Northern Mississippi – National Parks Road Trip – Day 22 – From the Blues to Elvis & The Natchez Parkway

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We left our Holiday Inn Express, with it’s brown tap water behind and headed out for Rosedale, Mississippi to find the crossroads known as where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. According to this folklore, Johnson did not go to the crossroads seeking the devil. The devil was waiting for him as Johnson passed through. Johnson was greeted by the devil and his dog, and the dog seized Robert and shook him violently. When this happened, the strings in Johnson’s guitar shook and vibrated and the blues emerged from those sounds.

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The devil told Johnson, “the dog is not for sale, but you can buy that sound.” Robert wanted it so badly, the deal was made. From there, he was a master. Supposedly voodoo claims, the devil always hangs close to the river. The devil was known to mark his territory with an “X” (thus the crossroads), Rosedale, is a town right by the river. Therefore, Son House (an old blues artist) believes the true crossroads that Robert Johnson sang about are in Rosedale.

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Rosedale was a rundown small town with a Blues Trail marker for the Hot Tamales and the blues. The reason is that Mexicans came to the area as migrant workers incorporated their hot tamale food with the Delta cuisine. Robert Johnson wrote songs of the popular hot tamale.

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In Cleveland we passed the Delta State University, nicknamed the Fighting Okras as we continued on the Mississippi Blues Trail. We so badly wanted a t-shirt with their mascot on it but were unsuccessful in finding one.

We landed at Dockery Farms, the site where it is regarded as the birthplace of Delta blues music. Dockery Farms owned by Will Dockery was a cotton plantation attracting blacks to work the farm because of the fair hand of its owner. The farm was more of a self-sufficient town of 400 tenants mostly African American who lived there for long periods of time.

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Dockery had its own elementary school, churches, post office and telegraph offices, its own currency, doctor, railroad depot, ferry, blacksmith shop, cotton gin, cemeteries, picnic grounds for the workers, and a commissary that sold dry goods, furniture, and groceries.

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We stood amidst some of the old buildings and a marker and plaque titled the “Birthplace of the Blues.” A gas station is at the front of the property to help spot the property where hundreds have visited through the years from all over the world. A register placed in the barn recently listed names of visitors from Italy, Germany, France, Texas, and California. One man noted in the register that he proposed to his wife at the Farm and she wrote that she said yes.

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Probably not advisable for long periods, we stopped at Parchment Farms, at the Mississippi State Prison to see the marker honoring famous blues artists that were incarcerated there such as Bukka White who wrote the song “Parchment Farm Blues”.

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Our next stop on the Blues Trail was at the intersection of Route 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi where it is claimed by some to be the crossroads spoken of by Robert Johnson. Although other blues artists of that time claim that Rosedale, Mississippi is the crossroads referred to in Johnson’s song. Thus debate on this issue continues to this day.

There is a signpost made of guitars mounted at its top and a sign boasting the title “The Crossroads” here in Clarksdale.

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We journeyed on into town and found WROX Studio headquarters. It is the first radio station in Clarksdale. Among the notable blues artists who hosted programs or performed on the air were Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williamson, Raymond Hill and Doctor Ross.

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Further down the road is Ground Zero a restaurant and hotel owned by the actor Morgan Freeman who hails from Mississippi. The restaurant features a stage aimed for blues artists. The restaurant was marked with graffiti over graffiti. I have never seen so much graffiti in one place but this is the theme to the place. There was not an inch of space not covered with graffiti even the toilets and the pool table felt were covered with it. We met a couple from England who spent the night there in one of the few boarding rooms upstairs who said they enjoyed it.

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Amazingly as we left the flatlands near the river and headed up into the hillier areas towards Oxford. Old Miss is located in Oxford, and the small town was packed as there was a football game the next day. We had planned on getting lunch there but gave up and left for the hour drive to Tupelo, Mississippi.

