Selling the Blues

To draw tourists, the Mississippi Delta plays on its musical heritage

To draw tourists, the Mississippi Delta plays on its musical heritage
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes stands outside the Blue Front Café, Bentonia, Mississippi.

When tourists started showing up here, I couldn’t figure out what they saw in the place,” says Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, a 67-year-old blues musician and owner of the Blue Front Café. It’s a scruffy little drinking spot and informal music venue — a juke joint. The floor is weathered concrete. The barstools are hammered together from raw lumber and painted blue. Heat comes from a piece of oil-field pipe converted into a wood-burning stove.

“My parents started the Blue Front in 1948, and it ain’t been nothing but a juke joint ever since,” says Holmes, a slow-moving medium-built man with a rich, grainy speaking voice. He is sipping a late morning beer and smoking a long menthol cigarette. “It ain’t nothing fancy, but it’s authentic and original, and that’s what the tourists like, I’ve come to understand. They don’t have anything authentic in their regular lives, so they feel drawn to it. They want a taste of it. For a lot of blues fans, that’s what it’s all about.”

In the last eight or nine years, he says, a slow trickle of tourists has increased to a steady flow and sometimes an unwelcome deluge. On summer weekends, tour buses have become a regular sight in Bentonia, a tiny, half-derelict farming town just outside the Mississippi Delta. “Australia, Great Britain, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Israel, France, Argentina — you name it,” he says. “We had 200 from Belgium and they like to ran me ragged. New York, California, Montana — all over America. See, this is where American music comes from. It all started with the blues.”

The influx of outsiders at the Blue Front Café reflects a widespread effort in Mississippi to promote cultural tourism based on the blues. Long known for poverty and racial injustice, the state has rebranded itself as the “Birthplace of America’s Music.” Elvis Presley was a Mississippian, and so was Jimmie Rodgers, a founding father of country music. But the slogan refers mainly to Mississippi’s deep blues heritage. Most of the early, influential bluesmen were born here, and the state dominates the Blues Hall of Fame, with Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, B.B. King and many more.

The Mississippi Blues Commission, working with national grant money and funding from local communities, has nearly completed the Blues Trail. It consists of 215 signs marking significant locations in blues history, with a website and phone app to guide tourists. Several new blues museums have opened in the last decade, including the $15 million B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, and the number of blues festivals has increased from a handful to more than 50.

When the state legislature authorized the Blues Trail in 2008, economic development was stated as the primary goal. Mississippi is the poorest state in America, and the great hope is that blues tourism will stimulate economic activity, especially in the impoverished and largely African-American communities where the music originated. That hasn’t happened yet in Bentonia. The town is so small and broke that it has almost nothing to sell to visitors. There’s no motel and only one restaurant, open on Friday and Saturday nights during crawfish season. Holmes can arrange for food at the Blue Front Café, but only if visitors call a few days in advance. Otherwise, he just serves just beer and soda.

Holmes has increased his income slightly by selling T-shirts and CDs, by renting out the venue to outside musicians, who are thrilled to play in a real Mississippi juke joint, and by performing himself, for tips. He’s the last one left who plays the uniquely haunting, hypnotic style of blues that developed in Bentonia. Its most famous exponent was Skip James, who recorded in the 1930s and again during the blues revival of the 1960s. Holmes mastered the Bentonia style as a young man, but he didn’t record any albums or play any live shows until he was in his 60s. Now he plays summer blues festivals in Europe, Israel and all over the United States.

“People around here have zero interest in the blues,” he says. “They want music they can dance to. The audience for my type of music is all from other places now and mostly white.”

He picks up his guitar and explains the open minor tuning that gives the Bentonia blues its eerie feel. He plays a steady, droning bass line with his thumb, and his fingers strike up a complementary rhythm, sliding up the fret board, flicking across the strings, leaving long blue notes hanging in the air. Then he starts to sing with a pure, soulful, aching voice:

Yes, I’m gone away and leave you

I’ve got to worry you off my mind

You don't keep me worried

All the, all, all the time

If you don’t like my apples

Why you keep on shaking my tree?

'If You Don't Like My Apples'

He plays out that song, and a brief, spine-tingling version of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues.” Then he puts down his guitar, and says, “That's enough.”

