places like Mecca, Jerusalem, and Lourdes evoke images of religious pilgrimage. Similarly, the Mississippi Blues Trail is a sacred journey for fans of the Delta blues and the rock music it inspired. This self-guided tour of the Mississippi Blues Trail covers much of the upper Mississippi Delta. It intertwines delta blues with American race history points of interest. Linked audio and video content complements the experience.

Visiting the Mississippi Blues Trail involves solving logistical challenges, with scores of sites scattered around the state. There are countless iterations of possible trip itineraries. As shown, it’s one long day trip, beginning in Memphis and ending in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  Alternatively, you can shorten it by eliminating stops or conveniently spread it over two days if you stay in Clarksdale.

The forthcoming Mississippi Blues Trail – Road Trip #2 contains additional stops in the upper Mississippi delta.

Listen to Rockin’ Delta Blues on the Ride

Queue up the Delta Blues Influences playlist on Spotify as you pass the Green River exit on Highway 61. Pairing familiar rock songs and bands with the original Delta blues version of the songs, it serves as a soundtrack for your journey along the Mississippi Blues Trail. Don’t have Spotify? Sign up for a free account to listen with commercials. Better yet, to listen commercial-free, try a free trial of Spotify during your trip.

Before the Mississippi Blues Trail

Mississippi was among the top slaveholding states. For much of the slavery era, most plantations were located in the southern end of the state. There were, however, some plantations in the Mississippi Delta. The Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians that inhabited the Delta, themselves owned some large plantations with enslaved labor. A series of treaties culminating in 1830 led to their removal. These native people left for Oklahoma on what became known as “the trail of tears.”  

Prior to white settlement, the land of the Mississippi Delta was heavily wooded. As you head down Highway 61, notice the small swathes of woodland amid the huge farming tracts. Imagine this area forested, much of it swampy, as it was at the time. With the Native Americans removed, white owners used slave labor to clear the land. In these early days prior to cotton, lumber was the main industry.

The Hollywood Cafe – Tunica Resorts, Mississippi

Our first Mississippi Blues Trail stop is The Hollywood Cafe in Tunica, Mississippi. The word “Tunica” means “the people” in Tunica Indian. In recent years most of the people visiting Tunica come to gamble.

Mississippi Blues Trail marker in the foreground of exterior photo of The Hollywood Cafe.

Marc Cohn immortalized The Hollywood in his 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”

The Hollywood Cafe opens at 11 am most days. Even if they are not yet open, inquire if you can take a look around. The memorabilia and familiar sights from the Marc Cohn video are worth seeing. Folks throughout the Mississippi Delta were very welcoming everywhere we went. Just remember that some of these stops along the Mississippi Blues Trail are operating businesses, not tour operations. You will find that as long as you are respectful, people will be very generous with their time.

On your way out of the Hollywood Cafe, you can leave a tip at the bar to show your appreciation. According to reviews, The Hollywood Cafe is also a good place for lunch if your timing is right.

Imagine Son House

Back in the sharecropper era (post-1865), several plantations occupied this area of the upper Mississippi Delta. The building that houses The Hollywood Cafe was the commissary of the Frank Harbert plantation. Delta blues great Son House lived on this plantation.

Son House often played outside the commissary to gathering crowds. House also frequented the Clack Grocery Store, a wood-framed structure about 5 miles from here that no longer exists. Outside Clack Grocery, Alan Lomax recorded Son House for the Library of Congress in 1941. Lomax traveled the Mississippi Delta with recording gear to document examples of the local folk music, the Delta blues. By listening to this recording, you can easily imagine the scene.

Abbay & Leatherman Plantation – 4762 Casino Strip Resort Blvd, Tunica, Mississippi
Mississippi Blues Trail marker in the foreground of exterior photo of the Abbay & Leatherman commissary.

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

By the time that Robert Johnson was 17, he was playing all over the upper Mississippi Delta. While performing outside the Clack Grocery Store, Johnson met 14-year-old Virginia Travis. She would soon become his wife, and shortly thereafter, die during childbirth. This loss was one of many tragedies in Robert Johnson’s short life.

When the Levee Breaks

Beyond the commissary to the west, you will get a good view of the Mississippi River levee. The levee was breached in 1927 bringing devastation to the Mississippi Delta. Memphis Minnie and Kansas City Joe drew their inspiration for the song “When the Levee Breaks” from this catastrophe. Rock music fans are probably more familiar with Led Zeppelin’s cover version, recorded over 40 years later.

