Bobby Troup wrote those words in 1946, making Route 66 the most famous road in American musical mythology. But perhaps that honor should belong to another of the great thoroughfares that snakes its way across the United States — Route 61. The road might be less known and less heralded, but it might best represent the musical soul of the country.
The road traverses 1,400 miles of country between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Wyoming, Minnesota, and largely traces the path of the Mississippi River.
Route 61 begins in New Orleans, where jazz was born. And if you want to see where it was conceived, head to Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park, in the now famous Treme district.
During the 18th century when Louisiana was controlled by France and then Spain, slaves would gather at Congo Square on Sundays to sing, dance and play music.
They would play African drums, which often were banned on plantations, thereby bringing the rhythms of Africa to America. Congo Square links the African music of the 18th century with almost every song you hear on the radio today.
New Orleans is full of musical history, but if you want to see something a little different, head out of the city to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, one of the most mythologized places in the blues. Chain gangs would have worked on the highways here while men waited to die on the prison’s notorious death row. Also known as Angola and “the Alcatraz of the South,” Louisiana State Penitentiary was the prison where Lead Belly served time for attempted murder and where he was “discovered” by John and Alan Lomax, the famous folklorists.
Angola is also the prison that Steven King had in mind when the wrote “The Green Mile.” It’s a place with a dark history that features strongly in blues mythology, being specifically mentioned in the much-covered “Junco Partner.” A version is featured on The Clash’s “Sandinista.” There’s a museum just outside the prison that has a real electric chair.
On the road into Natchez, another 50 miles up Route 61, keep an eye out for Mammy’s Cupboard, a restaurant set inside a 28-foot-tall woman. Natchez’s main interest to blues fans is the Rhythm Club Fire (or Natchez Dance Hall Holocaust), a terrible fire that killed over 200 people in April 1940. The fire started when a discarded match caused a blaze that spread quickly via the Spanish moss hung from the rafters of the club. The rafters had been doused with a petroleum-based insecticide.
The terrible event soon passed into blues folklore, spawning songs such as Howlin’ Wolf’s “The Natchez Burnin´” and John Lee Hooker’s “The Natchez Fire.”
Head north to find two other favorite locations for Johnson’s mythical midnight tryst with the devil. Dockery Farms, a former 10,000-acre plantation, is three hours north of Natchez on Highway 61.
Situated 6 miles east of Cleveland on MS-8, Dockery used to provide work for about 2,000 men, including Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House and Pops Staples. It’s rightly regarded as the birthplace of the delta blues and is another contender for the site of the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.
The most popular site for Johnson’s Faustian transaction, however, is the crossroads of Route 61 and Route 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Clarksdale couldn’t be richer in blues history. Bessie Smith died in a hospital that is now the Riverside Hotel as a result of a car accident on Highway 61. W.C. Handy lived here while collecting and popularizing blues songs at the start of the 20th century.
There’s the Delta Blues Museum, the Ground Zero Blues Club (co-owned by Morgan Freeman) and eight miles out of town is Muddy Waters’ Cabin on the old Stovall Plantation. What remains of the cabin now stands in the Delta Blues Museum, but before it was moved, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top used several pieces of wood from the cabin to make his famous “Muddywood” guitar.
After leaving Clarksdale, it's only an hour and a half to Memphis. Packed with musical and cultural sites, such as Sun Studios, Graceland, Beale Street and the National Civil Rights Museum, the city has plenty to keep you entertained. One place that might not be on the tourist maps is Lansky Bros, the clothes store where Elvis bought his suits. No longer situated on Beale Street, it can now be found a couple blocks from its original location inside the grand Peabody Hotel. Buy clothes based on what Elvis wore, and take some time to see the Peabody ducks making their daily journey from the hotel’s roof to the lobby's fountain.
If you do go to Beale Street, be sure to visit the A.Scwhab store, the only remaining original business on the street. The store specializes in voodoo paraphernalia, dry goods and tourist memorabilia.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Tooher is an occasional writer who earns his living teaching English in southern Spain. At 18, he started deejaying and putting on bands, which led to a close relationship with Primal Scream and a job with Creation Records. He was one of MOJO‘s initial team of writers and also worked for a short period for Ultimate Records, before working for Alan McGee again as the content editor of the Poptones website. He now mainly writes sleeve notes for old soul and rock ’n' roll reissues.