The Heart of the Blues: Driving Highway 61

November 13, 2011

Kat: In 1965 the great (but not late) Bob Dylan released an album that would become one of the most influential of all time: Highway 61 Revisited. It contained one of his most well known songs, Like a Rolling Stone, and combined the blues and rock sensibility he was known for. Dylan himself lived near the highway for a time, hitching rides to shows. 61 is the blues line, a road full of music that defines a nation; Elvis, Muddy Waters, BB King, the list goes on.

Highway 61 runs from north to south along the Mississippi river, the geography becoming so entwined in the history and cultural development of the area.

Natchez, Mississippi

Our first stop along the line was the historical town of Natchez. While the river there is lined with steamboat casinos, we made our way to the Vicksburg National Military Park, remembering the decisive battle of the Civil War in a 16 mile circuit of the battlefield. It’s eerie in these places; often you can feel the sentiment of the dead, the same as I felt at the Omaha beaches. You know that hundreds of people died here, and you can almost feel their presence while you walk amongst the memorials.

Leland, Mississippi

We journeyed past Greenville to Leland, a small town not known for much but a guy who made a frog fall for a pig. Jim Henson was born here and lived out his early years, with a best friend named… Kermit! You can really see the Mississippi influence on the Muppets, particularly in the opening of the Muppet Movie where Kermit sings in a swamp. Having grown up on the Muppets I really loved the small but interesting museum here, complete with an original Kermit the Frog.

Why are there so many songs about rainbows?

The other highlight of Leland was the Highway 61 Blues museum. While blues has expanded to a world-wide musical form, you won’t have heard of the people who practice the art form best. They line the juke joints on a Saturday night, musicians who could easily carry a following in bigger cities but choose to live in the place blues belongs: the Mississippi Delta. We met one of these musicians on a lazy Saturday afternoon, playing at the museum and stopped to listen for a while to the growling voice and out of tune guitar. Proof you don’t need a top instrument to be a top musician. He chatted to us for a while about his family. Many of the musicians out here come from complete poverty; one musician was born in a cotton field because his mother couldn’t get time off. He lived optimistically despite going blind and losing his legs.

Clarksdale, Mississippi

Up to Clarksdale where it’s rumored Robert Johnson, the legendary blues musician, sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. We spent the night at the Riverside Hotel where Bessie Smith died. It was previously a hospital, now it’s run by a guy named Rat (who was getting a little old and senile…). That night we hung out at Red’s, a jumping juke joint where we danced and listened to some howling blues. Like the singer said, Saturday nights are for the blues, Sunday mornings are for church.


And what a chuch we chose… we were the only two white people in the Church of God in Christ, a church made of everything you’d think belongs in a Black Southern Baptist association. Hallelujahs and Amens. Check. Tambourine shaking. Check. Preacher doing a James Brown dance. Check. We had a great time, but after two and a half hours of intense clapping we were exhausted! We slipped out the back door and drove to Memphis.

Add Your Comment