Many of these blues legends started out by performing at picnics, house-rent parties and Saturday-night fish fries throughout the Delta. But to find any kind of fame they had to leave the Delta, catching the train to Memphis before heading on to Chicago, Detroit or one of the other big cities in the north.
Their songs often tell of life in this harshest of landscapes. They knew about the blues, because they lived them. The songs of the pre-war bluesmen have a stark reality that at times got softened after they left the Delta, but, as the old saying goes, “You can take the man out of the Delta, but you’ll never take the Delta from the man.”
As John Grisham wrote in his foreword to Visualizing The Blues: “suffering gave rise to creativity”. Those men (and a few women) who grew up in the Delta and began playing the blues did so not to make money but to escape. If you get the chance, visit the Delta and drive Highway 61. You will not be disappointed. The music will instantly mean so much more, and the visual stimuli will live with you forever.
The life of Clarksdale blues legend John Lee Hooker is celebrated in the 5CD box set King Of The Boogie, which can be purchased here.
Planning a road trip? Here are 13 unmissable spots in and around Highway 61:
Rhythm Night Club
5 St Catherine Street, Natchez, Mississippi
No longer an actual night club, this small memorial building commemorates the Natchez fire of 23 April 1940, during which over 200 people died. Blues fans the world over will know of the tragedy, as recounted in Howlin’ Wolf’s famous 1956 recoring, ‘The Natchez Burning’.
Catfish Row Museum
913 Washington Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi
Taking in the history of the city founded on the Mississippi River, Catfish Row Museum introduces visitors to not only the music that grew from the area, but its rich heritage in food, religion and the visual arts.
Highway 61 Blues Museum
307 North Broad Street, Leland, Mississippi
A small but welcoming site, Highway 61 Blues Museum has taken residency in the Old Montgomery Hotel, and is part of a wider community effort to remember the Delta blues, including a series of local murals commissioned by the Leland Blues Project.
Charley Patton’s grave
Holly Ridge Cemetery, Holly Ridge Road, Mississippi
Fittingly remembered as “The Voice Of The Delta” on his gravestone, Patton’s marker requires a small detour away from the main attractions along Highway 61, but is well worth a visit to pay respect to the man who started it all.
BB King Museum
400 Second Street, Indianola, Mississippi
With live events and exhibits tracing the legendary bluesman’s rise the museum is a must-visit tribute to the man born Riley B King.
Robert Johnson gravestones
Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Money Road, Greenwood, Mississippi
Three separate markers in three separate Greenwood cemeteries purport to mark the final resting place of the world’s first blues legend: Sony erected an obelisk-shaped one at Mount Zion in 1991, while ZZ Top paid for another, situated on the grounds of Payne Chapel. Tantalisingly, the one at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church came with provenance from a Rosie Eksridge, who, aged 85 in 2000, claimed that her husband, Tom “Peter Rabbit” Eskridge, buried Johnson’s body at the back of the cemetery, in August 1938.
229 MS-8, Cleveland, Mississippi
A 25,600-acre cotton plantation and sawmill, Dockery Farms was situated on the Sunflower River, on Highway 8, between Cleveland and Ruleville. Recently named a Mississippi Landmark, the site is generally considered the birthplace of the blues; sharecroppers working for Will Dockery would live together in boarding houses, where they would play the music that took shape as the blues. The “Founder Of The Delta Blues”, Charley Patton was one of the earliest settlers at Dockery, through Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Pops Staples also passed through, soaking up influences and forming their own styles. The site is now owned by the Dockery Farms Foundation and is open to visitors, with private tours available if booked in advance.
GRAMMY Museum Mississippi
800 West Sunflower Road, Cleveland, Mississippi
Though the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi casts a wide net, celebrating not only all the music to come out of the state, but also staging exhibitions that have offered insight to The Beatles, the history of the electric guitar, and Texas bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, there is, of course, a deep look at the blues – and its influence on jazz, rock’n’roll and hip-hop.
599 North State Street, Clarksdale, Mississippi
Though the original, mythical crossroads that inspired Robert Johnson’s song and kick-started a legend has long been lost to history, the marker at the crossroads between Highway 61 and Highway 49 offers an essential photo opportunity.
Delta Blues Museum
1 Blues Alley, Clarksdale, Missisippi
Founded in 1979, the Delta Blues Museum is now situated in the Clarksdale freight depot, which dates back to 1918. With a collection of original 78s, themed movie nights and an engaging timetable of exhibits, the museum is an essential stop in “the land where blues began”.
615 Sunflower Avenue, Clarksdale, Mississippi
Since 1944, the Riverside has been a regular stop for travelling musicians, among them the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson II and Ike Turner. Before that it was the GT Thomas Hospital, infamous for being the place where “empress of the blues” Bessie Smith died, on 26 September 1937, after suffering injuries from a car crash.
4146 Oakhurst Stovall Road, Clarksdale, Mississippi
Located just outside Clarksdale, Stovall Farms is where Muddy Waters lived for much of his early life – and, most importantly, where he was recorded by Alan Lomax between 1941 and 1942. The actual building in which he lived is now preserved in the Delta Blues Museum.
BB King’s Blues Club
143 Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee
One of several BB Kings Blues Clubs across the US, the Beale Street venue was the first, opened in 1991, in the heart of the live music district in Memphis.