A History Lesson Tucked Inside The Blues
The entrance to Ground Zero Blues Club is "littered" with old sofas, signage, and marker scrawlings. Visitors are encouraged to "leave their mark" on the furniture, windows, and posts, both inside and out. / Photo by Thomas Johnston
The first thing visitors to the Mississippi Delta notice is the heat. Thick, stifling, and at times unyielding, the heat, locals warn, can only be calmed by the cool of shade trees and a steady supply of sweet tea. As with the Delta’s generations’ old blues traditions, its heat is as much about climate as it is passion. In fact, it remains the most consistent element in the Mississippi blues, right next to cheating women and no count men. Where some like Big Momma Thornton and Robert Johnson married a coded language of sexual innuendo with references to hot and sultry nights, others made folklore of working fields of crop under a burning sun.
Last modified on Thursday, 03 March 2011 02:44
For Black History Month, there is no greater lesson to be learned than how Black people lived and loved in a space known for its oppression. But while racism still exists everywhere, the Delta’s southern hospitality, gut-busting cuisine, and blues traditions, were birthed and nurtured alongside those hostilities. And the best of the South still exists among miles of cotton fields, catfish farms, and southern charm.
“There is a certain amount of comfort being on the opposite side of the tracks from people who don’t want you around,” said Cassietta Ross, a retired nursing home attendant who has lived most of her life in Mississippi. “A lot of people left the poor economic conditions of the Delta, but they are returning again, because this is where their people made ugly things beautiful. It’s not depressing though; it’s inspiring.”
There is a lot to see and learn about Delta life and the Crossroads, a corridor intersecting Highways 61 and 49, is the only place to see it all. Made legendary by blues man Robert Johnson, who is rumored to have sold his soul to the devil at the intersection, in order to become a famous guitarist, the Crossroads, sees an annual pilgrimage of blues fans by the thousands.
Stepping Back Through History’s Door
My mother’s family hail from Bolivar County in the heart of the Delta, so some of the region is familiar from childhood summer visits. But since we had family to stay with, I never gave much consideration to the rows of highway motels and boarding houses throughout the area. Accommodations between Cleveland, Shelby, Duncan, and Clarksdale are pretty standard for the South – a few Holiday and Hampton Inns, and scores of motels. I would recommend chain hotels for the weary because once its dark in the Delta, it is pitch Black, and if staying in one of the older motels, one’s imagination could easily conjure horror scenes.
For the adventurous, a new historical advent to lodging in the Delta is staying in sharecropping villages. Preserved in their original condition, sharecropper lodging allows travelers to book shotgun houses on recently defunct plantations for an authentic Delta experience. I visited the Shack Up Inn a few years ago and took an unofficial tour, but opted not to skip the realism. Across the tracks of the Crossroads on Hopson-Pixley Road, the Shack Up Inn (on the old Hopson Plantation) houses the original cotton gin and seed houses and other outbuildings. Houses are named for African-American blues singers, including Pinetop Perkins and Robert Johnson. Rates are comparable to regular hotels in the area ($60-90 a night), but are of the slightest necessities. Or as the management makes clear: “the Ritz we ain’t.” Note that all sharecropping bungalows are equipped with indoor plumbing; however, wireless Internet is limited due to “too much tin on the compound.”
The birthplace of the blues has been redistricted often over the years to include places like Memphis, Chicago and St. Louis; yet aficionados and historians alike place Clarksdale, Miss., as its official birthing ground. Claiming the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Ike Turner, Clarksdale got an infusion of outside publicity from actor Morgan Freeman’s blues club Ground Zero. Located smack dab in the middle of the Crossroads, Ground Zero has reintroduced traditional Mississippi blues to those too squeamish to venture out into local hole-in-the walls surrounding snake-soaked fields.
On any given night, blues fans from as far away as Australia, find their way to the rustic, two-story blues house littered from pillar to post with Magic Marker scrawling.
Pierce Bergen, who made the trip in from Wisconsin with his wife Ilene, said he fell in love with the club two years ago when he wanted to sample authentic Southern blues and was told Ground Zero was the place to find it.
“I heard that the music is intoxicating and that it can be heard from miles away,” said Bergen, 47. “I am also impressed that so many of the artists have other jobs – a local schoolteacher, or one of the girls that cleans hotel rooms down the road, will be on stage tonight giving it their all.”
Meeting diverse people is one thing that keeps Prentice Riley smiling from ear to ear, while working the grill at Ground Zero. Though barely out of his teens, Riley and the rest of the staff are among the young blues enthusiasts learning to appreciate blues culture early.
“I love working here because in one week alone we have had one family travel here from Quebec and another from Italy and they mix and mingle well with the regulars. They come in young, old, Black, white ... and all geared up to have some fun,” said Riley, 22.
If you decide to eat at Ground Zero, opt for the chicken plate or one of their shrimp po boys. Sample the fried corn (sweet corn, scooped into balls, battered and deep fried) if it won’t affect your blood pressure adversely. This is the South ... very few things are not fried.
By the way, if you eat, drink, or party too hard, Ground Zero Blues Club offers lodging upstairs in the Delta Cotton Company Apartments. This is more akin to the bed and breakfast style lodging and offers all of the amenities as a hotel chain. Be forewarned, sleep won’t come until the party downstairs ends.
There are plenty of decent restaurants and fast food chains to choose from in the Delta, though it is important to sample the local favorites. I passed on Cassietta Ross’ “pickled pig lips” and “smoked maws” – okay, I accepted them graciously, but the rooter to the tooter logic of some dishes escaped me. I politely passed it to a fellow sojourner who “pigged out.” There is only so much grease a soul can take, so if you get a hankering for a bit of low-country or Delta cuisine “gon’ fancy”, you have got to make a reservation for Madidi’s. Another of Morgan Freeman’s investments, Madidi’s adds a bit of panache to southern staples.
The Salmon Grenobloise, a pan-seared cut of salmon served with couscous, asparagus, and lemon caper sauce, is like a plate of heaven. If you’re a beef eater, bypass the steak option and try the Redemption Burger, a mouthwatering crea-tion of ground beef, topped with peppered bacon, guacamole, fried egg, caramelized onions, cave-aged cheddar and served with rustic confit aioli. And if you’re craving traditional Shrimp and Grits, Madidi offers Delta Grind slow cooked yellow grits, topped with spicy Tasso ham gravy. (Again, be sure to watch your caloric intake, or you will leave the Delta a few pounds heavier).
Finally, the trip wouldn’t be complete without a Delta Hidden Banana for dessert. Sautéed with rum, cinnamon and nutmeg, hidden in a crêpe with crème Chantilly and a Quenelle of vanilla, this dessert is paired with Barefoot Bubbly (A dry, clean, crisp champagne with hints of vanilla, lemons and limes).
Delta Blues Museum
Don’t forget to check out the Delta Blues Museum right across the road from Ground Zero. Having preserved, inter-preted, and encouraged a deep interest in the story of the blues since it opened in 1999, the Delta Blues Museum is the state’s oldest music museum. The museum houses artifacts from internationally acclaimed blues legends that hail from the Mississippi Delta.
Visiting the Delta can be a wonderful and exciting, though it can also be particularly overwhelming. Make time to talk with the people in the Delta to learn more about their experiences. Find the inherent beauty in it all.
The fried chicken lunch plate at Ground Zero Blues Club is easily worked off while dancing to local and nationally renowned blues musicians performing each night. / Courtesy photo.