The Delta Blues Museum, the world’s first museum devoted to blues, was founded on January 31, 1979, by Sid Graves, director of Clarksdale’s Carnegie Public Library. Originally housed in a room of the Myrtle Hall Elementary School, the museum moved to the library in 1981 and to this location, a former railroad depot, in 1999. Exhibits here have paid long overdue tribute to the history of the blues, while the museum’s education program has trained many young musicians to carry the blues into the future.
The Delta Blues Museum (DBM) developed into a world-renowned attraction and a major component in building the blues tourism industry in Mississippi, but in the beginning the DBM attracted only about one visitor a month. Library director Sid Graves (1946-2005) established the museum at the Myrtle Hall branch library (later annexed by the Myrtle Hall III school) at 1109 N. State Street, and took the small collection of exhibits home with him each night for security. The visitor count rose as the museum relocated to the main library at 114 Delta Avenue in 1981, expanded into its own adjoining wing in 1996, and moved into the old Y&MV/Illinois Central freight depot in 1999, when the City of Clarksdale took over administration of the DBM from the library board. The depot’s North Edwards Street address was redesignated as No. 1 Blues Alley. Including paid admissions and attendance at free events, the museum drew an estimated 25,000 visitors in 2012. The DBM was a 2013 finalist for the National Medal for Museum and Library Service.
The rock band ZZ Top played a key role in raising funds for the museum in 1988. The band’s guitarist, Billy Gibbons, had some “Muddywood” guitars constructed from fallen boards he found at the house where Muddy Waters once lived on the Stovall plantation. One of the guitars was displayed at Hard Rock Cafes around the world and became a permanent exhibit at the museum. With the cooperation of the Stovall family, the house was later disassembled, restored, taken on tour by the House of Blues nightclub chain, and eventually moved to the museum. ZZ Top and many other rock and blues bands performed at benefits for the DBM over the years. A Muddy Waters wing was added to the museum in 2012. Other blues artists featured in DBM displays have included Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Big Joe Williams, Little Milton, B.B. King, Big Mama Thornton, Charlie Musselwhite, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Ike Turner, and Bo Diddley. Noted photographers, sculptors, and folk artists have exhibited their works here, and many authors, scholars, and musicians have participated in panel discussions, presentations, and book signings. The lawn of the DBM on Delta Avenue once served as the acoustic stage of the Sunflower River Blues Festival, and the primary festival stage on Blues Alley adjacent to the museum was built in 1999.
The DBM made important commitments to perpetuating the blues in addition to documenting its vast historical legacy. Local bluesmen Johnnie Billington, Michael “Dr. Mike” James, and Big Jack Johnson were among the instructors in the first Delta Blues Education Program, which began in 1992. Many students in the program have performed in festivals and concerts, both locally and on tour.