There are many distinctive characteristics of the deep South of the States, but one in particular is so important that it has influenced not only American culture but also that of the whole world: music. Here, in the Deep South USA, in these green plains, rich in plantations and placid country roads, the Afro-American heritage has been able to give life to admirable artistic expressions, so much so as to give birth to the genres that have defined (and even distorted) popular music contemporary: blues, country, jazz and even rock'n 'roll were born here!
The first, the one from which according to many music critics all the others developed, is the real protagonist of today's itinerary. We will in fact route on the legendary Blues Highway, along the stages of the Blues Trail, retracing the birth of the blues in a journey that speaks of sadness, love, loneliness and desire for freedom.
Our itinerary starts from Memphis, the city of Elvis Presley, where the blues has become rock'n 'roll, crosses the heart of Mississippi Delta, the homeland of bluesmen, and ends in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the jazz capital of the world. The journey takes about 6 days, but can be shortened easily if you are willing to eliminate some stages. Are you ready to go? Good! But before starting a small introduction ...
- Blues Highway e Mississippi Blues Trail
- La via del Blues da Memphis a New Orleans
- Give Memphis to Clarksdale
- Environs of Clarskdale
- From Clarkdale to Vicksburg
- Da Vicksburg a New Orleans
- New Orleans
Blues Highway e Mississippi Blues Trail
La Highway 61, the so-called Blues Highway, is a road designed in 1926 that extends for 2300 km from New Orleans to the state of Minnesota, following more or less faithfully the course of the Mississippi River. It is part of the road system called Great River Road and in popular culture it is surrounded by a sort of mythical aura, a bit like Route 66, either for the many blues legends that surround it, or for the numerous references in pop culture (the most important is certainly the song and album by Bob Dylan Highway 61 Revisited from 1965). In reality, as is the case with many historical roads, the current one Route 61 it does not coincide with the original one as, over time, it has undergone many changes and variations.
The so-called Old Highway 61, at least for the section of our interest, it appears today as a long series of minor country roads west of the current US 61; following it may not be easy as the original stretch is not usually marked and the roads often have another name, however with google maps you can help as it often marks the road as Old Highway 61 (I recommend that you activate an internet rate for your mobile phone while traveling, if you don't know how to do it, read our guide on how to activate a prepaid SIM in the USA). As further support you can use the map provided in this article, where you will find all the GPS coordinates of the individual points of interest.
Along our journey in search of secondary and little-traveled country roads we will find the most authentic testimonies of the great bluesmen of the past, often truthful, sometimes supposed. These stages, at the crossroads between history and legend, are part of a path called Mississippi Blues Trail, which traces the historical places of the blues identifying them with clear signs, which also explain the importance of the place you are visiting. There are about 200 stages of the Trail, so we will not touch them all, also because in some there is not much left to see, but we will try not to miss the most significant ones both from a historical and symbolic point of view.
La via del Blues da Memphis a New Orleans
Let's start with one of the great cities of the South, home of rock'n'roll, a pilgrimage destination for many bluesmen and a springboard for many country music stars. The places to look for this unique blend of black and white music are more than one: first of all the Sun Studio, where they recorded the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins (who together composed the Million Dollar Quartet), Howlin 'Wolf, BB King, James Cotton and many others, but also the Memphis Rock’n’ Soul Museum, a museum managed by the Smithsonian Institute that traces the process of musical transformation that took place from the blues and rural gospel to the birth of soul music (by the way, if you are interested in the genre, there is another museum for you, it Stax Museum of American Soul Music, dedicated to the history of Stax, the famous soul music record company founded in Memphis in 1957).
But one of the most interesting things you can do in Memphis is to stroll around in the evening Beale Street, where bluesmen indulge themselves both inside and outside the many clubs of this lively street of music. Here you can enter some blues bars (for example the BB King's Blues Club or Rum Boogie Cafe), visit the house museum of the "father of the blues" W.C. Handy, to whom we owe the first publication of the genre in the canonical 12-bar form, and admire the exhibition of the legendaries Gibson guitars at the George W Lee Avenue store, a side street off Beale Street.Want to know more about Elvis?
In Memhpis and nearby Tupelo you will find the must-see attractions for every true Elvis lover, if you want to know more read our itinerary At Elvis's House: Tour from Tupelo to Memphis in the footsteps of the King!Want to find out what else there is to do in the city?