Abbay & Leatherman Today

Today the commissary serves as the office of 4th generation farmer Gary Bailey. As managing partner, along with his father-in-law Brad Cobb, Gary runs a multi-crop farming operation over approximately 5 square miles of leased Mississippi Delta land.

This modern “sharecropping” arrangement uses relatively little manual labor. Today, instead of just farming cotton, they rotate between soybeans, corn, and recently added rice to the mix. One machine handles the entire picking process.

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

Hirsberg’s Drug Store – 649 2nd Street, Friars Point, Mississippi
Mississippi Blues Trail marker in the background of a photo of the exterior of Hirsberg's Drug Store.

Robert Johnson was a regular in Friars Point during the brief time he lived across the river in West Stover, Arkansas. Friars Point is a river town that at the time was full of jukes, black lodges, and clubs, offering lots of opportunities for the young delta blues performer.

Hirsberg’s Drug Store in Friars Point was a meeting place for area residents. The store sold arm supplies, clothing, and food, pretty much everything that residents needed. Johnson enjoyed playing on a wooden bench in front of the store.

A crowd so large that it would block the store’s entrance quickly gathered whenever Robert Johnson played. Muddy Waters’ recalled the scene years later. Johnson earned tips and advertised his gig for that night, according to a definitive Johnson biography, Up Jumped the Devil by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow.

Note About the Mississippi Blues Trail Markers

You may have noticed that we have already skipped a number of Mississippi Blues Trail markers between our stops. Many markers merely commemorate a Delta blues performer that was born or lived in the area. Experience these by visiting the Mississippi Blues Trail website, unless you have the time and inclination to stop. This road trip favors existing structures that help transport us through their stories to a time in Delta blues history.

The Hirsberg building is, at least for the time being, still largely intact. You can still see the name embossed on the glass and easily imagine Robert Johnson playing the delta blues on the bench in front. The Mississippi Blues Trail marker at Hirsberg’s commemorates Robert Nighthawk who lived parts of his life in Friars Point.

Stovall Plantation – 3888 Oakhurst Stovall Rd, Clarksdale, Mississippi

McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, lived most of his early life on the Stovall Plantation just outside of Clarksdale. In his adult years, he drove a tractor during the day and ran a juke joint in his home where he performed delta blues and sold moonshine whiskey at night. Alan Lomax first recorded Muddy Waters at his home here in 1941. Hearing his recorded voice motivated Muddy to pursue a recording career in Chicago. You can listen to the recording below.

Muddy Waters’ sharecropper shack is very similar to the dilapidated one in the photographs below taken at the plantation. The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale relocated Muddy’s actual home inside their museum. A Mississippi Blues Trail marker at the address above approximates the former location. Today, the Stovall Store is used as an occasional juke joint and along with the Gin Mill building is rented for events.

Montage of photos from Stovall Plantation near Muddy Water's Mississippi Blues Trail marker.
Sights around Stovall Plantation include the Store, Gin Mill, and two views of a shack similar to where Muddy Waters lived.

A Crossroads in Your Mississippi Blues Trail Road Trip

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 the surrounding area. Check out my Clarksdale Travel Guide for details.

At this point in the journey, you have a decision to make. Our group wanted to include a slavery-era plantation tour into our Mississippi Blues Trail road trip, so we headed to the Lakeport Plantation which is another hour and 45 minutes south of Clarksdale. Come along with us on this trip by reading on or alternatively, you can bypass the Lakeport portion of this trip and rejoin us at Dockery Plantation (scroll down to the photo) to shorten the 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. Enter the Winterville Mounds in your GPS as a stop along the way to Lakeport to be routed via Highway 1. This route provides some varied scenery on this southbound leg of your trip. You will travel the same section of Highway 61/278 that you bypassed on your way back to Clarksdale in the late afternoon.

Winterville Mounds – 2415 MS-1, Greenville, Mississippi

Winterville is one of the largest Native American mound sites in the United States, constructed between 1100 A.D. and 1450 A.D., the largest of these mounds stands 55 feet tall. The Winterville Mounds were once the highest point between here and the mounds in Cahokia, Illinois, over 400 miles to the north.

Built by loading handfuls of dirt into baskets and carrying them to the site, the dirt was then dumped and stamped down by foot. The mounds were believed to have been constructed as temples where sacred ceremonies were held. Chiefs, who carried authority over the life and death of their subordinates, resided on the mounds.

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.

Lunch Choices on the Mississippi Blues Trail

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 it on Highway 1 about an hour before you get to 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 called simply a “tamale,” which was served hot. Anyway, now I know they are basically the same thing!