A Mississippi Blues Trail marker at Dockery Plantation, left. Employees and guests of The Shack Up Inn ride bikes out of the vacation rental business on the outskirts of Clarksdale. (Click to enlarge images)
The blues originated in the Mississippi Delta, a region that lies between Memphis in the north and Vicksburg in the south. (Click to enlarge images)

The Mississippi Blues Trail does not have a beginning, a set course or a final destination. Tourists are encouraged to chart their own itinerary, from graves and birthplaces of notable musicians to blues museums, defunct radio stations and the few remaining juke joints where the music can still be heard live.

North of Bentonia, the road enters the vast alluvial plain known as the Mississippi Delta. Two hundred miles long and 70 miles across at its widest point, reaching from Memphis to Vicksburg, the Delta was the original epicenter of the blues. The music emerged at the turn of the 20th century and was characterized by raw emotional intensity, the use of repetition, and bent or sliding notes on the guitar or the diddley bow, a one-stringed instrument played with a slide. Most scholars trace the blues back to the field hollers and spirituals sung by slaves, and perhaps further back to West Africa, where similar musical scales and techniques can still be heard.

The Delta was a feudal, apartheid cotton society. White landowners ruled over huge plantations, and black sharecroppers toiled in the fields. For early bluesmen like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, playing music for money and whiskey was a way to escape hard labor, entertain a crowd, attract women and achieve a measure of freedom. Later bluesmen such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf left the harsh, oppressive conditions in Mississippi and went north to Chicago, where they electrified the blues and divided its elements among musicians in a band.

The modern Mississippi Delta is a landscape of collapsing barns, dilapidated storefronts, fading Americana and dire rural poverty — all juxtaposed with hypermodern, capital-intensive agriculture on a giant scale. GPS-guided tractors work the fields now. Planes spray genetically-engineered crops with the latest herbicides and pesticides. Cotton is picked by hulking machines that cost $750,000 apiece. The population is more than 70 percent African-American and most elected officials are black, but a small white elite controls most of the wealth.

Inside a room at Tallahatchie Flats, a vacation rental business on the outskirts of Greenwood that offers guests a choice of renovated shacks, top. The exterior of one of the rentals, left. An actual shack, right, about one mile from Tallahatchie Flats. (Click to enlarge images)

Holmes County, an hour north of Bentonia, is the poorest county in Mississippi, with a median household income of $22,325 and 62 percent of children living in poverty. “Mechanized farming hurt this place more than anything,” says Sam Calahan, 67, a retired music promoter standing by a blues marker in the small, rough town of Tchula.

“One good-sized plantation used to employ hundreds of men,” he says. “Now it don’t take but five or six tractor drivers, and there’s nothing else. A lot of people here have been on welfare for two or three generations. The stores have closed. Most of the whites have left. Drugs is bad, crime is bad. We don’t get a lot of tourists stopping here.”

To get local communities invested in blues tourism, the Blues Commission requires them to pay for their markers on the Blues Trail. One of these handsome two-sided metal signs, displaying prose and photographs, costs about $8,000. In a county with a tourism budget, and hotel beds to fill, that looks like a good investment. In Holmes County, which struggles to provide basic services, it looks more like a waste of money.

But Calahan was determined to get a blues marker in Tchula, and his interest was personal. “I’m related to some of the musicians from here,” he says. “No one else gave a damn, so I raised the money myself. It took me four years, and I went through some hell, but I’m proud we got our sign.”

He points out the names of his relatives: Lee “Shot” Williams, Love Doctor, Big Smoky and Little Smoky Davenport. “These guys are known by blues fans all over the world,” he says. “It’s about time they got some recognition at home.”

Sylvester Hoover locks the door to his "Back in the Day" museum in Greenwood, top. Portraits of famous bluesman, including one based on a photo that is alleged to depict Robert Johnson (with the cigarette) hang at a shop in Clarksdale, left. One of three grave sites said to be Johnson’s final resting place, right. (Click to enlarge images)

No bluesman has generated more mythology, or had more influence among rock musicians, than Robert Johnson, despite the fact that he recorded only 29 songs, in the 1930s, and died at the age of 27, allegedly poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman he was seeing. To The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan, he was the greatest Delta bluesman of them all. According to an old legend, circulated for publicity by Johnson himself and now inescapable on the Blues Trail, he went to a crossroads one night and sold his soul to the devil in return for mastery of the guitar.

