Steve Cheseborough

Steve Cheseborough
Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues

Third Edition - ISBN 1604731249

By Karen Nugent
August 2009

Boy I wish I had this book with me when we went to Clarksdale a few years ago.

Not only would we not have got lost two or three times trying to find the Stovall farm where Muddy Waters lived (and was discovered,) we would have known that the famous Red’s juke joint is supposed to look that shoddy (and has very irregular hours,) and that Messenger’s Pool Room does not have live music, and has never been a juke joint. Nor would we have been as nervous about going in those places, because this book has some general advice on jook joints (including that spelling) and answers questions on weirdness and danger – real and imagined.

The New World District section of Clarksdale, Cheseborough points out, was the longtime center of black life. Considered one of the poorest areas in the nation, (and it looks it) we nervously meandered into there and got some of the best tamales (see below) and ribs to be had, at Hick’s Superette, a scary-looking place that barely looked open. The book informed me that Pres. Bill Clinton also stopped there on an anti-poverty tour, and had what he declared one of his best meals ever. Who would have guessed that?

The 258-page paperback, an updated third edition, is chock full of all kinds of useful information on accommodations, meals -including definitions of oddities such as tamales (odd to us Yankees, anyway) - and where to get the best barbecue. There’s a section on moonshine liquor, too.

A new addition to this edition is a section on the new Mississippi state blues markers, a long overdue, million-dollar project that will place 130 commemorative signs for musicians, and important blues sites. Several, including those for Honeyboy Edwards, B.B. King, and Charlie Musselwhite are already in place.

There are photos, maps, easy-to-follow driving directions, all presented in an entertaining style that makes for a good read even if you’re not headed to the Delta just yet. (Or, like myself, you can find out about stuff you missed.)

As for music, the book has advice on sitting in with bands (don’t unless you practice regularly, and only for one song) taking photographs of musicians and club patrons, making recordings, and just going along with the rhythm and pace of the Delta and its locals.

But its sightseeing information is the real jackpot. Starting and ending right on Beale Street in Memphis – and the areas just outside it - this bible takes you right down Highway 61 to all those places we’ve heard so much about: Itta Bena, Friar’s Point, Natchez, Helena, Greenville, Greenwood, Rolling Fork, Rosedale, Tupelo, Robinsonville, and more.

It also includes the sometimes neglected area south of the Delta, such as Jackson, where many blues musicians were born, and the North Mississippi hill country, where the music of natives R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough is experiencing a renaissance through some new, young bands.

The book points out gravesites, making a good case for what is thought to be Robert Johnson’s true last resting place north of Greenwood, although it’s still not certain – there are three possibilities. It notes places where the musicians played, recording studios, sharecropper farms (Dockery, where Charley Patton worked and played music; and Hopson, where you can rent authentic, renovated, shacks) – everything is in here.

Who knew there is a one-room Howlin’ Wolf Museum in his hometown of West Point, and that the owner will give you a personal tour around town to discuss all things Wolf related with you---all day if you’d like?

I think the most useful parts of the guide is the info on which clubs are currently up and running, and when they have live music. As I said in a previous article, Clarksdale was more or less a ghost town during the early part of the week when we visited. Festivals, also outlined in the book, provide more activity.

Cheseborough, a blues writer, performer, and lecturer and tour guide, has written for Living Blues, Acoustic Guitar, Delta Magazine, and Mississippi. So he knows all kinds of interesting tidbits, such as the complicated story of where the real crossroads were (not where the garish guitar monument is at the current intersection of Highways 49 and 61.)

Something I was amazed to find out is that the first “blues traveler” was likely our own Charles Peabody, the famous Harvard archeologist, (the Peabody Museum of Natural History in Harvard Square is named after him.) It turns out he was digging up Indian mounds near Clarksdale in 1901 and 1902, and heard black field workers singing nearby. What they sang at night interested him even more, according to Cheseborough, because it was improvised rhythm with “hard luck tales” for lyrics.

The book begins on a rather sour note, with George Messenger, the current owner of Messenger’s Pool Room in Clarksdale, declaring that he thinks the blues is dead. It perks up a bit, though, as Messenger acknowledges a rekindling of interest.

For those who want to keep that feeling alive with a trip to where it all started, Cheseborough’s latest book is a must-have.

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