Read our guide on what to see in Memphis
Give Memphis to Clarksdale
If the blues was born in the countryside to "electrify" in the cities, we are making the journey a bit in reverse. After visiting one of the urban centers that contributed to the spread of the electric blues, it is time to take a step back in time, in search of the rural blues and the traces of its birth. We head towards Clarksdale, the town that is somewhat the epicenter of this itinerary, where legend has it that the great bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for talent. But first, along the way, some interesting stops await us ...
We border Tennessee into the state of Mississippi, where the urban context gives way to the countryside and the landscape becomes mainly agricultural. We go down south, towards Clarksdale and, 30 minutes from Memphis, our first stop awaits us, the small village of Walls, where in the cemetery of the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, the grave of Memphis Minnie awaits us, one of the first great women of the Blues celebrated by the Blues Trail sign just a few steps from the roadside.
From here we continue our tour along the Old Highway 61, present-day Blythe Road, which runs parallel to the railroad (and also to present-day US 61). After approximately 15 minutes, turn left onto Harrah's Parkway and then right onto Dunn Road (which becomes Kirby Road as you continue); you will find yourself in front of a building that resembles a historic one juke joint (typical place in the South where African Americans used to meet to play and dance), but it is actually the Visitors Center of Tunica, which also houses a small museum ideal for getting into the atmosphere. A photo of the structure and the sign is practically a must.
Resume the Old Highway 61, stop and read the commemorative sign dedicated to the bluesman Son House and go straight on the road, after 5 minutes by car it awaits you The Hollywood Cafe in Robinsonville, a Spartan "localaccio" with an authentic spirit, where many important musicians have performed, including Muriel Wilkins and Son House, and which proudly boasts of having invented the fried pickle (fried in beer batter with pepper and chilli ). After gorging yourself, continue south and get ready for an interesting detour: we head into Arkansas where one of the blues record shops not to be missed by fans awaits us, the Bubba’s Blues Corner by Helena. If like me you are nostalgic for those old-fashioned shops where you dust your fingers in search of a rare record, this is the place for you. From here to Clarksdale you can get there in just over half an hour along the current Highway 61, using the historic one it takes about 10 minutes.
Here we are in one of the most interesting towns of the whole itinerary, a real boon for those who love the blues due to the high concentration of places of interest in and around the city. Fortunately, it is also the city with the largest number of accommodations in the area, so it is here that it is advisable to spend the night, and here are 2 suitable accommodations to fully experience the atmosphere of our trip:
- Shack Up Inn: one of the most characteristic accommodations I have ever seen, inserted in an old plantation, you sleep inside the original buildings and often you have the opportunity to hear live bluesmen of a remarkable level, even if you decide not to sleep here, however, I recommend you take a detour.
- Riverside Hotel: a historic hotel that has hosted the great Delta musicians since 1944, some names? Sunny Boy Williamson II, Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk, Howlin 'Wolf and Muddy Waters.
For more "common" hotels take a look at this one list of hotels in the city.
Found our accommodation it's time to go around in search of the signs of the passage of the blues from this town and the most important is inevitably The Crossroads, where an unmistakable sign with 3 guitars recalls the intersection between Highway 61 and 49, where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil (but as we will see later we cannot be too sure…).
After the usual photo, my advice is to spend the day among the beautiful museums of the town, the Delta Blues Museum and Rock n’Roll & Blues Heritage Museum, not neglecting to drop by Cat head, the best place to find out about concerts in the city. In fact, the evening can only be dedicated to a live blues concert; there are many clubs, 2 tips? The Ground Zero Blues Club or Red's.
Environs of Clarskdale
But the blues also radiates around Clarksdale, so let's dive back into the rural landscape of the Mississippi Delta because there is so much more to discover: here is a circular route from west to east to get out and back to the city:
- rosedale: here we find 2 stages dedicated again to Robert Johnson; the intersection between Highway 1 and 8 is believed by some to be the real place where the dismal pact was to be celebrated (there is very little to see but the intersection itself), while, just over 500 meters, along the 1, we find instead another signal of the Blues Trail that recalls a song by the famous bluesman (They're red hot) which spoke of a woman selling Tamales (dish of Mexican cuisine). All that remains is to enter the room in front (White Front Cafe Joe’s Hot Tamale Place) and taste one!
- After 'Monkey's Lounge: in the county of Bolivar, just outside Merigold, you will find one of the few authentic Juke ventures to have survived the twentieth century, although unfortunately also closed in recent years. Despite this, the place continues to be a pilgrimage destination for blues lovers and tourists seeking to capture the true spirit of the Mississippi Delta.
