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Highway 61: America's Musical Roadtrip

Sun Studios
Sun Studios

Story and Photos by Tony Bonyata

The story of American music, from early blues to gospel, jazz, zydeco and even rock 'n' roll, can be traced directly from one long, winding road that stretches north of Chicago all the way down to the old port city of New Orleans. Highway 61, a road that follows the bends and twists of the great Mississippi River for over 1,000 miles has become more than just a concrete means of transportation. It's a myth - a legend that has been sung about, lived on, toiled on and died on. It's a road where pacts with the Devil were made, where ghosts dripping with the blood and sweat of black slaves and sharecroppers still seem to hover over vast cotton fields. It's a road that not only harbored the cradles of jazz and blues music, but also saw an early rebellious American music known as rock 'n roll take it's first steps.
While America is fast becoming one big strip mall peddling Big Macs and double latte grandes, Highway 61 is one of the few remaining vestiges that still retains some of the flavor of our country's past. It remains one of this country's great roadtrips. And for music lovers it could just be, quite possibly, the ultimate vacation [I know for this music lover it was].
While jazz and blues moved up to cities like Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit via Highway 61 during the Great Migration of blacks during the first half of the 20th century, the meat of this particular roadtrip starts in Memphis, Tennessee and ends up in New Orleans, Louisiana. One of the best times of the year to make this trek is in the early spring, when temperatures in the South are pleasant and the foliage is in full bloom.
Memphis has more musical influences than just about any other city on this trip - except for maybe New Orleans. Blues, gospel and country have been a part of this city's musical heritage for most of the last decade. And because Memphis proved to be the perfect breeding ground for the marriage of these different styles, another unique American music was born - rock 'n' roll.
A trip to Memphis without making a few required stops wouldn't do justice to either the city or yourself. A couple of these are obvious, while some aren't quite as apparent.
Elvis' grave Love him or hate him, no first-time Memphis trip would be complete without visiting Graceland, the home of the late Elvis Presley. One of the most visited houses in the country, second to only the White House, Graceland was purchased by Presley in 1957 for $100,000 and called it home until his untimely death in 1977. While much of the original decor smacks of bad '70s taste (from the funky Jungle Room, which features a ceiling covered in shag carpet, to the blue, gold and white Dining Room with mirror covered walls), it's what, nonetheless, makes this trip so much fun. While a prerecorded audio tour of Priscilla Presley guides you through the mansion (which, by the way, seems much smaller in person than on T.V.) you get to see where Elvis ate, entertained and relaxed with his guests and family. But don't even think about going upstairs. This was off limits to guests when he was alive and remains so for visitors today. The one-hour tour ends appropriately at the Meditation Garden, where Elvis is buried. Originally laid to rest next to his mother in Memphis' Forest Hill cemetery, both remains were later moved to Graceland due to vandalism at this public cemetery. You will also see the graves of Elvis' father, Vernon, and his still stillborn brother in the garden (the latter who's body actually still resides in Tupelo, MS.). Immediately after leaving the gates of the mansion, you may want to stop across the street at the Elvis diner for one of the King's favorite snacks - a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich (delicious, yes, but by sandwich-end you may need to let the seams out of your jumpsuit as well).
Not only Elvis fans, but lovers of early rock n' roll and rockabilly will have to pull over for a stop at Sun Studios on Union Avenue. It was in this very studio, still complete with original acoustical ceiling and wall tile, that studio owner Sam Phillips discovered and recorded a young Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. While Graceland is nostalgic and kitschy, the tour of Sun evokes a magic all it's own, as the presence of some of these early legends in the tight confines of the recording studio can still be felt today (which is probably why modern artists such as U2 and Beck have also recorded here - trying to soak up a little of that rock 'n' roll magic). Beale Street, despite the suspicion that franchised-USA is fast moving in, features most of the nightly music in the city. Although a little slower on the weekdays, Beale Street attracts the all-night party crowd on the weekends with its loud, lively music, beer and food (don't miss the barbecued ribs and sandwiches that this city offers - especially at the favorite downtown hotspot Rendezvous).
Rev. Al Green Gospel One of the most overlooked attractions in Memphis is not an attraction at all, per se, but rather a place of worship. Starting at about 11:00 every Sunday morning and lasting up to 4 hours Rev. Al Green unleashes a soulful service at the Full Gospel Church on Hale Rd. Surely, you remember the Reverend? He was the artist in the '70s with the smooth, soulful voice that sang hits such as "Let's Stay Together," "Call Me" and "Take Me To The River," before leaving behind the sin of drink, drugs and sex in favor of singing the praises of God. And sing Rev. Al does, as he still proves to have all the vocal power and passionate soul of his youth. Of course, his 14-piece female choir of gospel singers, fellow whirling dervish deacons and a congregation of followers sobbing and speaking in strange tongues in the name of the Lord certainly didn't hurt at creating a memorable, moving experience. It just ain't a Sunday in Memphis unless you're dancing, clapping and singing with Rev. Al and his black Baptist brethren. It may not be James Brown giving a sermon in The Blues Brothers, but it's not far off, and with Al Green you get the real 'honest to God' deal.
Driving down Highway 61 from Memphis you immediately cross over into Mississippi and enter what is known as the Delta region of the state. While once barren of everything but cottonfields and gin mills the road is now host to scads of billboards advertising all of the new casinos in the Tunica area. Cotton may have once been king in this agriculturally rich region, but the sounds of tractors and field hollers have given way to slot machines and roulette tables.
Delta Blues Museum Just beyond Tunica is the heart of the Delta - Clarksdale, Mississippi. It was in this fertile city that so many famous blues musicians honed their raw style of music. Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Charley Patton, Son House, Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf and countless others either lived in Clarksdale or performed there regularly in the early to middle 1900s, making it the blues hub for the region.
