From the outset, Cleveland, Mississippi, truly belies its rich and colorful history as the birthplace of the Delta Blues. Box-sized stores and strip malls hug Highway 61, the legendary Blues Highway, but welcome to the Mississippi Delta. This is it, lazily stretched along the Mississippi River, the capital of cotton-growing, widely hailed, for better or worse, as "The Most Southern Place on Earth." If there’s anything that one has to remember about the Mississippi Delta, it’s that this is the country that gave us blues and the tortured but beautiful souls that brought it to life. On the Mississippi Blues Trail visitors can learn about the influential musical genre, the beginnings of which can be traced to Cleveland itself at Dockery Farms.
Also in the area: A heritage museum that boasts one of the most impressive model train sets in the world. Decent eats. Remarkably good music. Highway stretches that remind you of country tunes, and fields that haven’t changed since the birth of America. Cleveland is just two hours south of Memphis, Tennessee – just follow the Blues Trail.
Photo by Youri! via Flickr.
The idea that a musical sound that has become an inarguably prominent aspect of modern music even has a traceable birthplace and real names of real founders is somewhat unthinkable. However, one realizes that a century is not all that long, and buildings last as long as legacies when they’re valued as such. Dockery Farms is by no means Versailles or some opulent palazzo where the first operatic aria reverberated down marble hallways. However, in the context of New World history and pop music, this 10,000-acre former cotton plantation with its rusty collection of peeling wooden sidings, painted signs and corrugated tin roofs is more important. The stark setting adequately reflects the starkness of the first songs strummed and sang by the father of the iconic Delta Blues, Charley Patton, under the tutelage of Harry Sloan. It was a musical farm, rich in soil but poor in income, one of the few that offered fair contracts to its laborers and allowed the sound to prosper on its grounds. Visitors are welcome at the farm all year round and can just drop by to walk around and take in the ambiance free of charge. Otherwise, tours can also be arranged.
Photo by Southern Foodways Alliance via Flickr.
Chase the ghosts of Charley Patton, Elvis Presley, Whiskey Red, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and the rest of the bluesmen down Highway 61. Discover the birthplaces of American folk music, the history of the poorest class and the music that resonated warmly above the slow, painfully muted social upheaval. The Mississippi Blues Trail covers the Mississippi Delta stretch between the Memphis Rock’n’Soul Museum, the Tunica Visitors Center on 61, B.B. King’s Birthplace in Berclair, Ace Records in Jackson, Dockery Farms and Chrisman Street in Cleveland, and many, many more places. Visitors can choose their route, and spend an afternoon, a day, or a week feeling the warm Mississippi air on their cheeks as they race from marker to marker around Mississippi.
Photo by Visit Mississippi via Flickr.
Hey Joe’s is an eclectic burger joint and music venue just a few blocks east of Delta State University that offers draft beers, themed menu items (the Kevin Bacon Burger or Soundgarden Salad, anyone? How about a Knuckle Sandwich, made with grilled chicken, smoked turkey and applewood smoked bacon?), and a huge outdoor projector for movie screenings and college games. Every month they release a new burger innovation named after the month (Mister October, for example, was a half-pound brisket burger with house dry rub topped with cheddar, balsamic coleslaw, fried onions and jalapeños and mosquito burrito chipotle BBQ sauce on a pretzel roll), and their food consistently draws in crowds of every age group, despite it being a hopping college hangout.
Photo via their official FB page.
It’s hard to say what the Mississippi Delta would look like without the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railroad, or whether small municipalities like Cleveland would even appear on the map, as it is, in large blocks accented by the thick outline of a now-defunct railroad. The Martin & Sue King Railroad Heritage Museum seeks to promote the history and culture of the railroad and its indelible role in the development of Cleveland. This 70-by-17-foot model train originally built by James Wiggins is a huge draw for children and adults alike and the main centerpiece of the museum. While the train track doesn’t technically adhere to a scale model of any particular town, it is representative of Anywhere, USA, possibly the most important destination in all of American history. As well, visitors can see artifacts from early America, listen to early blues music and learn about the cotton and timber industry that also formed the Mississippi Delta.