Mississippi juke joints

During the 1980s, scores of communities in the United States were vying to be the home for the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Cities including Atlanta and San Francisco said they deserved the shrine because of their history and connection to rock music.

The museum ultimately went to Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland? Isn't that where a river once caught fire? What was once joked about as a "mistake on the lake" won this honor because the term "rock 'n' roll" was coined there by Alan Freed, an influential disc jockey. Without Cleveland, we might not be experiencing rock 'n' roll as we know it today.

The battle for the rock hall story is one to which Mississippians can possibly relate. Widely known for its Southern history, military bases and gaming industry, few people realize that this dynamic southern state is where modern music's roots were established. From juke joints to museums, a trip to the Magnolia State is evidence that Mississippi is home to a heritage that can't be found anywhere else.

Birth of the blues

Blues music was born in the North Mississippi Delta after the Civil War. An expression of the hardships felt by the victims of slavery and discrimination, this style of music told the story of the times. In the early 1900s, composer W.C. Handy was waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Miss., when he heard a local bluesman playing the slide guitar. This music intrigued Handy so much that he introduced the blues to crowds in a Memphis saloon, where it spread around town and to scores of cities including Chicago and New York. The blues would go on to create a number of musical artists and styles, including rock 'n' roll.

Just up the road from Tutwiler is Clarksdale, where the blues is celebrated every day in clubs such as the Ground Zero Blues Club on Delta Avenue. Opened in May 2001, the Ground Zero entertains and schools visitors in the blues. Owned by locals Bill Luckett, Howard Stovall and Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman, the Ground Zero Blues Club features first-rate blues performances by local and national acts. The club is based on the same model as that of Mississippi's juke joints, a tradition that many like Freeman are attempting to preserve.

"The main problem with the original juke joints is that they do not advertise and have a set schedule of performers," said Jim Brewer, founder and chairman of the Board of the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame. "Ground Zero Blues Club has a schedule, so you know when they are open and who is playing."

Good eating' in the neighborhood

Ground Zero is open for lunch and dinner daily. Enjoy a catfish sandwich and "Big Lim's Chili Cheese Fries" in this cozy club at lunch. If those choices are a bit too regional for you, hamburgers, cheesesteaks and chicken strips are available as well as daily plate lunches. Dinner is served Wednesday through Saturday.

For a true fine dining experience in Clarksdale, check out Madidi, an elegant restaurant also owned by Luckett and Freeman. Whoever would have guessed that the birthplace of music in a small Mississippi town would be serving French-style cuisine? How about an appetizer of lobster bisque followed up with Molasses-glazed Filet of Salmon? Perhaps Roasted Breast of Duck is your style. These dishes are the brainchild of Chef de Cuisine Lee Craven.

Blues on display

Just around the corner from Ground Zero is the Delta Blues Museum. Housed in a former freight depot, the museum holds exhibits ranging from a display on mysterious blues performer Robert Johnson to a signed B.B. King guitar. The museum pays homage to women with its Women of the Blues showcase featuring Big Mama Thornton and Bessie Smith. Even top honors are given to equipment that produces the sounds of the blues. Some exhibits are devoted to Stella guitars and guitars belonging to famous Delta players. The biggest tribute in the structure is paid to blues legend Muddy Waters. The former Clarksdale resident's childhood cabin is on display in the center of the museum. Even Clarksdale's answer to Cleveland's disc jockey Alan Freed is remember here. Items that belonged to Early Wright, a local radio personality, are front and center for visitors to see.

The blues inspires

Musical talent is on display throughout Clarksdale and the state. "We have the entire gamut here," said Steve Martin, director of the Mississippi Development Authority/Division of Tourism. "If you travel the state, you can see that we have great country and western, classical and jazz musicians." Even one of the greatest opera singers hails from Laurel, Miss. Martin suggests that if you plan on taking the musical journey through Mississippi, that it is best to travel in your own car.

"Sure, you can fly into Jackson and rent a car, but it is so much easier if you travel here with your own auto," he said. "This way, you can immediately take advantage of the Historic Blues Driving tour, Jimmie Rodgers Gravesite, Hopson plantation and so many other points of interest." After visiting these musical sites, including those in the Delta, it leaves one to ponder this question: What is it about Mississippi that has inspired so many musicians?

"I don't know what it is," admitted Jim Brewer of the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame. "Maybe it is because Mississippi was the poorest state in the nation and that led to its people falling back on their creativity." Find out for yourself what makes Mississippi a musical inspiration with a road trip down its legendary highways. You are guaranteed to see, hear and experience every note.

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