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Highway 61, stuck with the Memphis blues
With Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ playing on the car stereo, we travel the 1,600km from Chicago to New Orleans, backwards along the route taken by the pioneers of the blues.
Sweet Home Chicago, sang Robert Johnson, king of the Delta blues. And it’s the Windy City that’s the starting point for our journey along the Blues Highway. Though overshadowed by its sister Route 66, Highway 61 undoubtedly has the better playlist.
The biggest city of Illinois is home to many famous recording studios among them Chess Records, where countless blues legends have passed through, not to mention figures from jazz, rock and house, from Muddy Waters to Curtis Mayfield. Alongside the wealth of famous studios, the city is also home to a wide selection of bars and clubs where you can listen to live music, from Buddy Guy’s Legends—a club and restaurant offering Louisiana cuisine, where the musician still plays every January—to the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. With its jazz programme and Mafia speakeasy ambience, this was a favourite of Al Capone, and has since been the set for films like High Fidelity.
At Sun Studio, you can take a selfie with the microphone Elvis used.
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The mechanical mother of blues
Hopson plantation, Clarksdale, was the first to install a cotton picker, forcing workers on the Mississippi Delta to move north to make a living. That is how blues spread. Nowadays, the plantation is home to the Shack Up Inn, offering bed & beer.
Leaving the Chicago skyscrapers behind us, our next big stop is St. Louis, Missouri, whose ice hockey team just happens to be called the St. Louis Blues. This year, the National Blues Museum opened in the city, at Gateway Arch: 7,000 square metres of exhibition space, a stage and the chance for the visitor to create their own album to take home as a souvenir.
Any true music lover would need several days in Memphis to discover everything Tennessee has to offer. You can look for that gin-soaked, bar-room queen the Honky Tonk Woman, from The Rolling Stones records, or travel through the history of music, from gospel to soul, at Stax Records. Or how about bearing witness to the birth of rock at Sun Studios, or learn of the legend of B.B. King, at his bar on Beale Street? As well as its musical legacy, it’s impossible to miss the mark Martin Luther King made on this city following his assassination at the Lorraine Motel, 1968. Today it is home to the National Civil Rights Museum.
The Shack Up Inn, on the former Hopson plantation, provides accommodation and drink for those seeking the roots of blues.
Photo: Dawlad Ast / Visualhunt
We continue along the course of the Mississippi river, driven on by music. An alternative to the white steamboats that still run down the iconic river, Route 61 crosses the states of Mississippi and Louisiana amid cotton fields and plantations. Some of them, like Woodland and Oak Alley, offer accommodation and a place to enjoy a glass of spicy Southern Comfort bourbon. Alternatively, there are towns with blues in their souls, like Clarksdale and Greenville. Motels along the road have bibles open at the page the previous guest read.
Elvis is buried in the Meditation Garden, Graceland, alongside his parents and grandmother.
The roads here are dead straight, with very little traffic, punctuated by crossroads where you can sell your soul to the Devil to become a good guitarist, even if the preachers Bourbon Street – “God loves you, but he created hell for those who don’t love him” – would warn against it. While, in the Storyville district, scarcely a trace is left of Jelly Roll Morton and the musicians who lived there, the sinners strolling the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans will pass musicians on every corner. Because, as they say in cult TV series Treme, shot in New Orleans, “There is music at every important time in our lives: birth, marriage and death.” And not even a hurricane is going to change that.