From Mississippi Crossroads to the American Heartland
How a Unique Musical Style Road the Blues Highway to History
by Masha Vodyanik, age 15
The roots of blues music run deep. This rich history can be traced along major highways running south to north through the American heartland. US. Route 61 is one these roads. It is known as the “Blues Highway.”
U.S. Highway 61 is fourteen hundred miles long. It runs from New Orleans through Memphis, Tenn., north to Minnesota. It generally follows the path of the Mississippi River, and runs through the Mississippi Delta.
The Mississippi Delta is an area of land in northern Mississippi where many African American slaves lived, and later tended small farms. It is not to be confused with the Louisiana Delta where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. After the Civil War, the Mississippi Delta was mostly known for its cotton business. It is also the root of blues music – affectionately termed “Delta Blues.”
From the 1800’s to the 1920’s, large numbers of African Americans immigrated north to escape slavery, and after the Civil War, sharecropping, poverty, and oppression. This pattern of migration was called The Great Migration. Traveling up the highway, they shared stories of their harsh experiences on the plantations through singing the blues. This gave the road its nickname, The Blues Highway.
Named after the song “Cross Road Blues” by Robert Johnson, the legendary crossroad at Clarksdale, Mississippi is the junction where Highways 61 and 49 meet. Legend says Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil on this spot in exchange for mastery of the blues.
Many artists have referenced it the Blues Highway. Minnesota native Bob Dylan has an album titled “Highway 61: Revisited.” The song with the same title tells a story of many events, leading all the way up to World War II, that occurred on this road.
Besides African Americans, people of other cultures and different musical backgrounds traveled this famous road, bringing with them many other genres of music. These musical styles included jazz, country, and Rock-n-Roll. All these types of music helped the blues evolve and expand. In turn, the blues influenced American music history in many important ways. This music grew up in the south. It traveled highways and back roads right into the soul of America.
[Sources: Wikipedia; Simpson Street Free Press archives; American History Atlas]