The number of active juke joints in Mississippi has been declining for some time, so when I saw an entry in Facebook for a new juke joint in Drew, Mississippi called The Dirty Flo, I was intrigued. Furthermore, it looked as if there had at least occasionally been a live band there, so I decided that the next time I was in Drew, I would have to pay it a visit and see what it was about.
The juke joint was on Reed Road north of Drew, and my phone showed Reed Road as a road coming off of Highway 49 at an angle before becoming the Main Street of Drew, but what my phone did not show was that Reed Road was a gravel road, rutted and difficult to maneuver, yet the perfect place one might expect to find a juke joint.
Unfortunately, when I arrived at the spot, it was not open. As I found out later, it only opens at certain times and on certain weekends. But it looks like an interesting place to party, and I hope to pay it a visit on a weekend when it is open.
Beyond Mattson, I came to a church with the curious name of Hebrew Baptist Church, and shortly beyond that, a small town called Dublin. Whereas Mattson had clearly been a farm headquarters, Dublin looks more like a typical small town, although one with the unique fact that all of the street names reflect the Irish heritage suggested by the town name. Streets are named Shamrock, Emerald and Shannon, and they are heavily wooded and shaded, with old houses, a Methodist church, and a couple of abandoned business buildings. One of the most interesting houses was made completely of metal, with a tin roof, metal columns and circular windows. Unlike most Delta towns, Dublin seemed to be largely still inhabited, but devoid of businesses.
Mattson is a community which would seem to be the center of a large plantation. That being said, it is laid out like a beautiful village, around a large park or square, with a large church or chapel, and all of the houses painted white, these probably existing for the farm managers. While I could find little online about the history of the community, I did find that a post office was established at Mattson on July 3, 1897, so that would seem to be the founding of the farm and the town. Behind the large chapel, I came upon the Truevine Missionary Baptist Church, surrounded by fields and a cemetery.
Just to the west of the current Highway 49 beyond Clarksdale is the old Highway 49, the road that runs past Hopson Commissary and the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale. It is an old road indeed, passing old churches and small Delta towns and plantation centers. South of the crossroads at Hopson is this iconic church, which looks a little the worse for wear. It is not clear whether this congregation still exists at all, but the church looks old and historic.
Roger Stolle, the arbiter of all things blue in Coahoma County had listed a strange and rather unusual entry in his weekly live music flyer- Anthony “Big A” Sherrod and the Space Cowboy performing at a place I didn’t know called Eighth Street Grocery in Clarksdale. I had thought I knew every place in Clarksdale, certainly every musical place, anyway, but this one was new. And a check of its location on the map showed that it was in a Clarksdale neighborhood that I had never been in really, although it was not all that far from Pete’s Grill where I had played with Duwayne Burnside the week before.
So, on the off-chance that I might want to check it out, I drove to the location to find out where it was and confirm that they actually were going to have live music. It was an actual grocery store, an old-school one, with a wooden floor, but a space had been cleared for tables and chairs, and a barbecue grill set-up.
I found out that it would start at 8 PM, and that admission would be $5, so I told the woman running the store that I would likely be back, and then headed out toward Hopson Plantation and Old Highway 49.
The weekend after the soggy Juke Joint Festival was Easter Weekend, and that weekend got the weather that Juke Joint Fest should have gotten. Easter Sunday was bright, blue, and summer-like, and I decided that it would be a good day to drive down into the Mississippi Delta with my Nikon D3200. So after church services, I headed into Midtown for a brunch at Sunrise Memphis, which has just about gotten to be my favorite breakfast restaurant in Memphis. The weather was so pleasant that they had opened the front doors to the outside patio, and the place was not even particularly crowded.
From there, I decided to head out Third Street, the old Highway 61 by which people would have left Memphis for the Delta (or New Orleans for that matter). It led past a new club called the K3 Studio Cafe, which I had seen on Facebook as the scene of some local music events. The place looked interesting, indicating that it occasionally hosted jazz and jam session events. Around the corner was an old blues club, Club Insight, but it isn’t clear to me whether it is still open for business. But I soon realized that if I spent too much time in Memphis, I would never make it to the Delta, so I headed on out toward Westwood and Coro Lake.
I usually enjoy myself quite a bit at the annual Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, but this year’s festival was both wet and harried, as it poured down rain most of the day, and as I was scheduled to perform with Duwayne Burnside twice.
