We recently traveled a portion of Route 61, famously known as The Blues Highway, from New Orleans to Memphis. Along this route, blues, jazz, soul, and gospel has poured and spread out like rain over the flat Mississippi Delta. After the Civil War and up through the Civil Rights Movement, social temperatures were hot, new voices emerged and were heard for the first time through music, lyrics and rhythm.
Here a few of the Blues Highway voices you may recognize BB King, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Sunnyland Slim.
We hopped on the highway in Baton Rouge, Louisiana rolled up to our first stop in Indianola, Mississippi. We were fortunate to have a free night stay at the BB King Museum, arranged through Harvest Host. If you ever decide to road trip, make this your go-to resource. You can find free places to park throughout North America at rad locations including farms, vineyards, breweries, museums, etc. The only thing they ask is that you spend some money at the location, i.e. grab a beer or a glass of wine. So far, our stays have consistently enriched our experience on the road.
For this stay, we slept in the museum parking lot, camping alongside the BB King tour bus. I tried to harness some music magic vibes through some intent staring and walking around the bus with my guitar in hand.
The museum itself, cast a light not only on his remarkable career but on the necessity and importance of the blues. This along with the other stops we made along Route 61 made it clear that the music was the packaging for a larger story, a greater endeavor. The music was the sound of a culture, of pride and growth, sadness and love. The music seemed to carry a truth that had not yet been heard. To me, music is often the best vessel for truth.
We left Mr. King and moved onto Memphis, where we stayed six days and could easily have stayed more. It was a fast romance. From the live music, museums, and the general feeling of potential, we could see our lives there.
Not only did we take in the must-sees such as Beale Street and the Stax Museum, which was incredible, we took in the everyday beat of the city. We went on drives, took walks, worked in coffee shops and ate at several vegetarian/vegan restaurants. I point this out only because we were surprised at how raging the health food trend is in Memphis.
To round off our tourist activities we became professional tourists and made the trip out to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. This is an important stop for many and as we generally like Elvis, thought, we are here so why not? Well here’s why not, sorry if you’re a die hard. It is expensive, overly crowded and slightly underwhelming. The main attraction is a tour through his house, which you would imagine to be an intimate experience, yet it was just sincerely awkward. You are prodded through the main floor of his home, as well as the basement with the guidance of an iPad. The thing that stuck out most to me was how under the weather most people are. The tour was overwhelmed by the sound of sniffley noses and coughing and the subsequent feeling of their warm, infected breath as we shuffled along.
You are then guided to a separate building on the property which is set up like a museum with letters, receipts, pictures and clothing. We quickly noted how controlled and contrived the content of the museum was, which in many ways is understandable given that his family has an interest in how he is perceived. Still it felt like an artifice and an expensive one at that. Ending on a good note we both made it out without catching the diseases everyone else had. I normally steer clear of the negative but feel compelled to be honest, particularly since a lot of mullah is at stake.
We hopped off the Blues Highway after Memphis. Our time on Route 61 was mostly influenced by the museums we visited. The highway is not contained in a time capsule and much has changed since its heyday. At the height of the blues age, the sounds were new, inventive and ingenious. The Blues Highway gave artists whose voices had been suppressed, a grand stage to play on and be heard. It was important. I imagine it had a feeling like a spotlight shining suddenly in a dark room. Like here I am and I am radiant.
Blues, jazz, soul and gospel are still as important as ever, still telling radical truths. The Blues Highway still has a purpose, but it has evolved. We found that the museums, primarily the BB King and Stax Museum offered us a way to feel a little deeper, to better understand, the impact of the music. A walk down Beale Street today is different from a walk down Beale Street when it was the main performance space. Being a sentimentalist with a good imagination I am still glad we took that walk and the trip in general, if only to better put the music in context, to see where it began.
Being a musician myself, I couldn’t leave Memphis without telling a new story in my favorite setting. When in Memphis write music.
I sing a song for you.