A Musical Journey Down Highway 61


Travel is an important element in music. Many songs have been written about different cities. Some are written about states or countries. And then there are the songs about highways.  Perhaps the most famous of these is one about getting your kicks on Route 66. Today I want to look at another highway that has played an important part in American music. I want to travel U.S. Highway 61.

Highway 61 was a main route connecting the northern state of Minnesota to the southern states of Mississippi and Louisiana. It currently runs about 1400 miles from New Orleans, Louisiana to Wyoming, Minnesota.

Highway 61 is often called the Blues Highway because dozens of blues singers have written and sung about the highway. Traveling is a big part of the blues, and Highway 61 is one of the most traveled highways as the singer packs his bag and his old guitar and heads north or south, getting away from his blues.

Robert Johnson via pinterest via wikimedia commons

Legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a mastery of the blues at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Robert Johnson died at the age of 27 and had little commercial success during his lifetime. Re-releases of his recordings in the early 1960s brought his music to a new audience.  He has been an influence to many modern rock musicians and was one of the artists first inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

Bessie Smith, another legendary blues singer, died along Highway 61 between the cities of Clarksdale, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. Life and death are all part of the mystique of Highway 61.

St. Louis sits along Highway 61 and holds a special place in our musical history. The most popular blues song in history is W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”.  Chuck Berry, Miles Davis and Ike and Tina Turner started their musical road along Highway 61 in St. Louis.

B.B. King’s Blues Club via Egghead06 via wikimedia commons

Many other cities along Highway 61 are noted for their music. Memphis is the home of Sun Records and the city where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash got their starts.  Beale Street in Memphis is still alive with the sound of the blues. The history of music is rich and colorful in Memphis, Tennessee.

Travel further south and you will reach New Orleans. New Orleans is practically the home of American music. Whether it is jazz, blues, Cajun, or rock and roll, it came out of New Orleans.  Known as the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans has its own style known as Dixieland. Check out Louis Armstrong, Pete Fountain or the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to hear authentic New Orleans jazz. If you want rhythm and blues or rock and roll, you do not have to go any further than Fats Domino or Aaron Neville. Music is ingrained in the soul of New Orleans and was fed by the soul of the travelers down Highway 61.

Fats Domino via Masahiro Sumori via wikimedia commons

In 1965 a young Bob Dylan issued an album called Highway 61 Revisited. At the time the highway still reached his birthplace in Duluth, Minnesota.  The album was the first completely electric album from Dylan. It was rock and roll, but the blues of the Mississippi Delta was lurking in the music. Now Highway 61 was the electric blues highway.

There are a lot of interstate highways now, and Highway 61 is probably considered to be more of a back road these days. But if you want to take a trip to discover the roots of American music, all you need to do is head down Highway 61.

Next: I Was Born a Rambling Man

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