Sylvester Hoover, a tour guide to blues sites around the town of Greenwood, tells the legend as fact while clearing away the whiskey bottles from Robert Johnson’s grave. There are, actually, three graveyards near Greenwood that claim to be the final resting place of the itinerant bluesman. This one, at the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Money Road, has the support of most blues scholars and is the only one listed on the Trail.

“I clean off the grave five times a week,” says Hoover. “Tourists come here and leave bottles and beer cans, flowers, love letters, ladies’ underthings, guitar picks, drugs, dollar bills. Those other graves, you might get a coin or two.”

Hoover, who grew up in a sharecropper’s shack in the field across the highway, is one of the few African-Americans taking an entrepreneurial approach to blues tourism in the Delta. He and his wife have opened a small museum called Back in the Day (no entrance fee, contributions welcome) near their convenience store in Baptist Town, the African-American neighborhood in Greenwood where Johnson often stayed and probably died. And Hoover has worked up another income stream with his personally guided Delta Blues Legend Tours.

“I show them where Robert Johnson played and slept and bought his Prince Albert tobacco.” Hoover takes visitors to the grave and some civil rights locations and the dusty old preserved shack that serves as his museum. “I’m making more with my tours than my store now.”

He’d like to see more support for blues tourism from local business leaders and politicians. “I’m trying to get grants and raise money to do more. We should have a couple of blues clubs with live music, a bigger museum, a soul food restaurant. These tourists got money. They just need somewhere to spend it.”

Willie Seaberry, top, has operated Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, a juke joint in his home, since 1963. The crowd at Po’ Monkey’s on a recent Thursday night, left. Tables and chairs inside the club, right, where hundreds of toy monkeys and half a dozen dildos hang from the ceiling. (Click to enlarge images)

To get to Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, you leave the tiny town of Merigold on a rough gravel road with a frog-croaking bayou on one side and fields stretching to the horizon on the other. After 10 minutes or so, an old, patched-up cypress shack comes into view, with a Blues Trail marker out front and hand-painted signs on the outside wall.

Willie Seaberry, a tall, vigorous 74-year-old tractor driver, who was nicknamed Po’ Monkey as a small child, lives in the back room, and since 1963, he has operated a juke joint in front. Standing by the entrance, he says, “We don't play nothing but the blues — no rap music up in here, we don't play that bomb-a-bomb.” Then he states the dress code: “No britches flappin', no cap back.” No sagging pants, no backward baseball caps. “If you ain't coming for a good time, don't come,” he adds.

Inside, hundreds of toy monkeys and half a dozen dildos hang from the ceiling. There’s a disco ball and Christmas lights, pieces of foil and scraps of floral wallpaper stuck to the walls. The floor slopes down from the pool table to the bar. A sheet of plastic is stapled to the leaky ceiling. There are no windows or fire exits, and every table has an ashtray.

In most of the U.S. the authorities would close it down in a heartbeat for safety-code violations. In Mississippi, it’s a beloved institution, and tourists are encouraged to party there. Ray Adams, a social historian from Energy, Illinois, is soaking up the atmosphere with his wife, Pam, a teacher. “The Mississippi Delta is the wellspring of American popular culture, more important than Hollywood, and that’s why we’re here,” he says.

Ray and Pam Adams are disappointed not to hear live blues, but as Po’ Monkey explains, the locals come here to dance and they like more rhythm. From a booth at the back of the room, DJ Nasty spins a mix of old funky soul and its newer cousin, the Southern soul blues. As the night wears on, the dance floor fills with visitors from California, Oregon, Minnesota, then China, South Korea, Puerto Rico, Nepal, Australia and several European countries. “It looks like the damn United Nations up in here,” says one local with a grin.

Some purists who remember the old juke joint before it was discovered object that the tourists have ruined its authenticity, but Po’ Monkey doesn’t see it that way. “I got love for everybody,” he says, pausing to encourage an Englishman to dance with a local woman. “My people come from all over the world.”

Clarksdale, a town of 17,000 in the northwest Delta, is the undisputed capital of Mississippi blues tourism. It has live music seven nights a week and more than a dozen festivals through the year. The actor Morgan Freeman, who spent most of his childhood in Mississippi and moved back in 2001, co-owns a tourist magnet called Ground Zero Blues Club, and there’s a grimy little juke joint called Red’s a few blocks away from it. An intersection on Highway 61, now designated by the state as “The Blues Highway,” features a big guitar-shaped sign commemorating Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil.

