HIGHWAY 61: RELEVANCE OVER RHYME
Abe says, “Man, you must be putting me on!”
God says, “No?”
Abe says, “What?”
God says, “You can do what you want, Abe,
But next time you see me you better run.”
Abe says, “Where do you want this killing done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”
Highway 61, paralleling the Mississippi River throughout the state bearing its name, was the road pre-civil rights era field workers followed north seeking a better life and more tolerant culture with guitars strapped to their backs. Memphis was the first stop of this gradual cultural dispersion that crept on to St. Louis before finding a home in Chicago. In this Midwestern Mecca the blues went electric and flourished into an artistic movement that swept the world; thus, many folks—even old blues songwriters—assume that Highway 61 runs to Chicago when in actuality it ends in northern Minnesota near Bob Dylan’s childhood home (which is appropriate since that’s where the river and my journey began). In fact, one of Dylan’s greatest and most influential albums was titled Highway 61 Revisited, containing a song thus titled.
While Route 66 is better known because of a catchy rhyme (Get your kicks…), Highway 61 is the most storied route in American music. As I penetrated the Mississippi delta along this fabled corridor I relished this extension of my reverse journey through music history (Cargo flowed south with the current but culture swam upstream!), looking for stops along ‘The Mississippi blues Trail’. The Blues Trail is not a trail at all, but rather a collection of historical markers, museums, and birth sites of famous musicians spanning the entire state. The official map displays hundreds of sites in every corner of the state, leaving little area uncovered; therefore I decided to hit a few highlights.
While glancing down the list of birth sites, however, I was surprised to learn that truly every blues great I could think of from the twenties through the seventies was born in Mississippi except for Buddy Guy, who was born just across the border in Louisiana: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Albert King, Freddie King, Son House, Elmore James, W.C. Handy, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Lighting Hopkin’, and on and on and on. When Mississippi claims to be the birthplace of the blues, it is being quite literal. There isn’t even a second pace contender!
NOT ENOUGH MEAT ON THE BONE (THE DELTA BLUES MUSEUM)
The first noteworthy site I passed was in Tunica, which brands itself ‘The Gateway to the Blues.’ The town has converted an old trains depot into a visitor’s center which makes a rustically appealing photo backdrop. One of the friendly staff even came out and snapped a picture for me, though, inside the depot was more a really cool gift shop than educational center so I continued on to an intersection just outside of Clarksdale which is one of several claiming to be the crossroads where, according to blues lore, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to learn how to play guitar. It is a great—if ridiculous—story and I had fun taking a great but ridiculous photo before driving into town to visit the Delta Blues Museum.
Clarksdale isn’t much to look at and the museum is a difficult to find and unremarkable in appearance. The entrance fee is reasonable, though I was a little miffed when they informed me they forbid photography. I requested some stock photos for the blog per their sign addressing the media, but they brushed me off (so I snuck a few pictures when no one was looking!)
Not that there was too much to photograph besides Muddy Water’s salvaged cabin. Waters’ story was told in some—if not elaborate–detail, but he was the only artist who received significant treatment. Displays on other artists were flimsy and revealed little that a moderately informed blues fan wouldn’t already know. More disappointing, the collection made little attempt to build a narrative to explain the birth and evolution of delta blues from a field hand’s diversion to a worldwide cultural institution. Instead, it was a random and spotty collection of artifacts and bios. Perhaps after my incredible Memphis musical ménage à trios of the previous day anything would have trouble measuring up, but I left feeling like the museum barely scraped the surface.
It was after lunchtime so I stuck my head in Morgan Freeman’s eclectically cluttered Ground Zero Blues Club across the road, but the place was empty and I decided to move on. The club featured live local music every night from ground zero of the blues, but there was little else in Clarksdale to hold me through the afternoon.
DISPERSED COTTON & FANTASTIC CLAIMS
It was too late to divert east of Highway 61 to B.B. King’s Birthplace and Museum in Indianola (for which I’d make a special trip), so I stopped for lunch at another famous barbecue joint located at the crossroads—Abe’s. It still couldn’t compete with my beloved Mojo’s in Jacksonville, though, so I continued south, stopping for a few historical markers along the way.
It was thrilling to drive through such cultural significant fertile countryside as the afternoon sun began to fall in the sky, but the fields where the blues were born are too dispersed to conjure the same sense of history as the condensed confines of Memphis. My next planned stop was The Dockery Plantation which claims to be the spot where cotton workers first gathered to develop their new form of music, but the signage directing the way was poor so I kept driving—I had enough photos at spots making fantastic claims and didn’t want to drive late into the night again after another disappointing detour. Besides, I was eager to reach Vicksburg where I had decided to pamper myself on the last night of my journey at a Bed & Breakfast after spending two soggy nights in a leaking tent!