U. S. Highway 61, known as the "Blues Highway," rivals Route 66 as one of the most famous roads in American music lore. The music known as the Blues was born in the Mississippi Delta, nurtured on the blood, sweat and tears of African Americans toiling in the fertile fields along the mighty river. Early blues legends such as Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon took the sorrow and anguish of poor blacks in the Deep South and created a sound that would help ease their suffering. Dozens of blues artists have recorded songs about Highway 61, including Mississippians Sunnyland Slim, James “Son” Thomas & “Honeyboy” Edwards.
A great way to experience the blues history is to take a road trip along Highway 61, as it follows the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Wyoming, Minn (1,400 miles, 2,300kms). A key segment of the highway runs through the Delta between Memphis, Tenn., and Vicksburg, Miss. This is the section we traveled.
A delta is the sediment that forms at the mouth of a river as it diverges into several outlets - but in this case the "Delta" is a region in northern Mississippi that lies between the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers and is known for its cotton and blues music. It is also called the Yazoo Delta or Mississippi Delta.
There are many interesting stops along the Delta Blues Hwy. The Stax Museum of American Soul in Memphis, Delta Blues Museum, Poor Monkey Lounge, Muddy Waters Birthplace in Rolling Fork, Miss., The Crossroads (Hwy’s 61 & 49), Shack Up Inn & Rust Restaurant and Ground Zero Blues Club - all these stops will give you a great sense of the geography and culture that formed the Blues Music.
Although there are many stops to be made along the Hwy, I would say Clarksdale may be the most interesting. It is definitely a town that has seen better days with more abandoned buildings and storefronts then open ones. But in-spite of that, what does remain definitely gives you a sense of the history that formed the Delta Blues Music.
Just outside Clarksdale you will find an a unique group of buildings that were once an active cotton plantation - The Hobson Plantation. Virtually unchanged from when it was a working plantation, you will find authentic sharecropper shacks, the original cotton gin and seed houses and other outbuildings. You will glimpse plantation life, as it existed only a few short years ago. In addition, you will find one of the first mechanized cotton pickers, manufactured by International Harvester.
The Shack Up Inn and Rust Restaurant and Bar have to be one of the most eclectic places I've ever been. The walls are filled with antiques and memorabilia. You can just imagine the place rocking when a live band is playing. We had a lunch with collard greens and just soaked up the atmosphere.
Another must see in Clarksdale is the Groud Zero Blues Club. Part owned by Morgan Freeman (the actor), this seems to be the heart of the Blues music scene in Clarksdale. They have a restaurant and an open mike night each week. Some of the Mississippi Delta's most famous Blues musicians have played there.
When we stopped at Ground Zero it was closed but one of the Delta's popular Blues artist was hanging around the front entrance - Josh Razorblades Stewart. He was quite a character and ready to tell us all about how the Blues music got started. Check out this Youtube video of him singing one of his songs, at The Ground Zero Blues Club. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7dg7_KZ10w
Is a road trip along the Delta Blues Highway a worthy excursion, for sure. I hope these pictures and descriptions will get you off the interstate highway and explore a side road where the Delta Blues Music was born...