Highway 61 revisited

Clarksdale, Mississippi 

With Bob Dylan named as the next recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, it is more than a little appropriate that this post’s title pays homage to his classic 1965 album, itself a tribute to the stretch of tarmac also known as the ‘Blues Highway’. 

The famous road runs vertically across the continental United States, almost as significant a geographical landmark as Old Man River himself. Its southern terminus is in downtown New Orleans and from that junction it follows the course of the Mississippi almost to the Canadian border.

In its northern-most reaches you will find a small town called Duluth, Minnesota, where in 1941, a curly-haired Jewish kid called Robert Zimmerman was born. But despite his birthplace being along the route, it is Dylan’s musical heroes for which the highway is better known. 

When you enter Mississippi via the long, wooden bridge from Louisiana, a large blue sign informs you that you have reached the “birthplace of American music”.

The claim is easily justified.

The state was once home to some of the most important names in the nation’s musical history, and particularly to the bluesmen of the river’s delta: BB King, Charley Patton, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters to name but a few. 

The influence of these Mississippians cannot be overstated. They popularised the simple folk poems, tales of woe and guitar riffs of this region, sending them upstream to Memphis, St Louis and Chicago, where they were electrified and commercialised and morphed into what became known as rock ’n’ roll. 

Meanwhile, across the pond, their gruff and gravelly tunes were being listened to with an almost religious zeal by teenagers with names like John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. 

Mostly the descendants of African slaves, brought to this place to conduct manual labour in the vast, humid cottonfields, many of these blues music icons started life as farmhands and sharecroppers in the tenant farms that sprouted here following emancipation. 

Some of them went on to become millionaires and travel the globe sharing their craft, while others hardly left the vicinity of  Highway 61, their recordings only to be discovered following their death. 

Their music married the ancient griot and songhai traditions of West Africa with the gospel hymns of American Christianity and their own hard-lived experience of work and play, love and loss.

As Clapton surmised upon Muddy Waters’ induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, “[they] changed my life, and whether you know it or like it, [they] probably changed yours too.” 

There is a magical quality to travelling along this highway and through its quiet, dusty backroads and sleepy townships. The air is filled with history and the faces marked with incredible character and story. 

Stories like that of Robert Johnson – one of my personal favourite bluesmen – who, according to local legend, went “down the crossroads” where Highways 61 and 49 intersect and sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for virtuoso guitar skills. 

But there are just as many stories here of hardship and economic depression, with few tourists  – and tourist dollars – for somewhere that has influenced culture around the world.

The introduction of machine cropping in the mid-forties put many of the farmers out of work, forcing them to pack up their families, fables and Fenders and head for the then-booming cities of the north. 

For those that stayed behind, life here remains simple but hard, as it has always been. Many of the shopfronts are boarded up, the existing, faded museums and record stores more a labour of passion than profit. 

That is why, like Mecca for Muslims, those that care about the blues and rock ’n’ roll should consider a visit to this place mandatory. 

It is a pilgrimage that pays homage not only to the music that has enriched so many lives but to the influence that African-American culture has had on modern America and the world, and to the belief that through unspeakable injustice, art and innovation can be born. 

In July, Willie Seaberry, the colourful owner of Po’ Monkey’s (one of the last remaining traditional juke joints, just off Highway 61) passed away. The future of the iconic shack and holy site for blues fans is uncertain, as is the storied culture it represents. 

With so much on offer in this vast land – and so much of it concentrated on the two glittering coasts – it can be difficult for a tourist to prioritise something like the ‘Blues Trail’.

But for those that would love to drive down this particular memory lane, you better get there soon.

‘Cos the times they are a’changing.

Merigold, MS - 3/12/2015 - Willie Seaberry has operated Po' Monkey's Lounge, a juke joint in his home, since 1963. The Mississippi Blues Trail marker on the property reads: "The rural juke joint played an integral role in the development of the blues, offering a distinctly secular space for people to socialize, dance, and forget their everyday troubles. While many such jukes once dotted the cotton fields of the Delta countryside, Poí Monkeyís was one of the relatively few to survive into the 21st century. Initially frequented by locals, Poí Monkeyís became a destination point for blues tourists from around the world during the 1990s."
Willie Seaberry outside Po’ Monkey, one of the last juke joints in the Mississippi Delta. Image source:    Al Jazeera America

Published on 24 October 2016


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