Upon arriving in Clarksdale, I found that the festival authorities would not allow me to park in the performers’ lot because I didn’t know the password. So I had to park down by Yazoo Pass coffee bar, and I managed to get there for a toffee cookie and a latte. But by then, the rain had really picked up, and I wanted to check out the new restaurant that had taken over the old Pinkbar on John Lee Hooker Street, the Hooker Grocer & Eatery.
With no umbrella, getting there took some doing, using shop awnings as cover where possible, and I still managed to get quite wet. Then, with the restaurant being new, Hooker Grocer proved to be packed to the rafters, with people waiting for tables. Ultimately, I managed to get seated, but the menu was fairly limited, expensive and strange. I ultimately opted for the burger, although without the mustard sauce or pickles, and to my disappointment, they didn’t serve bacon, nor french fries. What I got was a relatively dry burger with cheese, no accompaniments, and a canned drink, for nearly $20. That being said, I loved the blues-themed decor of the place and its atmosphere. Their dinner menu looks more interesting if I ever have the time or inclination. A young woman was inside the restaurant selling R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough T-shirts, hand-made, but she didn’t have my size, and it was nearly time for me to perform at the Cat Head stage. However, now the rain had started in earnest, coming down in torrents, and I with no rain gear nor umbrella. Eventually, it slacked up enough that I felt comfortable heading to Cat Head, where the show was still going on bravely, under a tent that periodically would grow heavy with rain and then deposit it over the heads of the fans. I learned there that due to the rain I would likely have no trouble getting my car into the area to unload equipment, so I struggled back to the parking lot where I had parked the car, and then drove back down to the Cat Head stage.
By the time I got equipment unloaded into Cat Head store, it was just about time to set up and perform. There was very little room for a keyboard, but I managed to get set up, and Duwayne gave a rousing performance as best he could, while water occasionally poured down from overhead on amps, keyboards and our heads. I had left my keyboard bag inside the store, and suddenly, I looked around behind me and realized that the store had closed at 5 PM, which led to immediate panic. With the bag locked inside the store, I would have no way to put my keyboard back up afterwards, or protect it from the weather. Fortunately, when we finally finished performing, I learned that someone had thoughtfully brought it outside before the store was locked. And the rain had stopped enough that I was able to load up and head in search of dinner before my next performance.
Restaurants tend to work from a limited menu during Juke Joint Fest, which annoys me year in and year out, but I managed to get seated at Levon’s with less difficulty than the previous year. Last time, they had been serving their normal, full menu, but this year, to my disappointment, they too had created a limited JJF menu, but at least their signature pizzas were on it. Sherena Boyce soon joined me, and we enjoyed a leisurely dinner before we had to head to Pete’s Bar and Grill for my second performance of the night.
Pete’s is an old hole-in-the-wall near the Riverside Hotel, which normally does not have live music, but which makes a great setting for blues. On this particular night, Garry Burnside kicked off the evening of music, and I was not scheduled to perform with him, but he invited me to sit in, and I agreed. David Kimbrough, son of the late Junior Kimbrough, also came and sat in. He had been sick and some were not expecting him to be there, but he performed and sounded good. With Duwayne, we played until about 11 PM, and it had started raining again.
Sherena said she was going by Red’s Lounge to check on her dad R.L., but I loaded up my equipment and headed out back to Memphis, with lighting flashing off to the west. Although it had been a wet and somewhat frantic day, I was pleasantly content.
After two performances in Belzoni, I was thoroughly hungry and somewhat tired. Belzoni had only one sit-down restaurant as far as I could see, but it was closed, either due to the gridlock caused by the Catfish Festival, or perhaps closed for good. So I knew I would have to go elsewhere for dinner, and I had considered heading to Greenville, Indianola or Greenwood. Greenville was a little bit too far, and Indianola I had been to frequently, so I decided to head to Greenwood in order to try a place I had never eaten before.
Ultimately, I chose a 75-year-old restaurant called the Crystal Grill, located across from the main Amtrak railroad station in downtown Greenwood. The rain was coming down, and I almost feared that the place might be closing for the night. But fortunately, they were still open, and inside, there was a still a good-sized crowd of diners in the back dining rooms.
