The Delta Blues Museum resides in a restored five-thousand-square-foot freight depot in downtown Clarksdale between the blues club Ground Zero and the Delta Blues Museum Stage. Mississippi’s oldest music museum, it began in 1979 as part of the Carnegie Public Library. In 1999 it moved to the restored 1918 depot and became an independent entity governed by a five-member board appointed by the mayor and board of commissioners. The museum is “dedicated to creating a welcoming place where visitors find meaning, value, and perspective by exploring the history and heritage of the unique American musical art form of the blues.” The museum employs four full-time workers (a director, an exhibits and programs coordinator, a group tour manager, and a gift shop manager) as well as several part-time workers. Funded by the City of Clarksdale, admissions, gift shop revenue, memberships, grants, and donations, the museum welcomes more than twenty-five thousand visitors a year. The Delta Blues Museum was one of ten recipients of the 2013 National Medal for Museum and Library Service presented by the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, D.C.
The largest artifact in the Delta Blues Museum is blues legend Muddy Waters’s cabin. The structure has been reconstructed with the original cypress boards of the cabin, which was located on the Stovall family plantation outside Clarksdale. Between 1996 and 2000 the House of Blues circulated the cabin to Chicago, Orlando, New Orleans, and other major US and Canadian cities; the cabin even made a special appearance at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The cabin then sat in a warehouse until 2001, when it moved to the Delta Blues Museum. Visitors can sit in the cabin and watch a video presentation about Waters’s life.
Another popular traveling Muddy Waters item exhibited at the museum is the “Muddywood Guitar.” In 1989 rock band ZZ Top asked Pyramid Guitars in Memphis to build a guitar from a solid cypress board that had originally been part of Muddy Waters’s cabin. The result was the Muddywood Guitar, which symbolizes rock and roll’s indebtedness to the blues. The guitar was exhibited throughout the United States to raise money for the Delta Blues Museum.
The museum also houses instruments played by many famous blues artists—Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica, Sam Carr’s drumsticks, and the guitars of Super Chikan, John Lee Hooker, B. B. King, and Big Joe Williams. Various copies of Living Blues magazine hang throughout the museum. The Jelly Roll Kings’ autographed wooden shoes from Holland sit in a glass case, as does a signed postcard from Musselwhite addressed “to the staff at my favorite place in the whole wide world—the Delta Blues Museum of Clarksdale.” Other notable displays include a sculpture of a woman in a coffin made of Yazoo River clay by James “Son” Thomas; suits worn by Eddie Cusic, E. B. Davis, and Pinetop Perkins; and W. C. Handy’s autograph on an off-white 5.5ʺ × 3.5ʺ card. Temporary exhibits of ephemera have included art, T-shirts, posters, and photographs. The museum has hosted Delta Dogs, a popular exhibition by Delta photographer Maude Schuyler Clay, and has displayed posters celebrating twenty-five years of the Sunflower River Blues Festival.
The Delta Blues Museum sponsors an arts and education program that works to continue the musical tradition of the Delta Blues. Classes meet four days a week to teach students musical technique and the history of the blues. Students can choose to play guitar, harmonica, keyboard, bass guitar, and drums, or any other blues instrument of their choice. Public performance opportunities enable participants to share their achievements with the community. The adjacent Delta Blues Museum Stage serves as the main venue for local blues festivals.
The Delta Blues Museum has launched the Deeper Roots Campaign, seeking $1.2 million to expand the museum, add exhibits, and further its mission of preserving and sharing the blues heritage.
- Delta Blues Museum website, www.deltabluesmuseum.org