Highway 61 Visited: The Blues Highway of Mississippi – Day 1

Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn have all sang about it. And now, Sumoflam has driven it. US Highway 61 cuts down the middle of Mississippi, all the way from Memphis to Natchez and more.

Map of the Blues Highway (US 61) through Mississippi
Map of the Blues Highway (US 61) through Mississippi

Highway 61 is better known as “The Blues Highway” as many of the famed Blues musicians grew up along this swath of the state just east of the Mississippi River.

Sumoflam at the Blues Highway in Mississippi
Sumoflam at the Blues Highway in Mississippi

In July 2014 I had the opportunity to travel this famed highway from North to South, visit many of the small towns and learn more about Blues History. It was an amazing drive through rural Mississippi!

Alligator, Mississippi
Alligator, Mississippi

The highway, Route 61, actually extends 1407 miles north to south all the way from Wyoming, Minnesota to New Orleans. The highway generally follows the course of the Mississippi River, and is designated the Great River Road for much of its route. This route goes through St. Louis, Hannibal, MO, Davenport, IA, Memphis, Vicksburg and eventually to New Orleans. It’s “Blues Highway” designation really begins at the Mississippi/Tennessee in border in Memphis.

Mississippi Welcomes Me with Open Arms - Big Muffler man statue at the border
Mississippi Welcomes Me with Open Arms – Big Muffler man statue at the border

As you leave Memphis and cross into Mississippi on US 61, you are greeted immediately be a big Muffler Man statue and then the Blues Highway sign (as seen above) is in the same location.  The Blues Highway has become so popular that it even has its own website and they have developed a Blues Trail app (or for Android) for travelers too.

The Blues Highway Marker at the Gateway to the Blues.  One of dozens of markers along the US 61 and neighboring towns.
The Blues Highway Marker at the Gateway to the Blues. One of dozens of markers along the US 61 and neighboring towns.

The Blues Trail features dozens of historical markers along the way and their site features a comprehensive list with maps to each.  Due to my typically tight schedule, I was only able to hit a few of these.  Some that I missed include: B.B. King’s Birthplace, the historical “Birthplace of the Blues,” the Elvis Presley marker in Tupelo, the John Lee Hooker marker, the Johnny Winter marker (which I unfortunately overlooked when I visited Leland to see the birthplace of Kermit the Frog — see below), the birthplace of Muddy Waters and more. But, I did hit a few along the way.

Gateway to the Blues, Tunica, Mississippi
Gateway to the Blues, Tunica, Mississippi

My first stop, however, was at the “Gateway to the Blues” Visitors Center just north of Tunica on old US 61.  The Visitors Center is built in a rustic train depot, circa 1895.  It is filled with guitars, maps, souvenirs, etc.

Old Benches outside the Gateway to the Blues
Old Benches outside the Gateway to the Blues

Tunica is a big resort town along the Mississippi River, dotted with casinos, hotels and other resorts.  But, there is still some good old history.  On Magnolia Street near downtown Tunica is the “Tate Log House” which the locals claim has the distinction of being the “oldest and most traveled structure” in Tunica County.

The Tate Log House in Tunica, MS
The Tate Log House in Tunica, MS

The cabin was built in the 1840s near Robinsonville, Miss., and later purchased by Samuel Kerr in the 1860s. When Robert F. and Simpson Tate purchased the land in 1890, the cabin was converted to a plantation commissary.  In 1952, the Tate family sold the land to the another family and the cabin was moved south to Elsie, Miss., and then later to a place  near Austin, Miss., in the early 1990s.  Finally, in 2000, the house was donated to the Tunica Museum and moved again to its current location in Tunica.

The Tate Log House in Tunica, MS

The Tate Log House in Tunica, MS

The drive along this stretch of US 61 is flat as can be as it shadows the giant Mississippi River not too far to the west…

Sumoflam at US 61 south just south of Tunica, MS
Sumoflam at US 61 south just south of Tunica, MS
US 61 South of Tunica, MS
US 61 South of Tunica, MS

I could have stopped at some of the real small towns along the way, but it was getting later in the afternoon and I wanted to get to Vicksburg before dark, so I kept pushing on…into Clarksdale, Mississippi, which probably has one of the most renown Blues Highway markers and monuments.

