- 1 Belzoni
- 2 Clarksdale — the mostly undisputed birthplace of the blues, and perhaps the one town that actively encourages the juke joints to stay open
- 3 Cleveland
- 4 Greenville — at one time home to endless juke joints throughout (supposedly) scary neighborhoods, albeit losing them fast to generational change and competition from the casinos
- 5 Greenwood
- 6 Indianola
- 7 Tunica
- 8 Yazoo City
The blues; the famous Mississippi Delta juke joints. This section of the country is dirt poor economically, but the birthplace of the blues has more culture than some entire U.S. states. Modern American music—and hence modern music the world over—traces its routes right back here, to the old juke joints of Mississippi. These rural bars, in cinder-block or wood structures just about as poor as their customers, were where black Mississipians would escape from their hard lives of hard work with a good dose of music, alcohol, back-room gambling, the occasional fight, and cavorting with some members of the opposite sex. The word juke is believed to come from the Gullah word joog for rowdy—and it was these rowdy run-down joints that bred the music that was the soul of black America and would become the inspiration to the world.
The juke joints are a living tradition right up to this day. But in the past ten years or so, they have been closing left and right, leaving only a handful of the old original rural juke joints, with closings common in the towns as well. The reasons? First is the economy—the state of things has been so bad, for a long enough time, where the Delta suffers from serious depopulation, and hence a decreasing base of customers. Second is the trend among the region's youth towards listening to rap from the big cities, casting off the tradition of guitars and harmonicas. Third are the new casinos, which lure away the old patrons with free music, free drinks, and legal venues for gambling. Unable to compete with that, the holdout juke joints have turned to "sexy nights" with strippers, less expensive live bands and more cheap DJs, and even a little tourism promotion with the help of blues lovers worldwide. Nonetheless, come with the full knowledge that this culture is critically endangered, and that the blues may find themselves relegated to the less authentic, more packaged version up on Beale St in Memphis or the North Side blues clubs of Chicago.
The Delta accent is about as thick as an American accent gets. If you're from another country, good luck!
The closest useful airport is in Memphis. From there, the popular route is to avoid the dull I-55 highway, and to stick to the rural roads. US-61 is the beaten path, which goes through Clarksdale and then all the small towns and countryside that used to be blanketed with the old juke joints, and still hold a few. It keeps going to Leland, where you can take a right on US-82 for Greenville.
You'll need a car. There is no other option.
Hot Tamales are a regional specialty of the Delta. Similar to Mexican tamales, but adapted to local tastes and ingredients. Compared to the Mexican dish, Delta hot tamales are generally spicier, simmered in juices, and have a different texture from the use of cornmeal instead of corn flour or masa.
As music in the juke joints is harder and harder to find, Clarksdale is a good base of operations. The blues museum and the music store will have up-to-date information on where to go. Second best will be Greenville, but expect far less helpfulness down there.
When visiting, etiquette in the juke joints expects that you're friendly, not taking photos like you were in a zoo, and to try to acquaint yourself with the owner. Some lewd dancing is almost always welcome too. The beer is cheap and comes in single bottles big enough for a hangover.
The Mississippi Delta is generally known as a safe place to visit. It has a high poverty rate, which sometimes coincides with a high crime rate, but rarely are violent crimes perpetrated against visitors there. Although Mississippi, along with much of the “Deep South”, has a long history of racial inequality, the “Delta”, in particular, was known as an oasis of liberalism in the State throughout the civil rights movement. It is now known more for it’s numerous Blues Festivals, fine Southern Cuisine and overall hospitality. While the blues clubs, in towns such as Clarksdale, are certainly safe for people of all backgrounds and nationalities (and nowadays you'll find visitors from places like Japan and Norway mixing it up with the locals), the honky-tonks/country bars may not be the places to visit if you are looking for a multi cultural experience. One might want to avoid any establishment adorned with a Confederate Flag... a sure sign that, inside, you will most likely NOT encounter the most “enlightened” faction of the MS population! Although poverty is rampant in the Delta, and while it may not be pleasant to look at, it is not a risk to your safety.
There are two natural destinations after the Delta: Memphis for blues in an urban setting, as well as some incredible rock n' roll and R&B history, or New Orleans for the birthplace of jazz. If you're more kin to explore Mississippi, though, Oxford would be a great idea for it's historic beauty and true Old South charm (without the bad elements).