Blues and more come alive in the Mississippi Delta

Downtown Cleveland in the Mississippi Delta. | Dennis Lennox

The Mississippi Delta, a swath of northwest Mississippi in the shadow of its namesake river, is home to small Southern towns, the regional cuisine you expect and an outsized legacy that ranges from a seminal Civil War battle to an entire genre of music.

My trip started after flying into Jackson, the state capital. After picking up a rental car I drove about two hours to Cleveland, a charming town that dates to cotton and railroads.

Established in 1869 and named for President Grover Cleveland this small city with its population of 12,334 and seat of Bolivar County — named Simon Bolivar — has evolved over the years and today is home to a state university.

I stayed at Cotton House, part of Marriott’s Tribute Portfolio brand. It looks out on a picture-perfect downtown. Unlike many downtowns of Cleveland’s size, it remains lined with mostly open shops.

Directly across from the hotel is Zoe Coffee Co., which dedicates a portion of its profits to Christian mission work in Kenya. This is a great spot to start your mornings. For dinner, consider Delta Meat Market in the Cotton House lobby or 8 West Grille at the new Lyric Hotel.

On the other side of town is Grammy Museum Mississippi, which not only recognizes winners of the music industry’s most important award but honors the Delta’s role in creating what we today call blues music. This genre, originally the music of workers at Dockery Farms and other cotton fields across the Deep South, has had remarkable influence, including Elvis Presley and other rock ‘n’ roll greats. Another stop on the blues trail is the B.B. King Museum & Delta Interpretive Center in nearby Indianola.

Vicksburg was once one of the busiest ports on the Mississippi River. | Dennis Lennox

From Cleveland I drove another two hours to the Courtyard hotel in Vicksburg, once one of the busiest ports on the mighty Mississippi River. I took the scenic route along Highway 61, also known as the Blues Highway or Great River Road, which parallels the river and passes several ancient Indian mounds.

Unlike more rural parts of the Delta, which have struggled with floods and the changed economic realities brought about by mechanized agriculture, Vicksburg has the antebellum architecture more typically associated with the South. The big landmark is the stately old county courthouse — today an interesting museum — targeted by Union bombardment during the epic 47-day siege of Vicksburg in 1863.

I learned more about the Civil War history during a tour of the hallowed ground at the Vicksburg Military National Park, which is accessible by foot and car. What stood out most were the countless memorials and monuments to both sides, although those dedicated to the Union cause are by far more prominent. This includes the extravagant Illinois State Monument, a scaled-down take on the Roman Pantheon.

If you go

Driving across the Mississippi Delta can be done in two or three days, though visitors with longer time will want to expand their itinerary to include Clarksdale (about an hour north of Cleveland). Another option is flying into Memphis.

“Spires and Crosses” is a weekly travel column. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter and Instagram.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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