On Mississippi’s Blues Trail, you figure out what ‘blues’ means

The Holly Ridge Cemetery, where blues legend Charley Patton is buried, is part of the Mississippi Blues Trail.
The Holly Ridge Cemetery, where blues legend Charley Patton is buried, is part of the Mississippi Blues Trail. TNS

Ghosts haunt Mississippi with stories, lifetimes of stories – told with words, or in song over the slur of a blues guitar.

From Tupelo to Clarksdale and Vicksburg to Biloxi, the ghosts of the musicians who played the blues, who invented the blues, float above the fields, beckoning from dusty back roads and river bends. Their songs whisper around the corners of the long, low brick buildings on the main streets of small towns, reminding a patient traveler of old times, good times, hard times.

Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters. They’re all there, along with so many more.

A drive along the Mississippi Blues Trail – more of a blues blur, if you look at a map of all 186 sites – is a meandering journey into an important part of American history just beginning to be understood.

For decades, music fans have explored the history along U.S. 61, the north-south artery that traverses 1,400 miles from New Orleans to Minnesota and has been called the “Blues Highway” for its path through the northwestern Mississippi region known as the Delta, where the earliest blues sounds originated. But the entire state is rich with blues history, and music buffs have long pointed one another to tucked-away grave sites, battered juke joints and long-defunct radio studios all over the Magnolia State.

In 2003, the Mississippi Blues Commission was created to promote the understanding of blues history, primarily by installing Mississippi Blues Trail markers across the state to identify significant contributions to that musical heritage. Now markers dot the state, giving blues fans – or casual travelers – a scavenger hunt of music history.

The trail is self-guided, so you can nibble at it in bits and pieces in multiple trips – or gulp it all down in one long, zig-zagging road trip through the state.

My most recent trip through Mississippi was a meandering tour northwest through the delta region and then a straight shot east to Oxford.

As my partner and I turned off the interstate and entered the Delta region, we talked about B.B. King, who had just been admitted to hospice and was still one of the last living connections to the old blues tradition.

Knowing that King would pass away soon – he died at his home in Las Vegas on May 14, about two weeks later – we wanted to pay tribute with a visit to his birthplace in Berclair, Miss.

Berclair is off U.S. 82, on a small road that runs southwest through farmland along the winding Bear Creek. There is nothing there now that’s not wild, save for the metal pole that holds up the Blues Trail marker, a metal sign we could see nestled in the spring overgrowth. It says “B.B. KING BIRTHPLACE” and summarizes the story of Riley B. King, born on Sept. 16, 1925. We turned down the road a ways to look for the actual ground where his sharecropper parents’ home might have sat, but if there was even a scrap of flooring left, it was now covered in wildflowers. It was a quiet, lush, beautiful place to be from.

When I spoke later with Jim O’Neal, the research director for the Mississippi Blues Trail and one of the historians responsible for writing most of the information on the markers, he said that the local founders of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in nearby Indianola had first suggested the statewide markers, which led to getting state funding for the Blues Trail project.

O’Neal, who was the founding editor in 1970 of Living Blues magazine and may know as much about the history of the blues as anyone, said he keeps learning more through the ongoing Blues Trail project.

“We started with a list of the greats, but there was so much local interest,” O'Neal said. “We didn’t know about a lot of the artists, all over the state. But wherever there was a black side of town, there was blues.”

Following the Blues Trail can feel overwhelming, and most sites simply mark what was – a birthplace, a grave site, the place where something happened long ago. Most historic blues musicians were born with little and, despite their fame, died with little.

The legendary Robert Johnson, who may or may not have sold his soul to the devil, supposedly was buried in a simple cemetery north of Greenwood at the Little Zion Baptist Church, a tiny chapel that was used in the movie “The Help.” It’s the most likely of three sites where he might be buried, but no one’s certain.

The blue marker is easy to find, along Money Road. We pulled up on a hot afternoon, the only tourists as far as we could see. After a few minutes of reading headstones, we found Johnson’s, with a mostly empty whiskey bottle perched on the granite. So many ghosts.

On the trail

In addition to markers and historic sites, there are more than a dozen museums along the Blues Trail, from the Sun Studios in Memphis to the Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland, Miss. Many are small with limited hours; don’t assume they’ll be open any day you drop by.

The sites vary in intensity, from the easier-to-digest spots like radio station WROX in Clarksdale to the sites that challenge your sense of racial and economic issues. A visit to the grave site of Charley Patton, who died in 1934 and is considered by many to be the “father of the Delta blues,” is to confront the reality of Mississippi’s poorest. The Holly Ridge cemetery just west of Indianola where Patton is buried is a wreck.

The trail is self-guided. Map and info at www.msbluestrail as well as an app through iTunes and Android. Get printed maps at Mississippi welcome centers.