It was here in the heart of Clarksdale at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 where it is rumored that bluesman Robert Johnson traded his soul to the Devil in exchange for talent and fame. While it may be nothing more than a far fetched story, all it takes is just one listen to Johnson's bone-chilling music recorded back in 1936 to start, at least partially, believing in the myth.
While live music in Clarksdale is becoming scarce on the weekdays - probably due to the casinos in the area - there are still a few small juke joints that rev up on Friday and Saturday nights. A good place to start for information on the history of the blues is the Delta Blues Museum, which is now appropriately housed in the old Clarksdale train station (the very station that railed the talents of Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf and hundreds of other bluesmen up north during the Great Migration. The museum features videos and historical artifacts that traces the development of the blues. They even have Muddy Water's boyhood log cabin home from Stovall, Mississippi on display.
Dockery Farms Before leaving the Mississippi Delta, blues historians and those who just want to feel that Delta mojo at work, may want to stop off at Dockery Farms and Charley Patton's final resting place. It was at Dockery Farms, a large cotton plantation near Cleveland, Mississippi, that it is said by historians that the Delta blues were formed. Owned and operated by Will Dockery in the late 1800s and early 1900s, famed bluesmen Henry Sloan, Charley Patton, Son House and Tommy Johnson all used to play fish fries, parties and picnics at the tenant's quarters of the farm. When visiting the original cotton gin on the Dockery grounds today you can almost hear the growling, ghostly blues of Charley Patton emulating from the gin's timbers.
Charley Patton's grave A little further down south on 61, heading east on Highway 82 into the tiny town of Holly Ridge, sits the grave site of Charley Patton. Patton died in Holly Ridge in 1934 and, like many Southern blacks in the '20s and '30s, was buried without a proper headstone. In 1991 a large headstone was placed atop his grave. While some blues historians doubt the exact location of Patton's actual place of rest, bluesmen Honeyboy Edwards claims otherwise. "I know he's buried there," Edwards recently explained. "I was there a week or two after they buried him. I come through there when I was 19 years old." Despite the fact that the tiny cemetery is difficult to find and that the grounds are overgrown with knee-high weeds, his grave is, nonetheless, covered with guitar picks and bottles of whiskey and beer left from adoring fans looking to improve their musical prowess without any soul-swapping with Beelzebub [I, in fact, had a beer with Charlie a few weeks ago and damned if my guitar playing hasn't progressed from downright horrible to barely tolerable].
After leaving Mississippi and driving down Louisiana the next musical stop leads to Baton Rouge and west on I-10 to Lafayette for the highly spirited sounds of Cajun and zydeco music. With European influences Cajun music, featuring guitars, fiddles and accordions to a two-step waltz rhythm, was created by white Acadians in the early part of the last century. Zydeco was the black offshoot of Cajun music which incorporated a much faster rhythm, making it more raucous and lively than it's Cajun cousin.
As the Mississippi River spills out into the Gulf of Mexico, Highway 61 spills into the vibrant, historic streets of New Orleans.
Louis Armstrong statue More than any other city in the world, New Orleans is know as the jazz city. This is where it all began. Artists such as Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong made history here with their influential sounds early last century. It's this early form of jazz music, now referred to as Trad, Traditional or Dixieland Jazz, that still keeps jazz purists flocking to the Crescent City. Although dingy, and uncomfortable, the mecca for these music lovers is Preservation Hall in the French Quarter. Other than just a couple of bench seats in this dark, tiny room, it's standing room only. But once the music starts, there's not a soul that cares. This is jazz in it's most unadulterated form - as it might have been heard some 75 or more years ago.
Preservation Hall Not that traditional jazz is all that this city has to offer musically. R&B, marching brass bands, soul and funk have all made serious dents in this city's culture as well. While one only needs to walk down the lively and bawdy Bourbon Street to get a taste of just about any music style imaginable, there are two clubs outside of the French Quarter that contain the essence and spontaneity of New Orleans' broad musical culture. The Maple Leaf Bar, a hip uptown club teeming with locals in search of something real, features a wealth of music but is highlighted on Tuesday nights when The Rebirth Brass Band heats things up with their horn heavy, brassy street sounds. The second club actually isn't a club at all, but rather a bowling alley. The Maple Leaf BarWhen owner John Blancher decided to add the lively sounds of cajun, swing, R&B and rock to his Mid-City Rock 'n' Bowl he created a unique entertainment spot that has seen the likes of Mick Jagger, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Cruise come through to bowl, drink and dance the night away. The key night to really get your ya-ya's out, though, is on Thursdays when the infectious sounds of local zydeco bands turn the joint upside down. Just don't be surprised when the whole place goes up for grabs as the furious rhythms of the music incites the crowd to dance in the lanes and two-step on the ball returns.
As far as food goes in the Big Easy, there are hundreds of great restaurants that serve some of the most unique dishes in the world, from pricey, world class establishments like Commander's Palace, Antoine's and Brennan's to relatively inexpensive joints, such as The Praline Connection (fried chicken and greens), Johnny Po-Boys and Mother's (roast beef or soft-shell crab po-boy sandwiches), Acme Oyster House (raw oysters, boiled crawfish or gumbo in a bread bowl) or Uglesich's (oysters - any way you want!). With so much great food to choose from, deciding what and where to eat can be as difficult as planning which club and musical act to catch. (A word of warning: If you plan on staying in New Orleans for more than two days, either lose 10 lbs. before your visit or bring lots of loose fitting clothes. Although well worth it, expansion will occur.)
If you, like this author, are deep into the roots of American music than it's high time you pack up the car and, as Bob Dylan once put it, "just take everything down to Highway 61" for a taste of where our great musical heritage was born.

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