The old downtown is undergoing a major revitalization, with entrepreneurs, most of them white, opening restaurants, cafés, clubs, hotels, music stores and souvenir shops in previously run-down buildings. Many of the buildings have been left partially decrepit for a hard-bitten look. Less than a mile from where tourists sip their Robert Johnson Macchiatos, and Muddy Waters Lattes at Yazoo Pass bistro are some genuinely hard-bitten neighborhoods, plagued by unemployment and gang violence.

Buster Moton, a firebrand city commissioner representing a low-income, predominantly black ward, welcomes the tourists, but says there are too many white people profiting from an African-American art form. “Blues tourism is not providing jobs for the people who really need jobs or solving any problems in my part of town,” he says. “And we’re seeing more and more white musicians playing in white-owned clubs.”

Blues tourism attracts criticism from many different angles. Some conservative whites don’t want Clarksdale associated with a low-class black music. Some black preachers and congregations go even further and scorn blues as the devil’s music. Stephen A. King, a communications professor and author of “I’m Feeling the Blues Right Now: Blues Tourism and the Mississippi Delta,” attacks the phenomenon for underplaying the racial oppression in Mississippi’s blues heritage and co-opting and commodifying a music of resistance to white supremacy.

Bill Abel, a shaggy-bearded white bluesman from the Delta, thinks the musicians are being underappreciated. He often plays with “Cadillac” John Nolden, an 87-year-old Delta blues legend in good health, but living in abject poverty in a tiny apartment. “A lot of money has gone into buildings and tourism,” says Abel. “But these old guys like John and Duck Holmes and a few others are still playing for peanuts, when they can even get a gig. I’d like to see them honored more, because they’re the last guys playing the real thing.”

Bill Abel on a driftwood guitar
A video of Muddy Waters plays on a television at Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones and Blues Emporium, a music store in downtown Clarksdale, left. Bluesman "Cadillac" John Nolden at his apartment in Renova. (Click to enlarge images)

In 2010, the Blues Commission set up a benevolence committee to help struggling blues artists with medical expenses and financial emergencies. Funded by donations, it has paid out 25 grants so far, totaling about $23,000. Its chairman, Edgar Smith, a retired biochemistry professor who grew up in a Delta shack, shares Abel’s concerns and hopes to expand the fund with state assistance in the near future. “If we’re basing economic development on the blues, then we must be concerned about the individuals who gave us this music,” he says, speaking from his home in Jackson. “We owe them that.”

Only in Clarksdale is that economic development really apparent — so far. Some 20,000 visitors a year are staying at the Shack Up Inn, in renovated sharecropper shacks and a converted cotton gin, and every room in town is booked up a year in advance for the annual spring Juke Joint Festival, which people estimate attracts between 5,000 and 15,000 people. Elsewhere in the Delta, new small-scale opportunities are emerging, but they require capital and entrepreneurial drive to be exploited, and these are in short supply here.

CDs for sale at Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Inc. in downtown Clarksdale, left. Lucious Spiller, a blues and rock musician from Little Rock, Ark., plays to the crowd at Red's Lounge in downtown Clarksdale. (Click to enlarge images)

No accurate data exist on the economic impact of blues tourism to date or the number of blues tourists visiting the state. Most of them are independent, self-guided and hard to distinguish from other visitors. Malcolm White, the head of Visit Mississippi and a driving force behind the Blues Trail, explains the difficulty: “Some German guy rents a car in Memphis, drives down to the Delta, visits some blues markers, eats some fried catfish, goes to a juke joint, checks into a motel. Unless he registers on our app or website or signs in at a welcome center, we’ve got no way to track him.”

He also points out that the Blues Trail isn’t finished yet and Mississippi hasn’t even begun marketing it. A national and international promotional campaign will be the next phase, assuming the state provides funding; there’s already a Country Music Trail and a Civil Rights Trail under construction, with a Civil War Trail to follow.

“The Blues Trail isn’t just about economics,” says White, a goateed white man who also owns a music club in Jackson. “It’s the most important cultural initiative that Mississippi has achieved in my lifetime. Finally, we’re acknowledging the extraordinary contributions made by African-Americans in our state and telling the story of American music.”

Editor’s note: A previous caption wrongly identified Christone “Kingfish” Ingram as meeting President Obama earlier this year; in fact, he met first lady Michelle Obama.

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