Clarksdale Monument, Clarksdale, MS
Clarksdale Monument, Clarksdale, MS

Known as “The Crossroads”, where US 49 and US 61 meet, it is believed to be the legendary crossroads where famed blues guitarist Robert Johnson made his pact with the devil.  Robert Johnson was born in 1911 and only lived until 1938. He was a dirt-poor, African-American who would grow up, learn to sing and play the blues, and went on to become known the world over.  Since his death, his music has been picked up by some of the most well know rock stars of the 60s, 70s and on, including the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers – have recorded his songs.  In fact, Clapton has called Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” Someone has made a video with his famed “Cross Roads Blues.”

And of course, Eric Clapton has made this song immortal with a number of versions of this song.  In this video he pays homage to Johnson.

So, a visit to the Crossroads is a must on this trip.  I went down to the Crossroads!!

Sumoflam at the Crossroads in Clarksville, MS
Sumoflam at the Crossroads in Clarksdale, MS

Some say that new evidence suggests this is NOT the Crossroads where the famous pact was made.  I guess I should have made a visit down to Rosedale, but I didn’t have my rider by my side….

The Crossroads in Clarksdale, MS
The Crossroads in Clarksdale, MS

And of course, what is a visit to Mississippi without Bar-B-Q (which I didn’t get to try either).  Abe’s was right there at the Crossroads.

Abe's Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale, MS at the Crossroads
Abe’s Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale, MS at the Crossroads
Retro Greyhound Sign in Clarkdale, MS
Retro Greyhound Sign in Clarkdale, MS

Not far from the Greyhound Station is the “New Roxy” Theatre in the Historic New World District on Issaquena Road in Clarksdale. This old movie theater has been converted into a live event venue, with some very unique characteristics. What remains of the old theater is basically is a shell of the former theater with a sloping concrete floor, a masonry stage, lots of distressed brick walls, and a view of the night sky (as there is no longer a roof remaining. This rustic setting is home to many local blues shows and festivals.

New Roxy in Clarksdale, MS
New Roxy in Clarksdale, MS

Not too far from the New Roxy is a Blues Road marker for Sam Cooke (famous for songs such as “You Send Me, ” “Chain Gang,” and “A Change is Gonna Come,” which was sung by Bettye Lavette and Jon Bon Jovi at the inauguration celebration President Barack Obama.

Blues Road Marker for Sam Cooke in Clarksdale, MS
Blues Road Marker for Sam Cooke in Clarksdale, MS

Practically next to Sam Cooke’s marker is one for W.C. Handy, who lived on Issaquena Road.  Known by many as “Father of the Blues,” Handy remains among the most influential of American songwriters. Though he was one of many musicians who played the distinctively American form of music known as the blues, he is credited with giving it its contemporary form. While Handy was not the first to publish music in the blues form, he took the blues from a regional music style with a limited audience to one of the dominant national forces in American music.  I recall playing his compositions in Jazz Band in high school…tunes such as “St. Louis Blues,”, “Beale St. Blues,” and more.

Historical Marker for W.C. Handy on Issaquena Rd. in Clarksdale, MS
Historical Marker for W.C. Handy on Issaquena Rd. in Clarksdale, MS

Another icon of Clarksdale is the historic Paramount Theater.  Originally known as the Marion Theatre, the facility opened in 1918 on Yazoo Avenue in Clarksdale. The theatre one of the first in the area to be built mainly for showing movies. During the 1930’s, the Marion Theatre was acquired by the Saenger Amusements chain, which went on to rename it to the current Paramount Theatre. The theater was in operation until 1986, but is apparently being renovated by the Mississippi Arts Council.

Paramount Theater in Clarksdale, MS
Paramount Theater in Clarksdale, MS

Of course, in a town borne of the blues, what better design for benches around town?

Musical Benches around Clarksdale, MS
Musical Benches around Clarksdale, MS

Continuing south on US 61 about 12 miles, I came to one of my “sought after destinations” in the town of Alligator, Mississippi (population abt. 200).  My original intent was to visit just because of the name, but this town is, in my mind, all about the blues and how I imagined it.

