Driving the Blues Highway

U.S. 61 takes you into the heart of Delta blues, one of the South's great gifts to American music.
Valerie Fraser

The Delta. Just the name conjures images of river-fed dirt the color of dark chocolate, endless rows of cotton, and a tabletop flatness that goes on forever. The air is heavy, and the heat makes you want to go someplace dark and cool. Maybe that's where juke joints came from.

It's surely where the blues came from. Blues music sprang up like Johnsongrass in towns such as Clarksdale, Cleveland, and Greenville. Like tributaries of the Mississippi, they shoot off U.S. 61, "the Blues Highway," which winds its way through the western part of the state, saturating the landscape with some of the best music in America. Retracing the steps of early Delta bluesmen along 61 is not just a road trip--it's a pilgrimage. And it should begin in Memphis on Beale Street after dark.

Beale is Bourbon Street's calm cousin--more Elvis, less triple-X. You can find the grit and power of true blues in places such as B.B. King's Blues Club, where a packed house gathers nightly to hear a new generation of musicians conjure the spirits of sons of the Delta.

I began my journey heading south on U.S. 61. Before I knew it, the concrete and congestion of the city evaporated into the wide-open spaces of the Delta. About the time I started marveling at the untouched timelessness of the landscape--just north of Tunica, Mississippi--casinos sprang up right in the middle of cottonfields.

It's worth a detour primarily because one of those casinos, the Horseshoe, is home to the Blues & Legends Hall of Fame Museum. You'll find artifacts from the early days of blues as well as memorabilia from the careers of Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and Bonnie Raitt.

There's more blues to discover down the road in Clarksdale's historic Blues Alley District, where you'll find the Delta Blues Museum. Still farther south, the Cleveland-Bolivar County Chamber of Commerce offers travelers a street map and guide to blues attractions in and around town.

My last stop on the Blues Highway was Greenville, which hosts the annual Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival the third Saturday in September. Even if you don't go for the festival, Greenville is a worthy stop. On Walnut Street, there's a wonderful hotel, the Greenville Inn & Suites. It's within walking distance of restaurants and clubs, and the staff can give you good directions to Doe's Eat Place, a Greenville landmark with tamales and 5-acre steaks. (Sharing is allowed.)

The next morning, as you head out of the Delta, pop a little B.B. King into the CD player, and don't be afraid to sing along. B.B. won't mind.

For More Information
Coahoma County Tourism Commission (Clarksdale): 1-800-626-3764.
Cleveland/Bolivar County Chamber of Commerce/Tourism: 1-800-295-7473.
Greenville/Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-800-467-3582.
Tunica County Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-888-488-6422.

"Driving the Blues Highway" is from the November 2001 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.