The Hidden Blues Gold of Cleveland, Mississippi

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2019 Beth Hart wide
Residents and friendly convicts wrk side-by-side to help bring the Cleveland Crosstie Arts & Jazz Festival to life. In the background are the steps where W.C. Handy decided to make the blues his life's ambition.
Residents, visitors and friendly convicts work side-by-side to help bring the famous Cleveland Crosstie Arts & Jazz Festival to life. In the background are the steps where W.C. Handy decided to make the blues his life’s ambition.

Just a handful of miles down Highway 61 below Clarksdale lies the sleepy town of Cleveland, Mississippi. Hey Joe’s, a rock-themed restaurant/record store popular with the locals ironically sells “Keep Cleveland Boring” t-shirts and bumper stickers. With a population of roughly fifteen thousand, on paper, Cleveland’s largest draw is it’s prestigious college, Delta State University. But a look just beyond it’s pleasant and inviting southern surface will unearth a brilliant chest of shiny, not-so-hidden blues treasures.

When it comes to the blues, Cleveland may have it all: one of the last real (and arguably most exotic) juke joints, a stunning contemporary higher-learning music program, an upcoming GRAMMY Museum that will be one of the most prestigious music-themed institutions in the country, archives and tenures filled with untapped blues treasures, and two of the most significant locations in the wide history of the blues.

It was, after all, the expansive Dockery Farms just outside of town that was home to the brightest epicenter of the birth of the blues — a place where Charley Patton, Son House, Howling Wolf, Robert Johnson and many more called home, learning music from one another that would grow to change the world. The farm was so well-known and trafficked to workers, that a spur off of the the main line from Memphis to Vicksburg had to be constructed to bring workers in and haul lumber and cotton out. It was called Kimball Lake Branch, but was known by the locals as the Peavine Railroad spur. Made famous by Charley Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues”, the branch off of the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad would drop passengers off at the Dockery depot and reverse the few miles back to the main line.

Patton was renown at Dockery. According to his nephew, farm workers and towns people would come to the Dockery Commissary in flocks to hear him play on it’s steps. Though the commissary burned decades ago, it’s foundation is still visible on the property that rests along Highway 8. “If I made records for my own pleasure, I would only record Charley Patton songs,” Bob Dylan once quipped about the blues master. Patton’s gravestone, erected decades after his passing in 1934, was paid for by John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival fame.

Though W.C. Handy famously first heard the blues from “A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept” at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, some 30 miles north of Cleveland, the pivotal point where the famed composer decided to put blues to sheet music and subsequently begin a wildly successful career playing the blues was on the steps of the Cleveland, Mississippi courthouse after he heard a local band playing country blues tunes.

“Then,” Handy wrote in his autobiography, Father of the Blues, “I saw the beauty of primitive music… My idea of what constitutes music was changed by the sight of that silver money cascading around the splay feet of a Mississippi string band. That night a composer was born, an American composer… I began immediately to work on this type of music.”

A Mississippi Blues Trail marker was recently placed at the courthouse to commemorate the event. Handy’s hearing the blues in Cleveland and subsequently playing it across the world was one of the most important events in spreading the influence of the blues into popular culture and consciousness. A Saint Louis NHL hockey team was named after one of his songs, the Blues Music Awards were named in his honor for decades. A bronze statue of Handy even watches over Beale Street, and his influence continues to influence generations of musicians and music lovers alike. The genesis of his success, however, can be found on the unchanged steps of the courthouse that serves as the city’s center.

It’s not all “past blues” in Cleveland, however. Just outside of town lies what could easily be the most delightfully unpolished blues treasure in the world; Po Monkey’s Juke Joint, off of a gravel road off of a small road that runs by a bayou off of Highway 61. The tiny former sharecropper shack with unforgiving low ceiling beams and years of unincorporated additions is opened up on certain otherwise-sleepy weekdays for easily the most authentic delta blues party experience anyone’s likely to have.

“No drugs or Lounid Music” reads the hand painted sign on the door, and inside, the people party, packed into a tiny, offbeat “venue” with monkeys nailed on the ceiling, gifts from all over the world, says Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry. Monkey’s been faithfully running the establishment for some fifty years. The colorful delta native runs a tractor by day, and the blues by night. As the Thursday crowd gets comfortable, Seaberry casually waltzes out of a back room wearing a brilliant powder blue suit. “You need another beer, man?” he asks a couple of minutes later. When he returns with the beer in question, he’s wearing a brand new all-American suit, with brilliant blue shoes and a red, white and blue wig that flows to the floor. Seaberry is one of the delta’s many colorful personalities that the rest of the world is finally beginning to realize is the true icon of Americana. It’s a place Anthony Bourdain called “the best bar in the world“.

Delta State University, located in the heart of Cleveland, boasts some of the nation’s most prestigious, accredited music industry degrees. Delta State has richly invested in it’s area’s heritage and unique musical abilities, building not only both a recording studio and a symphony studio, but also a mobile recording studio bus. Students at the facility learn about sound boards, mixing, are taught to play instruments, and given a higher education on the industry and business of music, creating bright, musically inclined minds and skills that will shape and guide the music industry for years to come, while continuing Cleveland’s longstanding musical roots.

Possibly the most exciting addition to Cleveland, Mississippi’s musical heritage and contemporary contribution is the upcoming GRAMMY Museum — the only one outside of Los Angeles. A homage to the blues being music’s greatest inspiration, the museum will be a 20,000 square foot, eighteen million dollar project with the goal of being the most technologically advanced music-themed museum in the world. The project is headed by GRAMMY Museum executive director Robert Santelli, who was also a curator of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the author of The Big Book of Blues, a must-own dictionary of blues musicians. Set to open in 2015, Cleveland’s GRAMMY Museum will be housed at the Delta State University.

“Mississippi’s influence can be heard everywhere,” said Santelli. “The music born in Mississippi has shaped the development of popular music in America and beyond. The GRAMMY Museum Mississippi will help the rest of the world recognize Mississippi’s contribution to American music culture.”

A short, direct drive from Clarksdale, the true charm of Cleveland lies not only in it’s abounding and widely influential music history or it’s innovative and exciting higher-learning capacity. Cleveland’s welcoming small-town local flavor boasts everything from ice cream shops nestled in between nostalgic-yet-contemporary downtown shopping to it’s vast dining choices of anything from generations-old authentic italian to local, fresh burritos at Mosquito Burrito and Hey Joe’s rock n roll eating oasis, the southern anti-thesis to Hard Rock Cafe. The town is headquarters for Delta Magazine, a publication dedicated to the lifestyle of the many beautiful things that make up the Mississippi Delta, and arguably the most southern magazine on earth.

The people smile and chat with every visitor like they’re an old friend. The local blues residents such as Delta State’s highly respected Dr Luther Brown are walking blues history books, enthusiastic and excited to talk the blues, and all of the locals know one another and fondly recall the most flattering of stories. Though nearby Clarksdale may have staked the claim of being “ground zero for the blues”, Cleveland may well be the heart of the delta, and hold the very soul of the blues.

Cleveland Mississippi’s Official Tourism Website