A road trip down U.S. Highway 61 is both a literal and historical journey through music history.
Route 66, the storied American highway that connected Chicago to Los Angeles beginning in 1926 and ending with its decommissioning in 1985, found its place in popular culture in the early twentieth century through songs, television programs, and books that inspired countless cross-country road trips.
But a different federal route, one also canonized in contemporary works of art yet less well known, deserves at least as much recognition for its contributions to American music and culture.
U.S. Highway 61, which parallels the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Minnesota — and nicknamed the “blues highway” for its 200-mile run through the heart of the Mississippi Delta, birthplace of the blues — has been referenced by blues artists since the genre exploded into the public consciousness.
Roosevelt Sykes recorded his “Highway 61 Blues” in 1932, and artists like Son Thomas, Honeyboy Edwards, Big Joe Williams, and Mississippi Fred McDowell have all recorded songs about 61. It even inspired Bob Dylan’s classic 1965 album, “Highway 61 Revisited.” Today, much of the corridor’s music history is preserved thanks to museums and historical markers that line its path through Mississippi.
On the banks of the Sunflower River in the upper Delta, Clarksdale became a major center in the cotton trade in the 1800s. A community of Black sharecroppers numbering in the thousands gave the city its artistic soul through blues music, which developed from field hollers into a distinct form of expression.
According to legend, seminal blues artist Robert Johnson was a pretty good guitar player until one moonlit meeting at an unnamed Delta crossroads, assumed in modern times to be the intersection of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale. There, he traded his soul for the wicked talent listeners can hear on “King of the Delta Blues Singers,” a compilation of his recordings made in the 1930s.
According to legend, seminal blues artist Robert Johnson was a pretty good guitar player until one moonlit meeting at an unnamed Delta crossroads, assumed in modern times to be the intersection of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale.
By then, many Black sharecroppers working on farms such as Hopson Plantation were taking the Illinois Central railroad north to find work in cities like Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago. Bluesmen Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and others weren’t far behind, taking their rural Delta blues to Chicago where its electrified version became the sound of the city’s south side. Today, that railroad depot houses the Delta Blues Museum.
Forty-some miles south of Clarksdale, thousands of Black farmers lived and worked on Dockery Plantation, another key location in the development of the blues. Here, just outside of Cleveland, early blues pioneer Charley Patton, along with Tommy Johnson and Roebuck “Pops” Staples, later of the gospel group The Staples Singers, woodshedded the music that became known as the blues. Dockery was also a popular stopping point for traveling musicians.
In 2016, the Recording Academy recognized Mississippi’s contribution to popular music by dedicating the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi in Cleveland. The center not only celebrates the music that came from this region through exhibits and artifacts, but also inspires new generations of artists through interactive educational programs.
The museum’s latest exhibit, “Highway 61: Traveling America’s Music Highway,” takes visitors from Congo Square and Preservation Hall in New Orleans up through the Delta, Memphis, and St. Louis, following the journeys of musicians who met and exchanged ideas along the Blues Highway. Curated and designed locally as part of the 50th anniversary of the Recording Academy’s Memphis chapter, the exhibit displays artifacts such as handwritten lyrics, instruments and outfits from artists including Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Son Thomas, and Conway Twitty.
“This exhibit is really one of a kind, and takes visitors on a journey down what could be considered music’s most important and famous road,” says Emily Havens, executive director of the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi. “It explores music sites and celebrates the artists that played major roles in shaping America’s music history.”
Down the road in Leland, bluesman Pat Thomas — son of James Henry “Son” Thomas, who first recorded in 1968 and toured the world — is sweeping the entryway to the Highway 61 Blues Museum on North Broad Street. Billy Johnson, who runs the museum, has had a lifetime backstage pass to the blues and the artists who came through his parents’ drug store during its heyday here.
“They sold Marine band harmonicas, Stella guitars, and picks and strings,” says Johnson, while Thomas picks a blues tune on an acoustic guitar for a couple visiting from Israel. The walls are lined with memorabilia and photographs captured by Bill Steber and Johnson himself, a testament to several decades spent in the blues. Displays include the Peavey Razer guitar played by T-Model Ford, who lived in nearby Greenville, and a door signed by Johnny Winter, whose family owned a business in town.
Nearby on McGee Street, a Blues Trail sign marks where Ruby’s Nite Spot once stood. Run by Ruby Edwards in the 1940s and the 1950s — before she bought Club Ebony in Indianola, which recently reopened as part of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center — the Chitlin’ Circuit club hosted acts including Little Richard, Ike Turner, and Little Milton.
The Delta may end at Vicksburg where the hills meet the Mississippi River, but the music that made Highway 61 famous continues. Old 61, now known as Washington Street and the business spur of the current highway, draws visitors to the bluffs and riverfront of downtown Vicksburg. A 300-foot-long series of murals along the Yazoo River canal tell the region’s history — and one in particular celebrates the life and music of native son Willie Dixon, pictured playing upright bass guitar at the storied Blue Room club.
“Willie Dixon is legendary,” says Shirley Waring, president of the Vicksburg Blues Society and a Blues Hall of Fame ambassador, as she pulls onto Willie Dixon Way a few blocks south of the mural. “He wrote over 500 songs, and most rock bands are influenced by him.” Dixon’s music heavily influenced 1960s British Invasion bands like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Cream, as well as American groups like The Doors and The Grateful Dead, all of whom performed or recorded his songs.
Nearby on Washington Street, Michel’s Music still sells blues records and musical instruments, as it has since opening in 1962. Founder Michel Fedell grew up with Dixon along Main Street, where they played in the neighborhood streets and made music together. In his later years, Dixon frequented the music shop when he was in town.
“Willie was amazing,” says Timmie Fedell, Michel’s wife who still operates the shop today. “He used to come in and jam with us, and we’d get a group of people to come play with him. He’d try to teach people different licks.”
Pictures of Dixon and artists like Tyrone Davis, Little Milton, and Johnnie Taylor now line the walls at Michel’s Music, and a guitar autographed by Dixon rests in a display case near the performance stage, where Fedell keeps an old wooden stool he used when he played here.
Farther south in Natchez, established in 1716 by French colonists at the site of a large Native American settlement, blues and jazz musician Bud Scott found fame in the early 20th century, followed by harmonicist Papa Lightfoot in the 1940s and the Ealey Brothers in the 1960s. You’ll find Mississippi Blues Trail markers for all three, but the city’s most famous entry in blues history arrived via tragedy.
The Rhythm Club on St. Catherine Street was an important stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the informal network of mostly Black-owned clubs where African Americans could safely gather for food, fellowship, and entertainment during the Jim Crow era in the U.S.
On April 23, 1940, hundreds of revelers at the Rhythm Club were dancing and enjoying music performed by Walter Barnes and his Kings of Swing orchestra when a fire erupted and quickly engulfed the building. More than 200 people died in the fire — including Barnes and his bandmates, who kept the music going in hopes of calming those trying to make a swift but orderly exit — and the tragedy became known as the Natchez Burning.
Looking to make your own journey down Highway 61? Visit msbluestrail.org for a complete list of historic blues stops along Highway 61.