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Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo on January 8, 1935. Tupelo erected a statute of Elvis in his famous pose called “The Hand, “a bronze statue of a photo taken when he performed at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in 1956. Elvis was greeted on stage by the governor then, and later was photographed reaching out to touch the hands of his fans. The bronze statue was designed to encourage people to touch Elvis’s hand as he is gripping a microphone stand and leaning forward nearly in the same spot from 1956.

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Since we missed lunch in Oxford we were hungry and found Johnnie’s Diner on Main Street in Tupelo. Johnnie’s is well known as Elvis Presley’s hangout. We sat in the exact seat in the booth frequented by Elvis. Photos of Elvis covered the walls. We ate BBQ, coleslaw, potato salad and baked beans. The waitress took our photo in the Elvis booth.

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As we left, an Australian pair with their American guide quickly swept into our seats to sit in the “kings seat.” We signed the register and noticed the many European and Asians who had come before us to eat at Johnnies for the Elvis Presley experience. As we were leaving, we noticed a sign that said “Elvis has left the building” mounted on the wall next to the door. We giggled at this since we have heard this line from Mike Lange, the voice of the Pittsburgh Penguins, many times when the Penguins led the game for a win.

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We drove to the east side of Tupelo to see the birthplace of Elvis Presley. There is a Visitor Center on site with a gift shop, the house of young Elvis, the church where he sang gospel music that influenced him, and a tribute wall on the hill.

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A British tour crowded into the grounds as we moved along with them to see the buildings and bronze statues. It was too crowded for us to tour the two room house built by his father, grandfather and uncle. We did see the outhouse that Elvis used which was quite intriguing to the busload of Brits visiting the park. The lifeline at the top of the hill also had a bronze statue of Elvis with his cape and when he was a small boy.

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We left town on the Natchez Trace Parkway heading north. After a stop at the Visitor Center to collect maps, we drove to an area to see the original Natchez Trail. It was a 5 minute hike up the hill through the woods but along the trail 13 graves of confederate soldiers are buried on the trail. The National Park Service replaced the broken headstones to honor these soldiers. The names of the soldiers were once etched in the original stone but the names wore away through time; no one knows the name of these soldiers but coins lay on top of the headstones. These coins have distinct meanings when left on the headstones of the military, and these meanings vary depending on the denomination of the coin.

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We went to Tishomingo, Mississippi because I liked the name and the town was also mentioned in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou. Tishomingo is actually named after a Chickasaw chief, who fought in the war against the Shawnees in the Northwest Territory and received a silver medal from President George Washington. In 1837, the Chickasaws were forced to move to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Tishomingo died of smallpox on the Trail of Tears and is buried in Arkansas somewhere near Little Rock.

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Tishomingo has a population of less than 400 people with only a few buildings but we noticed a store as we left town along the highway that had t-shirts, confederate flags, and flea market items for sale, which I after waiting forever for the nice southern woman with about 20 confederate flags in her store chatted with us, wondering why a couple yankees would be in that part of Mississippi. I did not tell her I was born in William Sherman’s hometown.

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It was about 4 pm when we reached the Alabama state line, now we had both been in the lower 48 states. After checking into our Residence Inn in Florence, Alabama, we headed out to see the town. By far the most interesting is the original Muscle Shoals Studio at 3614 Jackson Highway.

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The studio was closed and it looked as if the building was under renovation. This studio recorded many famous artists such as Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and the Staple Singers, but a wide range of artists recorded hit songs and complete albums at the studio. They are referred to as “the Swampers” in the lyrics of “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Rolling Stones and even The Black Keys recorded their Brothers album there in 2009. The studio moved to an updated and larger facility in Sheffield in the late 1970s, but the original building is still used as a recording studio occasionally.

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We drove into the city of Sheffield and found a massive aluminum rock n roll statue. Supposedly the statue represents the owner of the elderly home which stands behind it. The owner must have been an Elvis wanna-be. We had dinner at Ruby Tuesdays and ate the best ribs so far on our trip, ironically at a chain restaurant.