This is the Mississippi Delta, and just when you think you know it, you turn a corner.
We don’t know where we were driving, this friend and I, on that crisp January morning in 2010. No final destination was in mind. Less than 48 hours earlier, my co-pilot had attended the funeral of a friend who had died too soon in a wreck just outside of West Memphis. My friend needed a reprieve from the known world. A meal the night before with funeral mourners had transitioned into a remembrance that carried into the early-morning hours. Attendees had peeled off one by one as sunrise approached, though, and soon my friend and I found ourselves alone.
Let’s go for a ride, one of us said.
So we drove over the bluffs south of Memphis and into the northern-most reaches of the Mississippi Delta, a flatscape stretched too tight over the terra firma like God had pulled the ground snug across the black, loamy soil of this patch of earth and ironed out the wrinkles.
We drove circuitously, silently through the Delta in those predawn hours, meandering down unlit, lonesome back roads while listening to old-school country music. With the coming daylight slowly painting the morning sky in lighter hues of gray and blue, we turned into the parking lot of a small church just outside the tiny town of Walls, Mississippi, intent on walking the church’s cemetery and witnessing the world illuminated another day.
The cemetery was filled with weathered and battered tombstones that we could just barely read, thanks to a combination of darkness and their crudeness. But one relatively new gravestone made us stop underneath the barren trees that dotted the cemetery.
The headstone read:
“Lizzie ‘Kid’ Douglas Lawlers aka Memphis Minnie”—the famous blues singer known for tunes such as “When the Levee Breaks” who died in August 1973.
Born in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans in 1897, Memphis Minnie moved to Walls at the age of 7 and by 10 was a runaway, playing guitar about a dozen miles away on Beale Street in Memphis to earn money. She sometimes turned to prostitution as her blues career progressed in the 1920s and 1930s, didn’t mind a good fight and chewed tobacco—even while playing. But she also toured and recorded music, leaving behind a musical legacy celebrated by blues purists but hardly anyone else.
By the 1950s, she was in bad health and nearly broke. She died in 1973 in a Memphis nursing home. With a life lived full of highs and lows, Memphis Minnie is the blues. On the backside of the slab of stone is a quote—a summation of Memphis Minnie’s blues and its impact: “The hundreds of sides Minnie recorded are the perfect material to teach us about the blues. For the blues are at once general, and particular, speaking for millions but in a highly singular, individual voice. Listening to Minnie’s songs we hear her fantasies, her dreams, her desires, but we will hear them as if they were our own.”
As my friend and I stood there, the grayish eastern sky was split by a slash of color layered with red, orange and yellow as the winter sun rose into the morning sky. The split grew larger, curving up from the Earth and into the firmament, washing us in a glorious, redemptive light.
This is the Mississippi Delta, a land of awe-inspiring natural beauty coalesced with savage landscapes and brimming with culture, history and surprising twists.
About 200 miles long and 75 miles wide, the oblong, diamond-shaped parcel of land stretches from just south of Memphis to just north of the bluffs of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Mississippi Delta’s eastern wall is also a series of bluffs, and its western wall is the mighty Mississippi River, which lunges every few years, thanks to spring floods, at the fertile ground on the other side of the levees. It’s a region of small towns, communities and stops in the road—seemingly every crossroads is named something—and destination cities such as Clarksdale and Greenwood.
For all its irresistible organic allure, the Delta is a tough land. The summers—thick with a soggy concoction of heat and humidity—are sometimes unbearable. Mosquitoes swarm and bite; poisonous snakes slither through the brackish sloughs, oxbow lakes and bayous. The land is cratered with weathered and sagging houses and rusty remains of industries that vanished, leaving the region as one of the poorest in the country.
The history of the Mississippi Delta can be just as brutal. This is where slaves and then sharecroppers and tenant farmers toiled under a boiling Delta sun, clearing what was once a jungle of hardwood trees and swamps, and creating an agricultural paradise that rewarded only the few. It was a land of poll taxes, literacy tests and lynchings where Jim Crow was king and segregation was the law—a region where innocent 14-year-old Emmett Till was executed by a group of Mississippi whites in 1955, kicking off the civil rights movement. His body was tossed into the Tallahatchie River; his killers—though known and tried—were never found guilty.
But even with its fiercely violent past, the Mississippi Delta is a land of stunning splendor. The music of the world—the blues, rock ’n’ roll—arose from this alluvial plain. The region—dotted with towns with names like Alligator, Itta Bena, Nitta Yuma and Panther Burn—gave us literary greats such as Walker Percy and Shelby Foote. And the mixture of people who settled the Delta, from whites and blacks to Italians and Chinese, bestowed upon the area a rich cultural imprint, including a culinary legacy that often astonishes the unfamiliar.
