The Blues Highway
US Route 61
US Route 61 or the Great River Road as it is also known is a 1400 mile long US highway that in general, follows the Mississippi River and runs from New Orleans in Louisiana to the State of Minnesota and the City of Wyoming. Route 61 is often referred to as the Blues Highway because of the route it takes through St Louis, Memphis, the Mississippi Delta and eventually New Orleans. Highway 61 carried poor rural musicians out of the dusty Mississippi cotton fields in the 1930s and ’40s. This ‘Blues Highway’ led them north towards Memphis and St. Louis, where audiences first clamoured for the raw, emotional singing and guitar. All along the old two-lane road through the Deep South, they worked, played and traveled northward seeking opportunity. Robert Johnson, one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the Blues is said to have made a ‘Deal with the Devil’ along this road, exchanging his soul for his talent on the crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 near Clarksdale. Early blues great Robert Johnson captures that longing in “Me and the Devil Blues,” when he sings, “You can bury my body down by the highway side so my ol’ evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.” Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, which he has said is the best thing he ever recorded, is another tribute to the power and influence of this asphalt stretch of music experience and history.
The historically richest stretch of U.S. 61 runs from Memphis, Tennessee to Leland, Mississippi, through the rural Mississippi River Delta: beautiful, fertile and heartbreaking–like the blues it spawned. Legend has it that Johnson, standing at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, sold his soul to the devil to become king of the blues. Today there is actually a crossed-guitars sculpture at the sign marking the crossroads. This heart of the Mississippi Blues Trail is 135 miles long, but the first portion, Memphis to Clarksdale, is only about 75 miles, and you can travel it as a day trip from Memphis. Both Clarksdale and Leland have many blues history sites and venues for contemporary artists, and Clarksdale especially can itself fill a day’s visit. Add to that the Delta scenery, and you’ve got a great mini-road trip or a several days’ excursion.
Clarksdale is one town that claims the title of birthplace of the blues. It was there, in the first years of the 20th century, that W.C. Handy, called the Father of the Blues, began melding the elements he heard in the music of fieldworkers, Black churches and traveling musicians of the region, whom he describes in his autobiography as “pouring their heart out in song.” It must be noted that many towns throughout the South and beyond lay claim to both blues birthplace and to Handy himself, and a road trip just following Handy’s history would take you to places as far apart as Chicago, Illinois, where Handy played in the 1893 World’s Fair, and Henderson, Kentucky, where he lived for a decade.
Clarksdale has also been home to other major blues musicians such as Muddy Waters, Junior Parker, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner and Sam Cooke, all of whom have lived or performed there. In Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum, housed in the town’s historic brick freight depot, you’ll find artifacts and old instruments from these and other blues musicians, including a must-see for blues fans: B. B. King’s guitar, Lucille. The town has other fantastic stops, whether you’re looking for more history (like blues radio station WROX) or juke joints featuring local, up-and-coming and headliner artists.
About an hour down U.S. 61 from Clarksdale is Leland, home to the Leland Blues Project, which includes another Blues Museum and a summer blues festival. Last summer, the 109th Mississippi Blues Trail marker (this gives you an idea of how seriously blues are taken here!) was unveiled, honoring Leland natives and blues/rock musicians and brothers Edgar and Johnny Winter.
Whether you decide you only have time for a daytrip or are able to head all the way down to New Orleans to see where blues and jazz come together, U.S. Highway 61 takes you on a fascinating journey through American music history.
Info Courtesy of Road Warrior
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