THE NEW TUNICA visitor center will join dozens of other places in the Delta celebrating the region’s unique cultural contribution.
In Clarksdale, just a stone’s throw from the Ground Zero Blues Club, is the Delta Blues Museum, which occupies a converted train depot. Visitors to the museum get a taste of the rich legacy of sound that came from here, a testimony to blues artists who have been iconic in American cultural ¬history. Exhibits include Muddy Waters’s family home, salvaged from the Stovall Plantation, as well as guitars, costumes, and other memorabilia from John Lee Hooker, Big Joe Williams, and Jimmy Burns. There’s even a sign from the place where Robert Johnson performed his last gig and was allegedly poisoned.
Mississippi’s been promoting its blues heritage for about three years now and is in the process of placing more than 150 ¬historical markers and interpretive sites, most of them concentrated in the Delta. Among the locations in Mississippi are B.B. King’s birthplace in Berclair; the Holly Ridge gravesite of blues giant Charley Patton; and Greenville’s Nelson Street, which became a hot spot for down-home Southern blues in the 1940s and early ’50s. Detailed maps are available at various venues, at ¬welcome centers, and online.
On the other side of the Mississippi ¬River, Arkansas offers its own rich sampling of blues heritage. Like Clarksdale, Helena–West Helena has seen better days; visitors who cross the narrow U.S. 49 bridge on the way to the city’s downtown pass dozens of abandoned and dilapidated structures, including an ornate high school that’s been closed for more than a half century and is now engulfed in vines.
“If this was St. Louis or Chicago,” quips a local, “it’d be condominiums by now. But this is Helena.”
Near the levee there, the Delta Cultural Center occupies a beautiful, renovated train station that was originally built in 1912 by the Missouri Pacific Railroad. Its exhibits include accounts and artifacts about slavery, the forced removal of Quapaw Indians in the early nineteenth century, the Union’s defeat of the Confederates in the 1863 Battle of Helena, and the calamitous Great Flood of 1927.
Up the street, at the visitor’s center, ¬tourists can learn about Arkansas blues legends like Sonny Boy Williamson, Louis Jordan, and Albert King, and watch the daily live broadcast of the King Biscuit Time radio half hour, the nation’s longest-running blues radio program. One of the nation’s largest gatherings of blues musicians, the three-day Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival, is held in Helena each October.
Luckett, who’s lived in Clarksdale for most of his 60 years, says it’s still a revelation to him that so many people are drawn to something he took for granted for so long. “I still marvel at the places the folks come from,” he says. “I’ve met people from the Czech Republic, from all over Europe, Asia, and Africa. Robert Plant, [Led Zeppelin’s front man], has been in each of the last three summers.
“We had our detractors. We still have people who live in Clarksdale and badmouth it. But clearly, we’re doing something right.”