This is the duality of the Mississippi Delta, a rough land filled with friendly people who both celebrate and dismiss their history. A region loaded with rich farmland that turns bright green each summer and dies in the late fall, leaving in its wake a bleak acreage crisscrossed with straight-shot and curvy roads, both paved and dirt. An area where sparkling casinos and brand-new museums share ZIP codes with people broke and directionless.
An enchanting land of unforgettable sunrises—and sunsets—called the most Southern place on Earth. A world where nothing is certain but a rebirth is always possible.
DON’T MISS OUT
Tri-ing out the Delta
Lofts at the Five and Dime, Clarksdale
Clarksdale is home to the legendary Crossroads of the Blues—the intersection of U.S. 61 and 49—and a rich musical history that includes such greats as Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, Son House and Ike Turner. History here is heard blowing in the wind. These lofts (think full kitchens, 1.5 bathrooms) are located in the heart of Clarksdale above an old F.W. Woolworth Co. building. They’re the perfect spot for immersing oneself in the blues for a weekend—or a week. (211 Yazoo Ave.; fiveanddimelofts.com)
Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale
Sleeping in renovated sharecropper shotgun shacks might not be for everyone, and the Shack Up Inn—located just outside Clarksdale—proudly states, “The Ritz we ain’t.” But even though the former “shacks” on the Hopson Plantation offer rustic accommodations—corrugated tin roofs and Mississippi cypress walls—the amenities are nothing if not modern. (All praise air conditioning!) Also, there’s an on-site bar and live music most weekends. (001 Commissary Circle; shackupinn.com)
The Alluvian Hotel, Greenwood
Sure, this is a boutique hotel—but it’s so much more. On the first floor and elsewhere are paintings and photographs by Mississippi artists like Maude Schuyler Clay, Bill Dunlap and Duff Dorrough, a now-deceased member of The Tangents, a rollicking good-time band formerly known as “Mississippi’s house band.” Plus, The Alluvian houses Giardina’s, a restaurant founded in 1936 that offers meals from shucked hot tamales to seafood, steak and Italian dishes. And there’s also the on-site Viking Cooking School for making those dishes your own. (318 Howard St.; thealluvian.com)
Tallahatchie Flats, Greenwood
Just 3 miles north of Greenwood, these two- to four-room, old-time farmhouses stand guard over the Tallahatchie River. Bare bulbs hang from the porches, crickets chirp, and frogs sing around the houses. The “tenant houses” were reclaimed from plantations around the Delta, but there’s indoor plumbing and, yes, air conditioning. This is where one goes to consider the important questions in life, such as what was tossed from the Tallahatchie Bridge in Mississippi singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit “Ode to Billie Joe”? (58458 County Road 518; tallahatchieflats.com)
Chain restaurants have infiltrated some of the bigger cities in the Mississippi Delta, but for a taste of authentic barbecue, it doesn’t get more real than this joint known for its tangy sauce. Since 1924, Abe’s has been opening its doors to customers hankering for barbecue pork and beef, hot tamales and ribs. Even Paul Simon—he of “the Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar” fame—has dined at Abe’s. (616 State St.; abesbbq.com)
Doe’s Eat Place, Greenville
Back in 1941, Dominick “Doe” Signa and his wife, Mamie, started the first Doe’s, selling hot tamales and operating a honky tonk for local blacks. But then a doctor started coming by, asking for a steak each time. Doe cooked them up and built a word-of-mouth following that transformed the honky tonk into a steak restaurant dubbed an American classic by the James Beard Foundation in 2007. Customers still enter through the old honky tonk, now kitchen, and chow down on porterhouses and rib-eyes served by the pound. (502 Nelson St.; doeseatplace.com)
Delta Meat Market, Cleveland
Owned by Cleveland native Cole Ellis, this meat market offers lunch Monday through Saturday (it’s not open at night), serving un-Delta-like dishes such as roasted sea bass, beef-brisket pastrami sandwiches and gyro burgers. But for a 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday-only happy hour, the food gets even more interesting: a rotating menu that’s recently included the likes of Korean pastrami, scallop tacos, lobster pizza and more. Toss in cold beer and live music, and this gem provides the perfect kickstart to a Delta weekend. (118 N. Sharpe St.; deltameatmarket.com)
Charles and Marie Lusco immigrated to the U.S. from Cefalu, Sicily, at the start of the 20th century—first to Louisiana, then to the Mississippi Delta, where they founded this steak-and-seafood restaurant in 1933. Italian and Louisianan influences are found on the menu, which includes whole pompano doused in the famous Lusco’s Fish Sauce and crabmeat Gayle: broiled jumbo lump crabmeat topped with—you guessed it—Lusco’s Fish Sauce. Back during Prohibition, customers dined discreetly in curtained booths, just in case the law was snooping around. There’s no need for that secrecy now, but the curtained booths remain, offering throwback private dining. (722 Carrollton Ave.; luscos.net)
