with only 18,000 residents, clarksdale, mississippi is the blues capital of the world
mississippi was one of the most memorable places we visited during our road trip of the deep south. i wasn’t expecting this, as mississippi had never held a particular interest to me. yet here we were, snaking our way south along the mississippi river from memphis to vicksburg, through oxford first, then south through the mighty delta, with stops in clarksdale and yazoo city, before stoping in vicksburg for the night. each stop was different from the last, but they all had one thing in common: you can only find these places in mississippi. they are like nowhere else; a visit will surprise you.
downtown yazoo city
oxford is one of those places that you can’t make up. home of ole miss and southern gentility, it is also the literary home of the south. we arrived mid-morning after an hour and a half drive from memphis and immediately drove to big bad breakfast for some classic diner eats. this restaurant is run by the same people who opened city grocery (among others), an oxford staple housed on the town square. the coffee was excellent and the spicy bacon was even better. i highly recommend.
big bad breakfast in oxford, mississippi
next we drove to the town square, where we visited three book stores: square books, off square books, and square books, jr. square books is the grandfather of all bookstores in town and sits on a street corner that allows its second-floor porch to wrap leisurely around the building. inside, the store is crowded with shelves, with books tucked in every possible square inch of space (my favorite kind of book store). the second floor has a section devoted to local writers, with an entire aisle devoted to faulkner, who modeled his fictional town of yoknapatawpha county on oxford (faulkner’s home, rowan oak, is just south of town and open to the public). i picked up an american insurrection, a book about james meredith and his fight to be the first black student at ole miss; the book was written by william doyle and was described by the employee as the single most important book written about oxford (bold claim?). i’ll keep you posted. we also stopped off at square book’s lifestyle book store, off square books, and their children’s book store, square books, jr., where i purchased the first two books for my son (who was still only the size of a small orange inside of me).
square books in oxford, mississippi – a true literary delight
before heading out of town, we drove through ole miss, seeing the famous grove where chandeliers are hung for football tailgates and fans dress more like they are attending easter church rather than an SEC conference game. we saw the statue of james meredith, which made me even more eager to read the book i puchased at square books. the inscription reads “courage,” “perseverance,” “oppportunity,” and “knowledge.” with that, we waved goodbye, and headed southwest to the delta.
the statue of james meredith walking onto the campus of ole miss
there is a saying i’ve often heard, to “thank god for mississippi,” because it means there is always a state lower than yours (unless, of course, you live in mississippi) in any type of positive measurement (test scores, graduation rates, health care, etc.). not a great reflection of this southern state, and surely one that has tarnished its reputation over the years. as we drove south through the delta, i saw a surprising number of sturdy, nice looking houses, small yet pleasant and all similar looking. it took me about a hundred miles before i realized they all looked similar due to being government housing. the people of the delta live and die by the state of the river; one bad year and there’s no money for anyone. knowing that, and the frustrating history of its slave-owning plantations, i understood how the blues were created deep in the heart of this fertile ground.
driving south through the mississippi delta
i had read that the drive down route 61 through the delta was one of the most beautiful in the US. it is selected as a “best of the road” drive in my atlas, and kate spade’s “places to go, people to see” noted it as one of the top 15 scenic routes. however, our drive from a scenic standpoint was slightly disappointing (perhaps overhyped?). while the open road and low crops lining the road were pleasant, it was not the beautiful horizon i had hoped for; perhaps may was the wrong time of year to drive through and another month with larger crops would be more beautiful. the draw is definitely the people and towns along the way.
i had read about clarksdale in 36 hours, so we decided to make a stop. this is the most bizarre town i’ve ever visited – seemingly in the middle of nowhere, with no thriving commerce to speak of, but clarksdale still thrives; not on industry, but on blues. it is here that blues guitarist robert johnson is rumored to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the gift of blues. a drive into the small town of just under 18,000 reveals a cobblestoned downtown that boasts the delta blues museum, several great restaurants, antiques stores, and cat head, a store filled with local artwork and hundreds of blues albums. upon entering cat head, we were greeted by the sound of the longing blues, only to turn around and see that the shopkeeper was strumming his own guitar behind the counter – he later turned out, like most people in the south, to be a gifted storyteller, having a colorful story for every album and photograph inside the store.
cat head delta blues and folk art in downtown clarksdale, mississippi
while most people (myself included) know that bbq rules the south’s stomach, i did not know about the importance of hot tamales. and yes, i live in texas and eat my fair share of this husked delight, but i had no idea that tamales were such a part of the deep south (read more about hot tamales in the south here). we stopped at hick’s, which was closed for dine-in, but the employee that day insisted we come in, as he directed us away from the drive-thru lane and unlocked the dining room. if you’re ever passing through, do not pass up the mississippi hot tamale – they are smaller than the texas variety, so order several, and prepare yourself for some heat – these are no joke.
the back alleys of clarksdale, mississippi
yazoo city and beyond
we briefly stopped in yazoo city as it is the hometown of my husband’s favorite writer, willie morris. in his book, “north toward home” he tells his story of growing up in yazoo city and then leaving to become a writer in new york city. what a change. we didn’t get out of the car, but yazoo had a colorful and quaint downtown and seemingly a lot of churches (#biblebelt). we headed south again to vicksburg, a civil war town nestled on the banks of the mississippi, but at this point we were too tired to explore either the battle sites or the river. should you find yourself in southern mississippi, another potential stop is biloxi, a town on the gulf with a shady strip of casinos, and the site of a husband and wife murder that is detailed in the book, mississippi mud, which i picked up at a book store in memphis. what drama – it reads like fiction and tells the story of the true murders that killed vince sherry (a high-powered judge) and his wife, margaret, who was about to run for mayor. without giving too much away, the story takes you through the biloxi goverment, hit men hired for murder, and multiple con men serving time in angola prison in louisiana; extremely difficult (and frightening) that this is non-fiction.
scenes from yazoo city
who should go: lovers of books, blues, and americana
what to read: the golden apples by eudora welty, an american insurrection by william doyle, north toward home by willie morris, mississippi mud by edward humes, practically anything by faulkner
what to listen to: muddy waters, sam cooke, ike turner
the famous grove at ole miss – this time, with no tailgaters