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Destination Delta

By Anna Maria Gillis | HUMANITIES, May/June 1999 | Volume 20, Number 3

Everybody who comes in is looking for something different. "Some people go like magnets to the Muddy Waters guitar, and B.B. King’s red "Lucille" is really popular," says Mae Smith, a staffer at the Delta Blues Museum. "Real fanatics come."

Besides drawing blues devotees on pilgrimage, the museum attracts children on school trips and tourists from around the world to Clarksdale, the seat of Mississippi Delta blues. Blues legends like Son House, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters lived or played thereabouts as have countless lesser-known bluesmen. "More musicians have come out of Clarksdale than any other one place in the Delta," says John Ruskey, director of the Delta Blues Education Program in Clarksdale and former curator of the museum.

The blues and its influence on jazz and rock and roll are celebrated at the museum. The museum sponsors concerts and runs a year round program to teach young people to perform the blues. "The students are good enough now that they play locally," says Missie Craig, acting director of the museum.

The museum’s collection has been growing since 1979, many of its pieces donated by musicians. B.B. King gave one of his many guitars called "Lucille," Charlie Musselwhite donated one of his harmonicas, and Bonnie Raitt presented a slide.

In addition to instruments, the museum’s holdings include memorabilia, vintage recordings, CDs, videotapes, and blues-related publications from around the world.

The sign from the now-defunct Clack Grocery is a reminder of Alan Lomax, who traveled the Delta in the 1940s recording blues artists for the Library of Congress. He captured Son House’s style at the small-town Mississippi store. A model of a banza, the African gourd instrument that was the banjo’s ancestor, is on display.

Stella guitars similar to those used by Blind Lemon Jefferson also were donated. "They were popular with bluesmen of the 1930s and 1940s because they could be had inexpensively through the Sears catalog," explains Ruskey.

There’s a diddley-bo, a one-stringed instrument that many older blues players used to learn on when they couldn’t afford a guitar. “They’d string wire between two nails--broom handle wire gave the best sound--and they’d pluck the wire or run a slide up and down the wire. The slide could be a bottleneck, a pipe, a knife, or a rock, anything that could make a note," says Ruskey. "A slide lets you make more microtones, variations on the same note."

The use of the slide is one of the many ways blues has influenced popular music. Duane Allman, Keith Richard, and Bonnie Raitt have all played slide guitar. Bob Dylan early in his career played harmonica with blues great Big Joe Williams, and Janis Joplin sang work first done by Big Mama Thornton. The Rolling Stones were inspired by Howlin’ Wolf, and members of ZZ Top, who played music and poker with the late Muddy Waters, consider him their "musical and spiritual godfather."

To honor their mentor, the band donated the "Muddywood" guitar to the museum. It is made from a log that Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top’s guitarist, had collected from Muddy Waters’ boyhood home, a cabin on the Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale.

Initially, Gibbons had planned to play the white electric guitar. "Then, while the guitar was being built, we decided that we would rather contribute it to the museum as a kind of focus for the recognition of the importance of the blues as an American art form," Gibbons told the Chicago Tribune in 1988.

Describing the blues as a musical form can’t be done strictly, according to Ruskey. There are no firm rules, but there are some generalities. Blues music is polyrhythmic. A musician may play the same instrument in several different time signatures in a song. Sometimes the instrument is being played in a minor key, and the singing is in a major key. The third and fifth notes are often flat. Often two lines in a lyric are the same, giving the singer a chance to improvise on the third line. Traditional blues players prided themselves on their ability to make up their lyrics as they went along, and their music was meant for dancing.

"For most musicians, the blues hits a deep place. It’s intense. They start strumming and continue with a story," says Ruskey. "In the early blues, you hear about long, lonesome day in the fields and tomorrow being the same old way. And the drama between men and women, the restlessess of the sexes, have always been part of the blues."

The blues came out of the hard life of African American sharecroppers, says Ruskey. They carried their music to Chicago, St. Louis, and other cities earlier this century when they migrated north to find better opportunities. Although the music has a mainstream following today, it’s important not to forget how important it was to the cultural fabric of African American communities, he adds.

"In the Delta, the blues is still the music of the agricultural community," says Ruskey. Now, songs deal with the problems of getting food stamps, the difficulty of finding ever-scarcer farm jobs, raising a family and staying afloat on minimum wage. Ruskey believes the language of the blues has not changed in a significant way: "People sing about the difficulties of the average person just trying to make it."

Keeping the music alive is one of the museum’s goals, says Smith. "Someone has to carry the music on." Local musician "Dr. Mike" James teaches guitar, bass, and drums with the help of two assistants funded by the Delta Blues Education Program. Smith believes the musical experience has given confidence to students who hadn’t been doing well in school.

Smith said the museum hopes to expand the curriculum after the museum relocates the music program and some of its exhibits to a refurbished freight depot down the street from the main museum.

Ruskey finds it interesting that the museum and the blues have appealed to people of all ages and cultures. The attraction may simply be that the blues is "about the experiences of the heart."