Blues in Yazoo

As I traveled along the Mississippi Blues Trail, learning the role the state’s musicians have played in developing the soulful sounds of the Blues, my visit to the Delta region checked all the boxes: soul-stirring music, mouth-watering food, and a rich, interesting history.

Run by the Mississippi Blues Foundation, the Mississippi Blues Trail leads through the birthplace of, as they call it, “the single most important root source of modern popular music.” The Delta region on the west side of the state, was home to many of the pioneers of the Blues.

Yazoo

My first stop in Yazoo was the marker for Tommy McClennen, located between the Amtrak platform and P-Reaux's Cajun Mudbugs & Shrimp. The native Yazooan (1908–1961) was known in the area as “Bottle Up,” after his most popular song, “Bottle It Up and Go.” McClennen, who sang in a rough, energetic style, was one of the country’s most successfully Blues recording artists at the time, laying down 20 singles for the Bluebird label. In addition to “Bottle It Up and Go,” his other well-known songs included “Cross Cut Saw,” “Travelin’ Highway Man,” and “Highway 51,” which was later covered by Bob Dylan. While in Yazoo, he lived at the Sligh plantation and hung out at the Cotton Club on Champlin Avenue and on Water Street at the Ren Theater, the next-door bar, and a pool hall.

From McClennen’s marker, I ventured over to P-Reaux’s for a scrumptious dinner of traditional Delta seafood—a platter heaping with fried shrimp, oysters, Yazoo's own Simmons catfish, and stuffed crab. I could barely finish everything, but the house sauce was so delicious, I couldn’t stop until every last bite was gone.

The next day, I stopped at another marker that commemorates one of the country’s most popular Blues singers in the 1940s, Arnold Dwight “Gatemouth” Moore. Born in Topeka, Kansas in 1913, Moore spent his career in Memphis, Kansas City, and Chicago, before settling in Yazoo, where he died in 2004. His illustrious music career influenced blues legends B. B. King and Rufus Thomas, with both not only covering Moore’s songs but also becoming close friends. Some of his most famous songs include “I Ain’t Mad at You Pretty Baby,” “Did You Ever Love a Woman,” and “Somebody’s Got to Go.”

Though successful in the music world, Moore was later called to preach, where he turned his flair for performance into the ministry, as a gospel singer, and radio and TV host. He received a brass note on Memphis’s Beale Street Walk of Fame in 1996, and the Mississippi Senate presented his widow with a resolution in his honor in 2004.

The tempting aroma wafting out of Ubon’s Barbeque, next to the marker, lured me in for another round of hearty Southern cooking. Run by Leslie Roark Scott, Ubon’s serves up plentiful dishes that feature the family’s barbeque sauce, a recipe that goes back five generations. I decided upon a grilled pork chop with sides of turnip greens and hushpuppies—a great choice! On my way out, I picked up a bottle of their barbeque sauce to take home, as well as a bottle of their house made Bloody Mary mix—it’s sure to be spicy!

Bentonia

To reach the next markers, I drove down Route 49 to Bentonia in southern Yazoo County. The first commemorated musician Nehemiah “Skip” James, born in 1902, born on the nearby Woodbine Plantation, took up both piano and guitar as a youth. His songs featured a distinctive approach common to other Bentonia Blues musicians of ethereal sounds, gloomy themes, falsetto melodies, and lyrics that bemoan the work of the devil. James turned to the ministry, though he returned to Bentonia in the later 1940s to play for locals. He later returned to performing for wider audiences during the 1960s blues and folk revival, famously returning from obscurity to play the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. His work has been covered by a wide variety of musicians including Eric Clapton and Beck. His song, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” was featured in the 2000 film O Brother, Where are Thou?, a portion of which was filmed in Yazoo City. He died in Philadelphia in 1969, and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1992.

Ready for some more South delicacies, I drove to the end of the street to Bentonia Bugs. A full bowl of steamed crawfish with a side of fried oysters hit the spot. My hunger sated, I traveled a little further down the street to the Blue Front Cafe, the oldest active juke joint in Mississippi, run by Bentonia Blues legend Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. Holmes’s parents opened the spot in 1948, and it quickly became successful due to its variety of services for the area farm works including its buffalo fish, blues performances, haircuts, and moonshine whiskey.

Taking Route 433 a little farther east out of town, I found Jack Owen’s marker. Born in either 1904 or 1906, Owen spent his life as a farmer, not performing outside of Mississippi until 1988. He released his first record in 1971 and rose to celebrity, yet his day-to-day life remained much the same. This hold on an old-fashioned way of life despite his fame intrigued filmmakers, and Owen appeared in several documentaries about the Delta Blues. He did finally perform nationally and internationally in his 90s, appeared in a Levi's commercial filmed in Bentonia, and was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1993, four years before his death in 1997.

With my belly and soul filled with hearty Southern Blues and cuisines, I eagerly await my next journey along the Mississippi Blues Trail.

Heading back into Bentonia, I come to one of the most significant blues trail stops in the country. The Blue Front Cafe is not only the home of a unique style of blues, it is also known as the oldest still-active juke joint in Mississippi. Opened in 1948 by Mary and Carey Holmes, the Blue Front was once a resource for workers coming in from the fields and cotton gins. Legendary bluesmen like Jack Owens and harmonica player Bud Spires, and recent musicians like Roosevelt Roberts, Jr., and the Grammy-nominated Jimmy “Duck” Holmes have all added to the blues history of Bentonia and the Blue Front Cafe. Mr. Holmes, whose parents were the founders of the Cafe, has been the the owner and operator of the cafe since 1970 and is the last of the original Bentonia style blues musicians. Most days, Holmes can be found inside the Cafe offering historical information, personal stories, live music, and a cold drink to visitors. This is truly a bucket list stop for any music fan.

Legends of Yazoo

Southern cities with rich histories are sure to spawn local legends, and Yazoo is no exception. You’ll find perhaps the spookiest site in the historical section of the Glenwood Cemetery—“The Witch’s Grave.” According to legend, an old woman who lived on the Yazoo River was alleged to have tortured fisherman she lured to her home. After being chased to her death in the swamps, she vowed to return in 20 years and burn the town to the ground. Then, two decades later, a great fire tore through the downtown in 1904, destroying more than 200 homes and most of the businesses. The cause was never determined, though some witnesses spoke of seeing the flames dancing in the air, as if driven by supernatural winds, despite the weather report of still air. The next day, a group of townspeople went to the cemetery to find the chains around the witch’s grave broken in two.

Another site with unexplained occurrences is the Satartia Bridge. Spanning the Yazoo River at the Village of Satartia, this vertical lift bridge has been the subject of several paranormal investigations due to unusual sounds, smells, and sights reported there. Both locals and investigators have reported scary experiences surrounding the bridge, from moaning from the river to the stench of rotting flesh, to misty visions that appear to disappear into the vegetation along the banks. Some believe the ghosts of the Yazoo Native Americans from whom the River, the City, and the County get their name, are haunting the area. Others say it’s the crews of the numerous Civil War ships that sank in the river. Try crossing the bridge and come up with your own explanation.