Words and photos by Ken Billett
April 16, 2021, 12:10 pm—Today’s adventure starts at The Blue Biscuit in Indianola, Mississippi. The Biscuit is a funky eclectic spot, hosting live music (pre-COVID) and known for its delicious food. The owner pops by, and, keeping her distance, tells us Thanks and hopes we enjoy the rest of our day.
I wander around, taking pictures of the interior and, generally, act like a tourist. Elvis Presley prints are prominently displayed in two places—behind the bar and in the window of a cozy corner, which looks like someone’s den.
The King’s photos remind me that wherever we are in the world—from Montreal, Canada, to Sedona, Arizona, to Miami Beach, Florida—Elvis is everywhere and watching over us, like a guardian angel.
Outside, where I take a few more pictures, a mom, with two little girls, leaves The Biscuit, walks by, and asks, “Where y’all visiting from?” “Memphis.” She smiles and says she hopes we enjoy our visit. Of course, Southern hospitality, with a little nosiness thrown in, is alive and well in the Delta.
We head across Second Street to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. This fabulous museum is built adjacent to the cotton gin where a young Riley B. King worked many, many years ago. The museum is as much about the life and legacy of B.B. King as it is about the harsh history of the Mississippi Delta—another example of the contradictions that were and sometimes still are everyday realities here.
I mentioned before that this part of the Mississippi Delta is flat. Just flat. It’s mid-April and the surrounding fields have been turned and some acres already planted, but it’s too early for the plants to sprout. The empty dry earth makes it appear flatter than it already is.
We are headed back to our guest house rental. Our oasis.
Time slows down. Or does it speed up? Driving these lonely roads seems to play with my internal body clock. There are no signs of civilization, other than an occasional old barn. Maybe a highway sign, or two. Our only companions are those yellow crop dusters. Their incessant whine lets you know they’re close by. Suddenly, like hawks diving for prey, they appear, skimming over a barren field. Climbing over a tree line or telephone wires, they disappear into the distance.
Locals call them the Delta Air Force. I think of them as giant yellow jackets.
The openness and emptiness of Delta farm land are both fascinating and frightening. While I love looking out over the horizon at acre upon acre of plowed fields, thinking these fields will soon burst with cotton, corn or soybeans, the openness—the emptiness—can feel intimidating to a suburban couple used to the constant hum of city life, noisy neighbors and traffic congestion.
A strange contradiction, quiet that’s almost too quiet.
April 17, 2021, 11:00 am—Today’s visit to Cleveland, Mississippi is a highlight of our Delta journey. A neat little place and home to Delta State University, Cleveland has that college town vibe, and the surrounding area is considered the epicenter of early Delta blues. Here in Cleveland, you can tour the Grammy Museum (a definite must), sample tasty waffle fries and craft beers at Hey Joe’s, venture out to nearby Merigold to see one of the last standing juke joints in the world, or make the short pilgrimage to Dockery Farms, the true birthplace of the blues.
That obvious pattern continues.
Cleveland is where years ago W.C. Handy found enlightenment after he and his band were asked to vacate the stage so a local trio could play blues music. Later, the Father of the Blues said he realized that this country music, as he called it, was what African American crowds wanted to hear, and would pay to hear it.
Silence is all you hear. Winds blow across a gray landscape. Po’ Monkey’s sits alone, like a tomb, along this dusty gravel road. We’re not far from Merigold, Mississippi, having crossed Highway 61 to find this rural juke. Locals and faraway visitors once flocked to Po’ Monkey’s to experience what it might have been like back in the day when juke joints hosted blue musicians and wild crowds. Po’ Monkey’s has been closed since the owner Willie Seaberry’s death in 2016. The famous sign next to the front door, declaring No Loud Music, No Dope Smoking, No Rap Music, is long gone.
The lounge is locked up and falling apart. A feeling of melancholy comes over me. Like throwing out a pair of your favorite old sneakers, the closing of Po’ Monkey’s ended an era and a way of life here in the Delta. Memories and good times that will never be reclaimed. And like those favorite sneakers, places like Po’ Monkey’s may have been worn out, but sure were comfortable.
The true birthplace of the blues
Our final stop for the day is at Dockery Farms, a shrine to the original Delta bluesmen of this area. Many of the farm’s buildings still stand today, and you simply pull off Highway 8 to explore the grounds. While Dockery Farms may not invoke the same feelings of reverence as Po’ Monkey’s, it’s place in blues history is significant.
Dockery is where Charley Patton, the legendary godfather of early Delta blues, worked and honed his musical skills, eventually influencing a generation of blues artists from Tommy Johnson, to Howlin’ Wolf, to Pops Staples. The Dockery family allowed their own workers, like Patton, along with traveling blues musicians to perform for the mostly African American families living on the plantation. Some historians believe that Dockery may be the site of the first blues concert.
“Come back to me”
April 18, 2021, around 12 noon—We’re back in Clarksdale, ending our journey where we started. Not at Abe’s Bar-B-Q, but in the heart of downtown Clarksdale, along Delta Avenue. Yesterday’s Juke Joint Festival is winding down. Sunday’s events are hosted by Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, a music store and art gallery. The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band is currently performing outside in front of Cat Head.
We’re a bit tired from our road adventure—endlessly driving on two-lane highways will do that—plus the weather’s still overcast and a bit windy, so we stroll around, searching for a place to relax and maybe, a little lunch. Historic downtown Clarksdale is a time capsule of how small-town life was many years ago. Neatly aligned streets with one- and two-story brick buildings. Revitalization here has come and gone and come again.
Nearing the end of our Delta blues journey, I reflect back on that peaceful, mellow feeling we initially felt while at our guest house rental. The place truly was an oasis hidden in the realities of the Delta. Those realities, as I have stated before, are full of contradictions. Poverty and anguish mixed with hope and pride.
Blues music is what drew us to the Mississippi Delta, but the Delta has a mind of its own. Its mystery grabs you and draws you in. The beauty, the ugliness, the history and the people are all part of that mystery. I’m intrigued by this place. I want to explore it more. And understand what makes the Delta endure.
Bessie Smith’s 1927 song, Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan) sums up my feelings—
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively.