They heard the squeal of the old screen door, but they paid no attention to me - a stranger - as I entered. As the door slammed shut behind me, I looked and listened to identify the makings of a juke - a woman prancing, with her river hips shaking like two big, wild boars turned loose in a pup tent; a tall can of Colt 45 being tossed back like a bullwhip in the hand of some crazed cowboy; the raw, loud sounds of blues in the night bouncing off the walls of this joint in the heart of downtown Drew, Mississippi.
That was more or less three years ago, when whiskey was casting warm, wonderful spells over me on a sticky summer night in the Mississippi Delta. A few things have changed since then. Today you can easily find a good crapshoot without the risk of getting arrested, thanks to numerous gaming establishments on the banks of that old, muddy river. Byron de la Beckwith is serving time. And Mississippis mighty blues are being spread like soft butter on a piece of bread, all over the world.
I can help the curious find whats authentic and beyond commercialization when it comes to this penetrating African-American art form known as the blues. Chances are you will not find some slender dark man, with guitar in hand, positioned in a corner of a tattered tin shack at the end of some dirt road. Then again, you might!
But before we begin our ramble deep into the Delta, allow me to give you one suggestion to guarantee a safe and fun-filled visit with the blues and her rambunctious jukes: If at first you dont find a barrelhouse full of live blues, drive on to the next small town. Odds are against you finding a live blues band playing some club in the Delta on a weeknight, and you will even have to do a little searching to find clubs that offer the same on the weekends. There are no big towns of hundreds of thousands of people to keep some hot spot on the juke circuit cooking seven nights a week. Maybe thats what allows the jukes that do exist here to hold on to their authenticity: a real blues experience - no prepackaged deal like youll find on Beale Street just up the road in Memphis or in Cambridge, Mass.
Simply put, no matter how long your stay in the Delta, make sure that you arrange your juke pursuit for Friday or Saturday night. There are numerous places open during the week offering an ice-cold beer and a few blues 45s on the Seeburg. That might be all you need to satisfy your quest.
You also might be interested in the many blues and historical sites along the way. Just a few miles outside of Clarksdale youll find the house where Muddy Waters once lived at Stovall Farms. On your way to the juke, why not pay a visit to the graves of music legends Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Sonny Boy Rice Miller Williamson? Maybe youll even want to dip your feet into the muddy water of the Mississippi River while cutting into a catfish sandwich and sucking back an RC Cola. Closer to midnight, you can make your way down the dirt road, stop at the crossroads for a sojourn with the devil and discount you soul.
Still, safety should always be a concern when you find yourself
in unfamiliar territory. Most city jukes are found in the most crime-stricken area of town. For instance, you might find yourself uncomfortable on Nelson Street in Greenville when one of the pushers confronts you with words, Hey, man! You need anything? Man, I got everything you need. So stay off the streets. Perry Payton, the owner of The Flowering Fountain, will tell you the same, adding that you wont find this kind of trouble in his club. In fact, almost all of the proprietors of these joints will do their best to make you feel safe and comfortable.
OK. Enough of this staged rhetorical folly. If youve come this far, you know where your going and what exactly it is you want to do. So lets juke.
Many jukes do not have phones; those in the smaller communities do not have street numbers. Most of the larger towns, however, such as Clarksdale, Greenwood, Greenville and Cleveland, have convention and visitors bureaus to point you in some direction should you have difficulty locating any of the clubs and blues related sites mentioned here. Additionally, blues tours can be arranged through the Mississippi Delta Blues Society, P.O. Box 1805, Greenwood, MS 38935-1805.
Clarksdale is our first stop. Youll find this blues rich community on Highway 61 and 49. I suggest that you stop by Stackhouse/Delta Record Mart, 232 Sunflower Ave., (601) 627-2209, or the Delta Blues Museum, 114 Delta Ave., (601) 627-4461 for the word on whos performing in the various juke joints and for general information on blues happenings.
(601) 627-9737 for information
395 Sunflower Ave.
River Mount Lounge
911 Sunflower Ave.
(approximately 30 miles south of Clarksdale on Highway 61)
Do Drop Inn
Third and Lake Streets
The Windy City Blues Cafe
Across the street from the Do Drop Inn
(just north of Cleveland)
Off Highway 61 to McKnight Road, then north on old Highway 61
We continue our ramble south on Highway 61.
509 N. Main St.
With a right turn onto Highway 82, due west, we find ourselves in Greenville, the largest Mississippi River town in the Delta. In Greenville, youll treasure historic Nelson Street, mentioned above. A few days before Christmas, I stopped for a drink at the Flowering Fountain with the owner of the club. Payton has booked everyone from Elmore James in the 1950s to Little Milton in the 90s. Even Little Milton recorded a song recently to honor the club, Annie Maes Cafe.
928 Nelson St.
From Greenville, head east on 82 to Indianola, then north on Highway 49W.
404 Hannah Ave.
A section of Front Street is commonly known as Greasy Street, where theres a strip of clubs.
Top Ten Club
Highway 49 splits near Tutwiler and Yazoo City. Theres a 49W and 49E, both of which run north to south, eventually becoming one. Lets trek down 49E for one of my favorite stops in the Delta.
109 James St.
401 W. Johnson
(601) 453-0204 or 453-9857
This list of juke joints in the Mississippi Delta could go on and on. This place is like no other. The music is raw and pure. All over the world, people try to duplicate the juke, but their reiterations are impossible. Elements are missing. Absent are the real people of the Delta who know the blues.
As seen in American Visions Magazine, February/March 1996
W. Patrick LeBlanc, who has hosted and produced the blues radio show Mississippi Crossroads for several stations in the Delta for the past eight years, founded the Mississippi Delta Blues Society in Greenwood, Mississippi.