- Dockery Farms: this plantation of 1895 was one of the first centers of diffusion of the blues (many consider it a bit the cradle of the genre); for 30 years it was somewhat the home of Charley Patton, who here learned from Henry Sloan and influenced many other great musicians who converged there, including Howlin 'Wolf.
- Tutwiler: Heading north to Clarksdale take the opportunity to make a quick stop in the village of Tutwiler, where, near the station, WC Handy listened to a bluesman who gave him the inspiration for writing a blues in 12 bars on 3 chords with AAB pattern . This is a fundamental passage in the history of the blues, which from oral tradition was transcribed on paper and thus spread far beyond the borders of the Mississippi countryside. THE Tutwiler Tracks, of the murals near the railway, they are there to remember the event. Nearby you will also find the tomb of Sonny Boy Williamson, where fans leave harmonicas, whiskey bottles and candles as gifts.
From Clarkdale to Vicksburg
It is time to leave and continue our search for the tracks of the blues; we head towards Vicksburg but most of the places of interest are along the way, so let's keep our eyes peeled ...
Still Robert Johnson, it is inevitable to return to him. If there is no certainty as to where is the crossroads where he would mysteriously acquire his talent, still less do we have as to where he is buried. As many as 3 cemeteries compete for the body of the great bluesman and it is worthwhile to visit each one, in this order:
- Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Money Road, Greenwood, MS 38930
- Payne Chapel Church, 32830 County Road 167, Itta Bena, MS 38941
- Mount Zion Church, Sidon, MS 38954
Next stop? Leland, where we have to look for the corner between Highway 61 and 10, where many blues musicians from the surrounding countryside performed to scrape together a few coins, but also theHighway 61 Blues Museum it's an interesting attraction, especially for learning about local bluesmen. But the best museum in the area is definitely the B.B. King Museum by Indianola, which traces the life and influence of one of the greatest exponents in the history of the blues. In the city then do not miss the opportunity to make a visit to Club Ebony, one of the most important night clubs in the South, where the likes of Ray Charles, Count Basie, BB King (who bought it in 2008), Little Milton and Albert King performed; the venue is part of the Chitlin 'Circuit, a network of nightclubs run by African Americans that over the years has given the opportunity to perform for many bluesmen in the area.
Once in Vicksburg it's time to enjoy a well deserved rest, here's one list with all the accommodations available in the city.Still not enough for you?
If you want to have a real indigestion of historic blues places, know that in Avalon, County Carroll, about 30 minutes from the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, is the tomb of Mississippi John Hurt, while in Bentonia, about 50 minutes from Vicksburg, is the Blue Front Café, a real institution among the historic blues clubs.
(photo by NatalieMaynor)
Da Vicksburg a New Orleans
After having refreshed ourselves, let's take a quick look at one of the most bizarre and unlikely sites of our itinerary: Margaret’s Grocery and Market. Once, this country grocery was run by Reverend Dennis and his wife Margaret, who one day decided to turn it into a real pilgrimage destination for on the road lovers, with decorations and colorful structures on the edge of the kitsch and historical references to none other than the Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately today the site is in ruins and is experiencing a decadent phase, however the Mississippi Folk Art Foundation is planning to restore it.
We continue towards New Orleans, the final destination of our journey, but along the way there will be some stops where to stop, for example theOld Country Store near Natchez, an old farmhouse converted into a restaurant where Mr. D prepares what for the inhabitants of the area is the best fried chicken in the world, or the LSU Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana State University open-air museum which is in effect a reconstruction of a typical rural town in the South, an evocative experience to understand how the communities of the past lived and from which contexts the blues was born.
Continuing south, approximately 50 minutes from the rural life museum, you will find the Oak Alley Plantation, one of the most famous plantations in the whole of the South, dating back to 1837, where many African Americans worked as slaves. It is one of the most relevant historical testimonies of the genre, very interesting to visit and an option to be evaluated also as an overnight stay. But perhaps, one hour from the finish line, the most comfortable accommodation is to be found in New Orleans; you will find many tips on this in our guide on where to sleep in New Orleans.Don't have enough yet?
Then know that in Ferriday, at 712 Louisiana Avenue there is the birthplace of Jerry Lee Lewis waiting for you!
So here we are at our destination, New Orleans, the city of jazz, where our itinerary is completed by integrating with its latest musical ingredient. Whether you are a lover of this musical genre or not, the city has a very special charm and undoubtedly deserves a thorough visit; on this site we have already dealt with the topic and I therefore refer you to our section dedicated to the city, which you can read by clicking on the button below:
Guide to New Orleans