The Route 66 Association of France visited the Cleveland community Oct. 15 to experience authentic blues culture in the Mississippi Delta. Cleveland was one of several stops the group made as part of a three-week music heritage tour from Chicago to New Orleans.
The Delta Center for Culture and Learning coordinated the visit in partnership with Cleveland Tourism and Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art in Clarksdale, calling it the “French Connection” Blues Experience.
“We wanted to give our French visitors a multifaceted experience that reflects the rich and diverse culture that lives within our region, which is the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area,” said Dr. Rolando Herts, director of the DCCL. “They saw the inside of our region’s most famous juke joint, Po Monkey’s. They heard blues played by famous regionally-based musicians, including Kingfish from Clarksdale and Pat Thomas from Leland. They had a Delta barbecue dinner at Sweets in downtown Cleveland. Several of them embraced our team at the end of the night, saying how much they loved all of it. And it all happened through community partnerships and collaboration.”
The evening began at Sweets BBQ Kitchen, a Delta-themed establishment decorated with local artwork by Melvin Kinney that pays homage to the region’s blues culture. Kingfish, a world-renowned 15-year-old blues prodigy, played and sang while members of Route 66 dined, danced and took photographs of their vibrant surroundings.
After dinner, the group made a pilgrimage to Po Monkey’s Lounge in Merigold, considered one of the last operating rural juke joints in the South. While there, they listened to folk blues artist Pat Thomas, who is featured in Roger Stolle’s The Hidden History of Mississippi Blues. The evening ended with a high-energy performance from Anthony “Big A” Sherrod & Blues Allstars, as seen in the documentary film “We Juke It Up In Here.” Big A staged a grand finale by inviting one of the Route 66 travelers to lead a show-stopping rendition of Little Milton’s “The Blues is Alright.”
The Route 66 Association of France has a significant connection with the Mississippi Delta. Robert Mauries, the organizer of the tour group and president of the Cahors Blues Festival, worked with the Mississippi Blues Commission to install a Mississippi Blues Trail marker in Cahors, France. According to the marker, French enthusiasts spurred international interest in African American music by releasing records, arranging tours and conducting pioneering research on jazz and blues throughout the 20th Century. The Cahors Blues Festival, established in 1982, has built upon this long tradition through its presentation of hundreds of musicians, including many from the state of Mississippi.
Cahors, France has one of two Mississippi Blues Trail markers currently located outside of the U.S. The second marker is located in Notodden, Norway.