Rolling Down the Blues Highway

Enjoy Mississippi's musical history by visiting spots like the Delta Blues Museum and Po' Monkey's juke joint.

Courtesy of Stax Museum
Courtesy of Stax Museum

(The Root) — The music known as the blues was born in the Mississippi Delta, nurtured on the blood, sweat and tears of African Americans toiling in the fertile fields along the mighty river. Early blues legends such as Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon took the sorrow and anguish of poor blacks in the Deep South and created a sound that would help ease their suffering. They would also create a musical genre that influenced all other genres — jazz, soul, country, even rock and roll.

Travelers who want to learn more about the blues could start anywhere in Mississippi — the entire state is peppered with historic landmarks dedicated to celebrating its musical legacy. There are countless self-guided walking and driving tours, guided tours and tours that offer a taste of the region’s culinary traditions as well as music. Of course, if you want to plan your own blues road trip, there’s an app for that.

One of the easiest ways to experience blues history is to take a road trip along Highway 61, dubbed the Blues Highway because it follows the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Wyoming, Minn. A key segment of the highway runs through the Delta between Memphis, Tenn., and Vicksburg, Miss. It served as a thoroughfare for blues musicians heading north to places like Detroit, Chicago and New York, where the Delta blues would be reshaped and redefined into other compelling sounds.

It makes sense to start a blues tour at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, since soul’s foundation is rooted in the blues and blues’ better half, gospel music. Housed in a movie theater in “Soulsville, USA,” Stax Records was home to legendary soul artists Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Sam & Dave. The museum features more than 2,000 artifacts, interactive exhibits and memorabilia tracking the label’s musical legacy.

Heading south, travelers will come across “the Crossroads,” where Highway 61 and Highway 49 meet in Clarksdale, Miss. One of the most famous intersections in music history, the Crossroads is supposedly the spot where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become a guitar master. A recent Radiolab segment shed some compelling light on how one of music’s most enduring myths came into existence.

Also in Clarksdale is the Delta Blues Museum. Located in the city’s historic freight depot, the museum is home to artifacts, instruments and recordings by blues’ most iconic figures. The permanent collection includes exhibits devoted to Muddy Waters; Big Mama Thornton — who made “Hound Dog” famous before Elvis; B.B. King; and John Lee Hooker.