The atmosphere was bright and cheerful, and when I saw the menu, I was amazed at the various choices, and the relatively low prices. Ultimately, I chose a grilled redfish, with lump crab meat on top, and a baked potato with butter, bacon and cheese. Redfish is one of my favorite types of fish, and this one was so large, it nearly filled my plate. It was flaky, and delicious- the best I have had since I visited The Goode Company Texas Seafood in Houston many years ago. I had expected a normal baked potato with cheese, bacon and butter, but what I got was something quite different- the potato had been baked, then scooped out, and the butter, cheese and bacon had been mixed, then put back into the potato shells and baked again. It was quite delicious and I ate all of it.
Now thoroughly happy, I opted for the perfect finish- a slice of homemade cheesecake in a delicious graham cracker crust. When I left to go to my car, the doorman asked me how it was. I told him truthfully that I had just had one of the best meals of my life.
I had no phone service at all while I was at Swiftown, but as I approached Belzoni, my phone started ringing. Blues musician Duwayne Burnside, for whom I play keyboards, was calling frantically from the World Catfish Festival in Belzoni because we were about to go on stage in less than a half-hour. Getting to Belzoni was no big deal, because I was only about five miles away. But what I hadn’t counted on was how gridlocked everything was because of the festival. Hayden Street, the main street of the town, was blocked off in the downtown area, and it was only with great difficulty that I was able to find a way to drive behind the stage area. Fortunately, Duwayne had talked to the festival people and I was allowed to park in the sheriff’s department parking lot at the Courthouse.
A blues artist named Mississippi Marshall was performing a solo acoustic set on the Humphreys County Courthouse steps as we unloaded our equipment. The weather was grey and overcast, but the rain had held off, and it was warm, so there was a fairly large crowd on the courthouse grounds, and even more along the downtown streets where vendors had set up tents. Marshall’s performance was followed by a Miss Catfish Pageant, and then we got to go on stage, set up our instruments and perform. As for food, there was, of course, catfish. And pretty good catfish it was too, provided by Larry’s Catfish House in Itta Bena, some 30 miles up the road.
As the Blackwater Trio went up on stage next, I took the time to walk down Hayden Street, looking at the various stores and vendors. Belzoni, like all Delta towns, had suffered hard times in the modern era, but they had experienced something of a renaissance with the advent of aquaculture, specifically farm-raised catfish. As a result, the downtown area was dotted with various catfish statues, painted in brilliant colors. But even the catfish industry had grown old in Belzoni now. Many of the statues were located in front of vacant, decaying storefronts. Even the posh digs of the Catfish Institute proved to be vacant- the institute relocated to the “big city” of Jackson some years ago. A few clothing shops were having “Catfish Festival sales” but otherwise, the downtown area seemed to be in poor shape, despite the crowds of people walking around.
Around the corner on Jackson Street, things seemed a little livelier, because of a place called Belzoni Sports Bar & Grill, which was actually the club we were scheduled to play at later in the evening. The place was a sports bar, restaurant and pool hall, and already had some people inside. A man was passing out flyers on the street for Duwayne Burnside’s performance there later in the evening.
Down the next street, which led back toward the courthouse and the main stage, I came upon a beautiful brick building, with the Coca-Cola logo worked into its facade on two sides. Although it was now being used as a daycare, I imagine that it had once been the Coca-Cola bottling plant for Belzoni.
When I returned to the courthouse, I managed to get my equipment loaded into the car, and then drove around through the neighborhood behind the courthouse along George Lee Street (the name commemorates a Black man who was murdered in Belzoni in 1955 for organizing a voter registration drive) and around to Jackson Street, where we were to play. But now the rain had begun to fall, and by the time I began to load into the club, it was pouring down.
Despite the rain outside, the little sports bar was soon jam-packed as we played. Their posters announced several upcoming blues shows, and it seems as if they are going to try to keep the live music going in Belzoni, which is a good thing. Afterwards, I got quite wet putting my instrument and amp back into the car, but I was soon on my way through the storm up Highway 7 toward Itta Bena, Greenwood, and hopefully dinner.
About halfway between Morgan City and Belzoni on Mississippi Highway 7 is a wide spot in the road called Swiftown. It consists of a couple of residential streets, a community center, a church and some abandoned business buildings.
There probably was never a whole lot to Swiftown, but clearly its better days are behind it. Still, the abandoned buildings have a rather historic look about them, and there was a remarkable quietness about the place on an early Saturday morning.