KITCHEN BLUES

Music & Food in the Delta

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“If music be the food of love…or is it the love of food?”
—Roy Blount, Jr.

Tamales, catfish, barbecue, juke joints, and the blues. Explore the intersections between the musical and culinary heritage of the Mississippi Delta.

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The gin buildings at Dockery Farms.
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“I guess the Delta had the blues, and I guess that was better than barbecue.”
—Bill Lester, Dockery Farms
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Read the Mississippi Blues Trail historic marker.
Read the Mississippi Blues Trail historic marker.

In the northern Delta, roughly twenty miles from the Mississippi River, is Dockery Farms. Established in 1895, this plantation is widely believed to be the birthplace of the blues.

The greats Son House, Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and possibly even Robert Johnson all played at Dockery. On weekends, sharecroppers and musicians gathered on the plantation commissary’s steps (the only food store for miles). Inside the commissary, just behind those early blues notes, were the staples of southern cooking: molasses, cornmeal, dried beans, sugar, salt, and flour.

“These guys [would] show up on Saturday afternoon and they’d hit that first lick on that steel guitar…they’d slide that slide up on there and, man, the hair would stand up on the back of your neck,” explains Bill Lester, executive director of the Dockery Farms Foundation.

Bill Lester at Dockery Farms in 2012.
Bill Lester at Dockery Farms in 2012.

There were also tamales on Dockery Farms. Gentle Lee Rainey was born on Dockery, and his grandfather began making tamales using corn shucks from the fields—today he sells his version at Delta Fast Food. Rainey’s mother, Ruth Blaylock Foster, remembers blues parties—or “wang-dang-do” as she says—from her childhood days on the farm. “We were not permitted to go down that hill where they were singing the blues,” she remembers. “It was not lady like, so we didn’t do it.”

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Ruth Blaylock Foster and Gentle Lee Rainey of Delta Fast Food.
Hear Rainey on his grandfather's tamales.

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record-iconTommy Johnson
Big Fat Mama Blues

Crying, big fat mama
Meat shaking on her bones
Time the meat shake
It’s a skinny woman lose a home
Well, I’m going away, mama,
Won’t be back till fall,
Won’t be back till fall, mmmm
Going away, mama,
Won’t be back till fall,
Big fat mama with the
Meat shake on her bones

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Abe's serves barbecue, tamales, and their own invention, a tamaco.
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“Hot tamales and barbecue and blues go together.”
—Pat Davis, Sr., Abe’s Bar-B-Q
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The pig on Abe’s Bar-B-Q sign.

Abe’s Bar-B-Q opened its first location in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1924. Not long after, legend has it, Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil at a crossroads to master the blues guitar. Since 1937, Abe’s has operated near the intersection of Highways 49 and 61. Abraham “Abe” Davis immigrated to the United States from Lebanon when he was thirteen and settled in Mississippi. After a few years training with a Greek restaurateur, he opened Abe’s where he served barbecue and corn husk-wrapped tamales that resembled the grape and cabbage leaf rolls of his home country.

“Hot tamales and barbecue and blues go together,” says Davis’s son, Pat Davis Sr. Today Clarksdale is a destination for blues tourists, but in the early days of Abe’s, bluesmen were likely patrons. Davis Sr. remembers how his father refused to segregate the restaurant, instead choosing to welcome everyone.

“Behind our restaurant was a big, tall sycamore tree,” recalls Davis Sr. “I believe it’s very possible—I know a lot of African American men would sit up under that tree and eat sandwiches and drink beer—it’s very possible Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil under that sycamore tree.”

Explore the entire SFA Hot Tamale Trail.
Explore the entire SFA Hot Tamale Trail.
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Pat Davis, Sr. (right) with an Abe’s Bar-B-Q employee.
Hear Davis Sr. on his father's welcome policy.

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record-icon-blueRobert Johnson
Hot Tamales (They’re Red Hot) (1936)

Hot tamales and they’re red hot,
Yes she got’em for sale
She got two for a nickel,
Got four for a dime
Would sell you more,
but they ain’t none of mine
Hot tamales and they’re red hot,
Yes she got’em for sale, I mean
Yes, she got’em for sale, yes, yeah
Hot tamales and they’re red hot,
Yes she got’em for sale

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Wood for the pits at Lem's in Chicago's South Side.
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“People worked their way out [of Mississippi].
Found a lot of good things and sweated away a lot of bad things.”
—James Lemons, Lem’s Bar-B-Q
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During the Great Migration, over a million African Americans left the South in search of opportunity. James Lemons and his family joined the migration north and moved from Indianola, Mississippi to Chicago, Illinois. He is now owner and pit master of Lem’s Bar-B-Q in Chicago’s South Side, one of many institutions serving Southern fare in the neighborhood. “I’ll say seventy-five percent of the people that came to Chicago came from the state of Mississippi,” says Lemons. Even though he learned to barbecue in Indianola, he says Lem’s is Chicago barbecue. “It’s where it’s been the longest.”

The pit at Lem's from outside.
The pit at Lem’s from outside.
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James Lemons of Lem's Bar-B-Q.
James Lemons of Lem’s Bar-B-Q.
Hear Lemons on his childhood friend B.B. King.

James Lemons and his older brother grew up with B.B. King in Indianola. His cousin, Mary Shepard, owned Club Ebony in town for decades before King took it over. As B.B. and others brought the blues to Chicago, cooks and restaurateurs like Lemons and his father planted new roots for Southern foodways.

Bill Lester of the Dockery Farms Foundation explains the ties between the Delta and Chicago; “The first blues note was probably not written at Dockery, but so much of the training for the blues came from Dockery. Men like Howlin’ Wolf could play here, learn something here, [then] hop on the train and within twenty-four hours be in Chicago playing the exact same music he just learned on the commissary front porch.”

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record-icon-darkB.B. King
Saturday Night Fish Fry

Now if you’ve ever been down to New Orleans
Then you can understand just what I mean
All through the week it’s quiet as a mouse
But on Saturday night they go from house to house

You don’t have to pay the usual admission
If you’re a cook, waiter or a good musician
So if you happen to be just passin’ by
Stop in at the Saturday night fish fry

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This feature was produced with photographs and audio from the oral history archive of the Southern Foodways Alliance. The introductory quote by Roy Blount, Jr. is from “The Food Music Pantheon: Louis, Louis, Louis, Fats, and Slim,” Gastronomica, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring 2008), pp. 13. For more on Mississippi foodways and the blues, see Living Blues magazine’s Sept/Oct 2014 issue “Travelling the Mississippi Blues Trail.”

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