Sumoflam in Alligator, MS
Sumoflam in Alligator, MS
Welcome to Alligator, MS
Welcome to Alligator, MS

I didn’t see any real alligators in Alligator, but I did see lots of history.  The town is home to the “Alligator Blues,” as the Blue Highway Marker below indicates.  Alligator has a blues history that rivals that of many a larger town. Once a bustling business center, Alligator has had entertainment spots in town in addition to outlying country juke joints, plantation house parties and storefronts where musicians played as they traversed the surrounding communities.  Robert Johnson apparently lived in the area in 1930.

Alligator Blues Marker in Alligator, MS
Alligator Blues Marker in Alligator, MS

Alligator also had some wonderful wall murals including the one at the top of this post and the one below.

Alligator Wall Mural, Alligator, MS
Alligator Wall Mural, Alligator, MS
Wall Mural at Blues Tourist in Alligator, MS
Wall Mural at Blues Tourist in Alligator, MS

A few more scenes from Alligator, Mississippi

Alligator, MS Town Hall
Alligator, MS Town Hall
Alligator Water Tower, Alligator, MS
Alligator Water Tower, Alligator, MS
Keep Alligator Clean!
Keep Alligator Clean!

Solidly entrenched in the heart of Delta Blues country, I continue my journey, next to Shelby, MS. This town of about 2000 is home to a couple of Juke Joints including the Do Drop Inn (not to be confused with the famed Dew Drop Inn of New Orleans).

Welcome to Shelby, MS
Welcome to Shelby, MS
Colorful buildings of Shelby, MS
Colorful buildings of Shelby, MS
Colorful yellow abandoned building in Shelby, MS
Colorful yellow, seemingly abandoned building in Shelby, MS

Juke joint is a term used by locals for the informal establishments that featured music, dancing, gambling, and drinking.  These were mainly operated by African American people in the southeastern United States. The term “juke” is believed to derive from the Gullah word joog, meaning rowdy or disorderly.  A juke joint may also be called a “barrelhouse”. Juke Joints catered to the rural work force that began to emerge after the emancipation. Primarily African-American establishments, juke joints were opened in the southeastern United States during the era of the Jim Crow Laws. Since black sharecroppers and plantation workers were barred from white establishments, juke joints provided a space for these people to kick back after a long week of work.  Places like the Do Drop Inn are slowly disappearing as a result of large casinos in many of the areas along the Mississippi.

Famed Do Drop Inn Juke joint in Shelby, MS
Famed Do Drop Inn Juke Joint in Shelby, MS
Wall mural depicting a river baptism in Shelby, MS. Its not all about the blues
Wall mural depicting a river baptism in Shelby, MS. Its not all about the blues
Daniel's Snack Shack, Shelby, MS
Daniel’s Snack Shack, Shelby, MS

Next stop on US 61 was Mound Bayou.  This town was an all black town in the Yazoo Delta in Northwest Mississippi. It was founded during the spring of 1887 by twelve former slaves led by Isaiah Montgomery.  This fledgling black colony continued to remain predominantly African America, and, by percentage, its 98.6 percent African-American majority population is one of the largest of any community in the United States.

Welcome to Mound Bayou, MS
Welcome to Mound Bayou, MS
Much of US 61 in the Delta is falling to ruins, such as this place. Sad....
Much of US 61 in the Delta is falling to ruins, such as this place. Sad….
US 61 north of Cleveland, MS
US 61 north of Cleveland, MS

Cleveland, MS is one of 11 towns named Cleveland in the United States. I was born in Cleveland, OH so visiting any Cleveland has meaning.  (I have also been to Cleveland, TN and Cleveland, IN).

Cleveland, MS
Cleveland, MS

Cleveland is one of the great places to experience the heritage and culture that is the blues, Just outside of town is Dockery Plantation . Often called the “Birthplace of the Blues.”  This was home to Delta blues musician, Charley Patton, and was recently honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail. He is considered by many to be the “Father of the Delta Blues”, and is credited with creating an enduring body of American music and personally inspiring just about every Delta blues man.  Indeed, it is said that Patton inspired Blues greats John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and even Robert Johnson at Dockery Farms.

Dockery Farms Plantation near Cleveland, MS
Dockery Farms Plantation near Cleveland, MS – considered by many to be birthplace of the Delta Blues

Cleveland is also noted as the place where W.C. Handy was inspired after hearing a blues band in 1905.