Ground Zero Blues Club, Clarksdale
Unfortunately, the old-school juke joints of the Mississippi Delta—warped floorboards, an old garage cooler filled with cheap beer and blues cranked up so loud it rattles your mind and soul—are a dying breed. Mississippi native and Academy-award winner Morgan Freeman’s take on a blues club is modern but revives the atmosphere of those weathered music venues of old. Looking for something a little more gritty? Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale or Po’ Monkey’s in Merigold are must-sees. Watch it, though: The rural Po’ Monkey’s is open only on Thursday nights. (387 Delta Ave.; groundzerobluesclub.com)
Delta Blues Museum, Clarksdale
Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, B.B. King—the titans of the blues (and therefore rock ’n’ roll, which was born from the blues) all called the Mississippi Delta their native land, and that historic blues lineage is preserved at this museum, housed in a renovated railroad depot. One of King’s Lucilles—the name he gave his guitars—is here, along with the Three Forks sign, reputedly the very same one from the juke joint where Johnson was poisoned by a jealous husband after a gig in 1938. (1 Blues Alley; deltabluesmuseum.org)
Grammy Museum Mississippi, Cleveland
Mississippi claims the most Grammy winners per capita, so it’s only fitting that the second Grammy Museum (the other one is in Los Angeles) opened in the state in early March. Costing nearly $20 million and exploring the roots and history of music from hip-hop to jazz, the 28,000-square-foot museum is located next to the campus of Delta State University (Go Fighting Okra!) and employs high-definition touchscreens and interactive technology alongside memorabilia like the acoustic guitar Elvis Presley played during his landmark 1950s Sun Records sessions. (800 W. Sunflower Road; grammymuseumms.org)
B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, Indianola
The King of the Blues—B.B. King—has his own museum in the Delta town he always considered home (though he was actually born near Itta Bena). Not just a stuffy old museum filled with dusty relics, the center uses art, artifacts and videos to showcase how the music of the world is rooted in the Delta, including a gallery dedicated to the region and its music in the 1930s, when many of the artists who would later influence rock gods such as Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones recorded. (400 Second St.; bbkingmuseum.org)
Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Clarksdale
Some might consider the Mississippi Delta a dying region—after all, death, in the form of decaying towns, is all around. But don’t count Roger Stolle, the owner of Cat Head and a Ohio transplant, among those pessimistic souls. His store honors the history of the Mississippi Delta while promoting the region’s continuing culture. Need a hard-to-find blues recording? It’s here, along with T-shirts, books, paintings and more. (252 Delta Ave.; cathead.biz)
Turnrow Book Co., Greenwood
While the music of the Mississippi Delta is certainly well-recognized, the region’s rich literary tradition is sometimes overlooked. That’s not the case at this independent bookstore founded in 2006 by Jamie Kornegay, who published his first novel, Soil, in 2015. Before Turnrow, Kornegay worked at the famous Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and studied creative fiction under Barry Hannah at the University of Mississippi. In other words, Kornegay knows his stuff. Turnrow reflects that deep appreciation for the written word, with new, old and signed books of all sorts. (304 Howard St.; turnrowbooks.com)
The Mississippi Gift Company, Greenwood
Need a “Ski Mississippi” T-shirt featuring a skier riding atop a field of cotton? Maybe original Mississippi-created artwork? Or “gourmet” foods such as comeback sauce, cheese straws or even a bottle of Lusco’s famous Fish Sauce? Established in 1993, The Mississippi Gift Company specializes in Magnolia State-made products—sometimes wonderful, sometimes strange, but always Mississippi. (300 Howard St.; themississippigiftcompany.com)
McCartys Pottery, Merigold
It’s hard to believe that from the thick, gummy Mississippi clay, such beautiful works of pottery can surface, but such were the talents of Lee McCarty, who in 2015 died in his sleep at the age of 92 in his bedroom above his studio. When Lee and his wife, Pup, who died in 2009, first started creating pottery, William Faulkner allowed the couple to dig the clay for their first pieces from a ravine behind his Rowan Oak home in Oxford. In the early 1950s, the pair returned to Lee’s hometown and with a small kiln and a kick wheel, founded a pottery studio whose bowls, platters, vases and more are now collected worldwide. The pottery is still for sale, but the business also includes a lunch-stop restaurant and lush gardens. (101 St. Mary St.; mccartyspottery.com)