It has been called “The Main Street Of The Delta” – and it’s not hard to see why. Highway 61 runs for 1,400 miles (2,300km) between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Wyoming, Minnesota. For our purposes, we will concentrate on the section from “The Cradle Of Jazz” to Memphis, often dubbed “The Highway Of The Blues”, the area that is broadly defined as the Mississippi Delta.
The Delta begins at Vicksburg, 300 miles from the mouth of the river, extending for 250 miles northwards to Memphis. The vast almond-shaped alluvial plain was formed from thousands of years of flooding by the mighty Mississippi in the west and the smaller Yazoo River in the east. This vast lush plain, “flat as a griddle”, is cotton country.
Until 1820, the Delta was an undeveloped area of hardwood forest. Around 1835, settlers began to clear the Delta so that cotton could be grown. After the Civil War, the land was completely cleared and plantations were developed across the length and breadth of the Delta. The Delta became the catalyst, an unrelenting environment from which the only outcome could have been the blues.
On 27 November 1936, in San Antonio, Texas, Robert Johnson recorded his ‘Crossroad Blues’, which was the genesis of his legend and the ongoing fascination with Highway 61. It’s the legend of Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads, probably on Highway 61, and has preoccupied almost everyone in blues and rock’n’roll for the last 80 years.
The legend causes current residents of the Delta to roll their eyes when asked by eager blues tourists to tell them where they can find the crossroads. Others, of course, do not bother asking. They just go to the junction of Highway 61 and Highway 49 and have their photograph taken. What they do not realise is the current crossroads of the two highways is at least half a mile from the one that would have existed in Johnson’s lifetime. In any event, there were no actual crossroads, Johnson was singing of a mythical place.
Bob Dylan’s 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited fuelled the interstate’s legend still further, and in the intervening years between Johnson’s classic recording and Dylan’s revisiting, blues songs by Mississippi Fred McDowell (‘61 Highway’), and Roosevelt Sykes, Jack Kelly & His South Memphis Jug Band and Will Batts (‘Highway 61 Blues’) have added to the mythology.
The blues introduced itself to the world from Memphis. Moving up Mississippi’s Highway 61, it found a home on Beale Street, the legendary musical haven and centre of African-American culture in Memphis and the surrounding region.
In the 20s, labels including Columbia, OKeh, Victor and Bluebird headed to Memphis and had their scouts put out the word that if you had some good songs to perform then you should present yourself during a specific time. Among those that answered the call were The Memphis Jug Band, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Frank Stokes, Ishman Bracey, Tommy Johnson and Sleepy John Estes. Later, in 1941, Alan Lomax went to Stovall’s Plantation, near Clarksdale, to record Muddy Waters for the very first time.
Those that were born within spitting distance of Highway 61 really does read like a who’s who of the blues.
In and around Jackson: Bo Carter, Elmore James, Ishman Bracey, Tommy Johnson and Charley Patton.
Vicksburg: Willie Dixon
Forest: Arthur Crudup
Yazoo City: Tommy McClennan
Belzoni: Otis Spann
Leland: Jimmy Read
Indianola: BB King and Albert King
Scott: Big Bill Broonzy
Teoc: Mississippi John Hurt
Ruleville: Jimmy Rogers
Glendora: Sonny Boy Williamson
Vance: Sunnyland Slim
Clarksdale: John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, Little Junior Parker, Willie Brown
Stovall: Eddie Boyd
Riverton: Son House
Tunica: James Cotton
Hernando: Robert Wilkins
Horn Lake: Big Walter Horton
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 nightclub, 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 recording, ‘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.