Historical marker about W.C. Handy being inspired in Cleveland, MS
Historical marker about W.C. Handy being inspired in Cleveland, MS

Downtown Cleveland has a beautiful tree-lined walkway in downtown, near the old railroad station.

Cleveland Railroad Station
Cleveland Railroad Station
Tree-lined Walkway in Cleveland, MS
Tree-lined Walkway in Cleveland, MS

As evening closed in on me after the long drive from Lexington, KY, I scooted southward into Leland, MS.  I had hoped to see more of the historic town, but light was running out and I definitely wanted to get to Leland to see the “Birthplace of Kermit the Frog.” Though closed, there was enough light to get a couple of photos.

Sumoflam at the "Birthplace of Kermit the Frog" in Leland, MS
Sumoflam at the “Birthplace of Kermit the Frog” in Leland, MS

Famed puppeteer and mastermind of “The Muppets” Jim Henson grew up around Leland, MS, played along Deer Creek and became word famous.  This is where he got his start.

Birthplace of Kermit the Frog, Leland, MS
Birthplace of Kermit the Frog, Leland, MS
Oh Kermie...
Oh Kermie…
Walkway over Deer Creek in Leland, MS
Walkway over Deer Creek in Leland, MS
Frog Parking only in Leland, MS
Frog Parking only in Leland, MS

So, the day finally ended and darkened as I left Leland and headed for my overnight stay in Vicksburg. End of Day 1 on the Blues Highway – nearly 670 miles of driving from home to here. My next post will complete the trip from Vicksburg to Natchez and into Louisiana.

Sunset in the Delta of Mississippi
Sunset in the Delta of Mississippi

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It’s All in the Trip

Corner of This Way and That Way
The Corner of This Way and That Way in Lake Jackson, TX

I started off today on the last leg of a 9 Day Road trip. This was my second 9 day road trip in one month. Both road trips were mainly for family affairs of one type or another. So, that being said, I did have destinations for both trips.

Cow with Glasses in Guthrie
Giant Cow with glasses in Guthrie, KY

My first trip took me to Montana for my grandson’s baptism. I’ve already posted some content about that, but that trip took me almost 4600 miles in nine days and thru 12 states. I still have a few post to go to finish my blogs on that trip.

Riding the Ferry into Galveston
Riding the Ferry into Galveston

This current trip’s purpose was chiefly to attend a family reunion for my father’s side of the family. It was in Galveston, Texas. It is always wonderful to see family and it was a great time!

Kravetz Family Reunion 2014
Kravetz Family Reunion 2014

This current trip will eventually take me close to 3500 miles. When all is said and done I will have traversed through seven states on this trip.

Mammy's Cupboard in Natchez, MS
Mammy’s Cupboard in Natchez, MS

As many of you know, traveling the backroads of America and documenting the trips through photos and the written word is one of my passions. It brings me great joy to see this beautiful country of ours and to share with others who may not have the chance to visit some of the places I go.

Teepee Motel in Wharton, Texas
Teepee Motel in Wharton, Texas

For me, it is always about the trip and not about the destination. The backroads of America offer a myriad of surprises whether they be a unique town name, some unique roadside attraction, some amazing piece of scrap metal art or sensational Wall art or mural.

Sumoflam in Alligator, MS
Sumoflam in Alligator, MS

For these last two trips I have tried to focus on traveling US highways rather then the interstate freeways. Everyone knows that Route 66 is the epitome of the US Highway, at least to many who think about traveling on the road or other nostalgic road trips. Indeed, route 66 is a wonderful road trip in and of itself. At one time or another I have pretty much covered most of Route 66 over the years since the 1960s.

Devils' Crossroads, Clarksdale, MS
Devil’s Crossroads, Clarksdake, MS

But Route 66 is certainly not the only wonderful highway that one can take across this country. On my last trip to Montana, I traveled over a good portion of US Route 2 and some of US Route 89, not to mention a few others. On this trip I hit US Route 79, US Route 61 (The Blues Highway), US Route 59 and more. Each of these highways has their own unique character and characters! Indeed, in my opinion, they could rival Route 66 for nostalgia and roadside attractions.

