Mississippi’s culture runs as deep as the waters of the river that forms its western border. A profound connection to the land, a history perforated with conflict and reconciliation, and lauded institutions ranging from the University of Mississippi to the blues clubs of the Delta all make for a state where raw creativity is incubated across all strata of society.
From the Gulf Coast to the cotton fields and small towns of the Delta upriver, Mississippi’s contributions to the American patchwork of art and culture are as diverse as the state itself. These are the best places to experience Mississippi art and culture.
The start of the song
The Mississippi Delta is the birthplace of the blues, the progenitor of all modern American pop music, and by extension, much of the world’s contemporary music. While New Orleans jazz gave the world improvisation and syncopated rhythms, the blues demonstrated the sheer sonic utility of a guitar and simple yet powerful lyricism.
Such a genre of music could only have been born under a unique set of physical and cultural circumstances. Few conditions are as iconic as the Mississippi Delta, a land of low horizons, gothic landscapes of cotton fields and river shacks, and an almost feudal economy built first on slavery, and then on tenant farming. African Americans inevitably occupied the bottom rung of the social ladder, but they utilized a guitar heritage and call-and-response lyrics learned in the fields to forge a style of music that has never lost its raw potency.
Today, blues sites and experiences are an almost ubiquitous element of travel in the Delta. For a grounding in the history of the genre, and to experience the biography of a legend who brought it to the world, head to Indianola and the BB King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, a fine, contemporary museum that is an excellent primer on the subject of the blues and, of course, BB King. The famous musician grew up in this area, supporting his family in their sharecropping fields before moving on to his illustrative career.
Down to the Crossroads
From here head north to Clarksdale, something of a magnet city for the Delta blues and home of the famed ‘Clarksdale Crossroads’. According to legend, it was this spot where blues singer Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for his sinful amount of talent. Before you get to the Crossroads, make sure to stop at Tutwiler. Here you’ll find the Tutwiler Tracks mural, which depicts almost mythological blues figures such as W.C. Handy, popularly known as the father of the blues.
In Clarksdale, blues shows still pop off on a regular basis at Red’s, a tiny sweatbox often packed with blues fans from around the world. If you want a more spacious venue (Red’s can be tough on claustrophobes), head to Ground Zero, a huge, modern showcase for blues music that nonetheless can feel as intimate or exciting as a set at Red’s. The enjoyable, relatively small Delta Blues Museum underlines much of the subject matter covered at the BB King Museum. In the morning grab a coffee with a local musician; the blues players hang out in, and sometimes work in, the Bluesberry Cafe, a greasy spoon where live music is served alongside platters of eggs and homefries.
Other music museums and monuments
There’s a Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, and another in... Cleveland, Mississippi? Indeed, the musical accomplishments of Mississippians are long and varied. The Grammy Museum Mississippi is a modern, 28,000-square-foot facility packed with interactive exhibits, including legendary instruments and producing ‘pods’ where visitors can get a hands-on experience at creating a contemporary pop track.
One of the newest major attractions in the state is the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience in Meridian, which celebrates Mississippians’ achievements in arts and culture across a wide variety of fields, including music. Six themes – Land, Community, Home, Church, People + Places, and Global Community – are explored via some 15 permanent exhibits and a hall of fame dedicated to Mississippi luminaries ranging from Elvis Presley to Morgan Freeman.
An artistic coast
Mississippi’s Gulf Coast ranges from sandy beaches to casinos to little artist enclaves like Bay St Louis, which is also home to a large contingent of scientists, researchers and engineers attached to NASA’s Stennis Space Center. On weekends, little Bay St Louis attracts crowds of visitors who revel in the area’s art galleries and craft stores.
Two museums on the coast are dedicated to Mississippians who exemplify the state’s individualistic approach to the arts. In Biloxi, the funky, Frank Gehry–designed Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art celebrates enormous, eccentric ceramic output of master potter and Biloxi native George Ohr. Other exhibits concentrate on the creative culture of the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast, a region that produced visionary painter Walter Anderson.
Anderson is well known for his sun-dappled, impressionistic paintings of the Gulf Coast, and his naturalist art is on display at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs. This airy space, infused with natural light, has the feel of a beach house crossed with a museum, a fitting home for work associated with an artist who was strongly inspired by the region’s ecology.
Southerners have a reputation as storytellers, and Mississippians are no exception. Radio programs like Thacker Mountain Radio Hour showcase storytellers from radio personalities to front-porch yarn spinners (as well as excellent local music). Oxford is also home of the University of Mississippi – aka ‘Ole Miss’ – famed for its Creative Writing program. On the Ole Miss campus, literature fans should head to Rowan Oak, the 1840s home of author William Faulkner. Geography and sense of place infused Faulkner’s writing, and this historic home, hidden in the woods, was part of the author’s ‘postage stamp of native soil’ that inspired his work.
Within Oxford itself, the literati can often be found hanging around the town’s famous square, or knocking back drinks at the upstairs bar of City Grocery, or sometimes just hanging out amidst the shelves at Square Books.
Going to Jackson
Mississippi’s capital and largest city, Jackson features an abundance of museums and cultural institutions. The Museum of Mississippi History gives a broad dive into the state’s past; for deeper engagement on a specific topic, head to the Smith Robertson Museum. This spot was once the first African American school in the state, and is known as the alma mater of great author Richard Wright. Finally, the lovely Mississippi Museum of Art shows off the state in all its physical beauty, a fitting end to this trip through the state’s most iconic cultural institutions.
Lonely Planet has produced this article for Visit Mississippi. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.