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

Arkansas State University restored and operates this plantation, the last surviving plantation on the Mississippi River in Arkansas. Construction of the Lakeport Plantation began in 1859, yet finishing details had not been completed by the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861. You will notice these unfinished details on your tour.

Exterior photo of the plantation home at the Lakeport Plantation.
Birthplace of Kermit the Frog – 415 S Deer Creek Drive E, Leland, Mississippi

If you want to lighten the mood after your plantation visit, make a stop at the Birthplace of Kermit the Frog, an exhibit of Jim Henson’s Mississippi delta boyhood in Leland.  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 – 203 McGee Street, Leland, Mississippi

If you stop in Leland, you may want to take a quick 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 google maps shows Ruby’s as it existed in 2013 prior to demolition. Today, it’s a vacant lot with a Mississippi Blues Trail marker.

According to the Mississippi Blues Trail marker, Ruby’s was one of the most prominent blues clubs in the Mississippi Delta during the 1940s and 50s. 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 delta blues performers.

Ruby had a long-term relationship with a rambling high-stakes gambler who on many occasions hosted big games at 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-’50s Ruby took over Club Ebony in Indianola where her daughter would meet her eventual husband, B.B. King. The upcoming Mississippi Blues Trail – Road Trip II features Club Ebony. Sign up at the bottom of this post to be updated.

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

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.

The Country Platter – 700 Ruby Street, Cleveland, Mississippi

Meetings at the Moore residence often ended 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. In spite of precautions, Kennedy, King, and Evers would each be assassinated.

The Grammy Museum – 800 W. Sunflower Road, Cleveland, Mississippi

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

Dockery Farms – 299 Highway 8, Cleveland, Mississippi

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.

Photo showing several buildings on Dockery Farms plantation along the Mississippi Blues Trail.

Dockery Farms is recognized 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 it. Consider the following:

  • W.C. Handy, 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, a mentor to Charley Patton.
  • Charley Patton, the trailblazing delta blues performer, moved to Dockery as a youth, in the plantation’s first years. He would influence every Delta blues musician of his era.
  • Howlin’ Wolf and Pops Staples lived at Dockery; Robert Johnson and Son House visited and played at the plantation.

Dockery Plantation became a self-sufficient town with two churches, two schools, a physician, a post office, and a railroad line. Dockery issued its own currency which was also honored in nearby towns. Several original buildings still stand and are in excellent condition. The cotton gin houses a video screen that 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 – 99 Po Monkey Road, Merigold, Mississippi

One of the last rural juke joints, Po’ Monkey’s Lounge is down an idyllic gravel lane past neatly maintained homes. Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry opened Po’ Monkey’s in 1963 in his home. He worked as a farmer by day and operated the juke one or two nights a week. It closed following his death in 2016.

Exterior of a boarded up Po' Monkey's Lounge on the Mississippi Blues Trail in Merigold. Nearby Mississippi Blues Trail marker not shown.

The club attracted national media attention and photographers including Annie Leibovitz. Despite the fame, Po’ Monkey’s continued to typify the rural juke joint. Po’ Monkey’s was furnished with a jukebox, a pool table, beer posters, and Christmas lights abound. The exterior was once adorned with a fantastic collection of mostly homemade signs. They were removed following Seaberry’s death, along with the interior decorations which were sold at auction prior to our visit in April 2022.

A diverse crowd of locals, students from nearby Delta State University, and blues tourists would share in the good times. Po’ Monkey’s rarely featured live music and played diverse styles beyond delta blues, yet is honored with a Mississippi Blues Trail marker. This juke holds a special place in local history. Its future is a controversial subject. Po’ Monkey’s seems likely to one day be another Mississippi Blues Trail marker in an empty field.

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

Mound Bayou, Mississippi – 302 West Main Street, South

Just up the road from Cleveland is the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Mound Bayou was an all-black community founded in 1887 by two former enslaved people, Isaiah T. Montgomery and his cousin Benjamin T. Green. They 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. President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed 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. He sold insurance door to door and organized new chapters of the NAACP. A Mississippi Blues Trail marker commemorates the town’s music history which extends beyond the delta blues.

Ironically, desegregation led to the town’s demise, according to Rolando Herts of Delta State University. Play the audio of this NPR story for narration as you drive through town. You can stream the song “Mound Bayou” by Maxine Sullivan 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! My Clarksdale Travel Guide has all you need for an enjoyable stay.

Coming Soon – Mississippi Blues Trail – Road Trip II

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