Moddy Gardens, Galveston, TX
The three pyramids of Moody Garden’s in Galveston, TX

As I travel, I know that I barrage my friends with numerous selfie photos and other photos of the trip. But, I have friends that travel vicariously through me and I am cognizant of that as well. When I travel, the little child in me has joy, for this is the exploring, and the discovery. As a child we always explore and we love to discover new things whether it be a butterfly on our arm or a beautiful waterfall. That sense of excitement from discovery has never left me throughout my life. And I am grateful that I have friends out there that appreciate it and they share this joy in one way, shape or form.

Sumoflam in Friendship, Arkansas
Sumoflam in Friendship, Arkansas

On both of these trips I have met new people that share the same passion as I do. I met a photographer in Wyoming who loves to travel as I do and visit unique sites. I met a time lapse photographer who does time lapse for a living as I visited a unique destination in Nebraska. I met another individual from Scotland who lives in the states now and has traveled extensively. We visited a unique graveyard in Oklahoma. With all of these, we shared stories, experiences and enriched each others lives through doing so.

Hanging with Troy Landry
Hanging with Troy Landry, star of “Swamp People” in Pierre Part, LA

Through my travel blogs I have met other travel bloggers online and on this particular trip I got to meet a couple of them in person as I traveled through their hometowns. What a wonderful opportunity that was for me to meet these great people who share a passion and have so many wonderful things to share with me and all of the others that may visit their blogs.

Hanging with Tui Snider
Hanging with travel author and blogger Tui Snider, author of “Unexpected Texas”

Naturally, these road trips are long and they can be grueling, even to a road warrior like myself. But I look at the trips as “memory creators” as they build memories and help me to reflect on the joys of life during the more difficult times. To me, the best part of any long trip is the “looking back.”and these 18 days of travel over the last 30 days have created years of memories and stories for me to share with others and to treasure up within my own mind!

Billy Tripp's Mindfiled
Billy Tripp’s Mindfield in Brownsville, TN

This last day of travel has been a particularly challenging one for myself and also for my wife. We took a vacation “together” but “separately,” as I went to Galveston and she went to San Diego for her own family reunion with her sisters and brother. She was supposed to fly home to Louisville and my trip was scheduled such that I would meet her at the Louisville airport on my way home and pick her up. But things don’t always work as planned and when must be flexible and travel no matter how you do it.

Double Rainbow
A double rainbow near Arkadelphia, Arkansas

For Julianne, it was a challenging time as she got to the airport early but her flight canceled. She ended up having to consult with me on some other options. With some thinking, I realized that she was flying Southwest airlines and that they fly into Nashville and since I was driving through Nashville anyway, we tried to see if she could switch her itinerary to fly to Nashville, which, thank goodness she was able to do.

An Old Plane near Paris, TX
An old plane near Paris, TX

In the meantime, as I drove from my overnight stay in Arkadelphia, Arkansas last night, I had it planned such that I would arrive at the Louisville airport 30 minutes before her flight. That all changed with her flight, but then as I approached Nashville, near the town of Dickson, Tennessee, there turned out to be a horrific crash on interstate 40 just west of Dixon. And involved a semi tractor-trailer and a car and turns out that three people were killed. It also had a major impact on traffic is cars going in both directions on interstate 40 were backed up for 10 to 15 miles and not moving at all for nearly a half hour. That would’ve made me very late to pick up Julianne in Louisville.

Bad Accident near Dickson, TN
Bad accident on Interstate 40 near Dickson, TN

So as you can see, sometimes the flexibility of things does have a way of working its way out. So here I sit in the cell phone parking area of the Nashville international airport waiting for nearly 2 hours for my sweetheart tour right here this evening so that we can make a 3 1/2 hour drive back home to Lexington thereafter.

20140627-203919-74359685.jpgA vacation or a road trip or a field trip or whatever you might call it, will always have a plethora of memories. Some may be pleasurable, some may be fine and others may not be so good. But these create indelible memories in our minds and we can share them with others. I feel so blessed to of been able to take these two trips and see parts of America I’ve never seen, but some amazing people, enjoy some interesting food and create some awesome memories.

Clouds over Gause, TX
Clouds over Gause, TX

I am not sure when my next trip will be, but I worry live this trip over and over as I spend the next few weeks working to complete my blogs posts from both of the trips in the nearly 9000 miles with United States roads that I’ve covered during that time.

Sam Houston head in Huntsville, TX
Sam Houston’s Head in Huntsville, TX

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