GUITARS UNDER GLASS
So Baton Rouge wants a piece of the blues by taking the Blues Foundation away from Memphis? Well, in addition to being a wee bit south of the Mississippi Delta, Baton Rouge is also a little late to the party.
Blues museums, blues festivals, and the home of the blues claims that go with them have become as commonplace as Wal-Marts in the Delta.
For a magazine assignment, I have visited every major music museum and some minor ones in the Delta in the last year, plus three blues festivals. Theyre running out of names to distinguish them from one another. From the lobby of The Peabody to Catfish Row in Vicksburg, and a dozen towns in between, guitars under glass are right up there, or depending on your perspective, down there with quilts, cannonballs, taxidermy, and arrowhead collections.
Memphis has Beale Street, the Rock and Soul Museum at the Gibson Guitar plant, the Center for Southern Folklore in Peabody Place, and the often overlooked museum at Mud Island River Park. Soulsville will open next year. All that plus Sun Studio and Graceland. And Memphis is supposed to be worried about possibly losing a foundation?
Tunica has the polished Bluesville museum at Horseshoe Casino.
Clarksdale has the rough-hewn Delta Blues Museum, housed in an old train depot next to the levee, plus a fall blues festival on the grounds.
Helena, Arkansas, just over the river, has the Delta Cultural Center, also housed in an old train station next to the levee, and the King Biscuit Blues Festival in the fall.
Leland has the cozy little Highway 61 Blues Museum and blues murals on the sides of stores that spice up an otherwise bland downtown.
Greenville has historic Walnut Street and the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival.
Greenwood has the Greenwood Blues Heritage Museum, featuring Robert Johnson memorabilia.
Indianola is planning a museum to house items donated by favorite son B. B. King.
Yazoo City is opening the Mississippi John Hurt Museum.
Jackson has Farish Street, which the city and its partner, Memphis developer John Elkington, hope will someday be as successful as Beale Street.
Those are just the ones I visited. I might have missed a few.
All these towns in the Delta, celebrated this year by Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones in his coffee table book Blues Odyssey, are chasing the same fans and tourist dollars.
There are a lot of people starting to jump on the bandwagon, said Luther Brown, director of the Delta Center for Culture & Learning at Delta State University in Cleveland. Whether theyve got a claim to the blues or not is another story. A lot of people who come to the Delta on a blues tour are interested in going a lot of different places. If they come to Clarksdale theyre probably also going to Greenville, Greenwood or Leland. But there is no real mega-site.
Where I do think there are too many sites is with the festivals here in the Delta. There is no coordination. Sometimes its really spread out and sometimes there are events going on the same day. Right now its either competitive or disappointing.
The blues is in a constant tug-of-war between myth and marketing. Blues music is a staple of every Mississippi travel article but heard, if at all, only on the low end of the FM radio dial. To illustrate the point, Brown shows visitors two sites near Cleveland.
One is the old cotton gin at Dockery Farms, a plantation that was once a virtual city-state on Highway 80 east of town. Bluesmen including Charlie Patton and Son House lived there and later sang about it. The photogenic gin has become a blues icon, the birthplace of the blues, featured on more than 175 web sites.
The other site is the mythical crossroads, where guitarist Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil. Sometimes purported to be the intersection of highways 49 and 61 south of Clarksdale, Brown said it is more likely what is now a nondescript dirt road in a cotton field near Dockery Farms.
But you cant sell that, of course. So a sign next to Abes barbecue and tamale shop in Clarksdale proclaims the junction of 49 and 61 to be the fabled crossroads. And a couple of miles away, you can soak up the Delta sun and sky and relive the sharecropper experience for $50 a night in a renovated shotgun house called the Shack-Up Inn at Hopson Plantation which, by God, looks like what the blues and the Delta ought to look like.
Such faux blues offends some purists. In downtown Clarksdale, theres a club called Ground Zero next to the blues museum.
A lot of blues tourists get upset if they go to a place like Ground Zero and hear rock and roll instead of the blues, said Brown.
Beale Street has been the target of similar objections, but the bottom line is that people like it, out-of-towners usually have a great time there, and it outdraws all the other contenders to the home of the blues crown put together.
Those in search of something more rough and real should get in their car, put Elmore James in the CD player, and head south on Highway 61 through the cotton fields and see for themselves whether Memphis and the Delta have anything to fear from Baton Rouge.