Memphis Blues, Mississippi Delta Roots | Travel | Smithsonian
Along his tour of Mississippi, writer Jamie Katz took a detour into Tunica's gambling emporia. (Hemis / Alamy)

Memphis Blues, Mississippi Delta Roots

A random jaunt through the hallowed region that flavors the culture of its urban cousin to the north

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Untutored Yanks like me are sometimes surprised to learn that the fertile Mississippi River Delta extends all the way up to Memphis, Tennessee. But the influence of Mississippi—both the river and the state—is palpable in the Bluff City. Dig into almost any important Memphis phenomenon or personality—blues-tinged or not—and you’re liable to find Mississippi roots.

“Memphis is the capital of the Delta, and we’re on the spine—Highway 61,” the blues historian and filmmaker Robert Gordon told me over lunch one day on the south side of Memphis. “All roads in the Delta lead to 61, and 61 leads to Memphis.”

So it came to me one bleary-eyed Saturday night that to understand Memphis at all, I would need to venture farther south. At the moment, I was in a midtown Memphis juke joint, raptly appreciating a young blues singer named Ms. Nickki, who had told me she was from Holly Springs, Mississippi, where her family had raised horses and taught her to sing in church.

On Sunday morning, I thought I’d start out at the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, where legendary Memphis soul singer the Rev. Al Green sometimes leads the service. But then I consulted with my gracious hosts Tom and Sandy Franck, who run the charming Talbot Heirs Guesthouse in downtown Memphis. They recommended the gospel service at First Baptist Beale Street Church right nearby.

When I arrived at the historic church, though, I discovered that once every five weeks they switched the Sunday school session with the main service, and this was that week—so I had just missed the service. It was a major disappointment, but what could I do? Move on to the day’s primary mission: a day trip through the Delta.

I jumped in my rented Mustang, put the top down, tuned the radio to a gospel station at the upper end of the AM dial, and pointed south toward Highway 61. Destination: Clarksdale, Mississippi, the very cradle of the blues. It’s where—at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49—legend says bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to gain his talent. It’s where Bessie Smith died (not in Memphis, as Edward Albee seems to have believed). It’s where the Delta Blues Museum lives. And it’s only 80 miles down the road.

Within 15 minutes, I was passing men in overalls selling humongous watermelons off an old flatbed truck. You see billboards luring Memphians down to the Tunica, Mississippi, casinos for the slots and craps action. A restaurant ad promised 48-ounce steaks—the term “doggie bag” seemed suddenly inadequate. Pretty soon, I was in the Magnolia State, easing by rice and cotton fields that stretched off to the horizon. The soil looked awfully rich to my non-expert eyes.

En route, I couldn’t resist a quick detour into Tunica’s gambling emporia, choosing the Horseshoe Casino because it looked less generic and because it sits next to the Bluesville Club, whose marquee advertised upcoming shows with Booker T. & the MGs and B.B. King. Ms. Nickki told me she’d appeared there, too. Hey, I was feeling lucky, and no sooner did I shake hands with the one-armed bandit than I’d won a $35 jackpot. Good time to scoot.

I soon veered off onto Old Highway 61, a back road dotted with shacks—a corrugated community, you might say—leading after a while into the sun-drenched main square of old Tunica. I wondered about this musical place name, which sounds as if it could be a tuneful cousin of the harmonica. In fact, I learned later, Tunica is named for the Indian tribe that once lived in the area and now shares a reservation with the Biloxi tribe in Marksville, Louisiana. The Tunica were much put upon by the more aggressive Chickasaw, who even sold a number of them into slavery in South Carolina about 300 years ago. Interestingly, the Tunica language, now extinct, is said to have no connection with any other family of languages—a kind of North American Basque. Since the Tunica and the Biloxi couldn’t understand each other, they resorted to French.

I stopped for lunch at the delightful-looking Blue & White Restaurant back on 61. It’s been there since 1937, and from all appearances, hasn’t changed much. My genial waitress, Dottie Carlisle, recommended the $9 all-you-can-eat Sunday buffet special. I heaped on some fried chicken, mac ’n’ cheese, Brussels sprouts, yams, turnip greens and black-eyed peas, created a little puddle of gravy, and got down to work. Afterward, Dottie insisted I sample the peach cobbler, which later caused me to slide the driver’s seat back an inch or two. Before Dottie would let me go, though, she led me into the kitchen to meet Dorothy Irons, who had cooked up this feast. She said she’d worked at the Blue & White since 1964, which was an especially tense time in Mississippi. But as I looked around the restaurant—where white and black employees acted like sisters, where an elderly black woman in her Sunday finery took her place right next to a table of good ol’ boys without anyone seeming to take notice—I had to conclude that while the legacy of that past persists, there was no question a whole lot had changed, too.

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