America's Blues Highway and the Blues Trail

Bill Seratt

May 4

U.S. Highway 61 “America’s Blues Highway” and the Mississippi Blues Trail

For the past century the music born in the fertile fields of the Mississippi Delta has reverberated around the world many, many times.  Enslaved workers on plantations throughout the southern United States expressed their anger and frustration by communicating through field chants and work hollers under the noses of the overseers.  On Saturday evenings after working from can to can’t in the sweltering heat all week workers would gather at the “jook” house to play music and dance.  In short, to feel the freedom of simply being themselves for a few hours.  What resulted was a uniquely American musical form known as the blues.

Although the blues evolved simultaneously across the South in late 1800s and early 1900s, the Mississippi Delta was a hotbed of development for the genre.  The genre developed from roots in African musical traditions, African-American work songs and white Americans of European heritage.  Blues incorporated spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants and rhymed simple ballads.  Early blues frequently took the form of a loose narrative, often relating the racial discrimination and other challenges experienced by African-Americans.

After the World Wars and the breakdown of the oppressive sharecropper system of agricultural production combined with advances in mechanical agricultural equipment the South experienced a tremendous exodus of African-Americans to the North known as the Great Migration.  During the Great Migration (1916-1970) over 6 million African-Americans moved out the rural South to points North.  In 1910, more than 90 percent of the African-American population lived in the South.  By the end of the Great Migration 53 percent of the African-American population lived in the South, while 40 percent lived in the North and 7 percent in the West.  By 1970, more than 80 percent of African-Americans nationwide lived in large cities.

Mississippi is unique in having a cultural heritage that comes along with its own internationally-known soundtrack:  The Delta Blues.  In celebration of this incredible legacy and in recognition of the talents of Mississippi’s bluesmen and women Mississippi has developed the Mississippi Blues Trail.  After much research and fundraising the first three interpretive markers were dedicated on December 11, 2006.  The first at Holly Ridge is dedicated to blues pioneer Charley Patton.  The second is located in front of the Southern Whispers Restaurant on Nelson Street in Greenville and the third at the original location of WGRM radio station in Greenwood where B.B. King was first broadcast as a gospel singer.  Over the past decade over 200 Mississippi Blues Trail markers have been dedicated.

Vicksburg’s blues heritage has garnered five markers on the trail: The Blue Room, Marcus Bottom, Highway 61, The Red Tops and Vicksburg native son Willie Dixon.  The Blue Room located at 602 Clay Street was one of the most storied night spots in the South.  The owner, Tom Wince, featured the likes of Ray Charles, Fats Domino, B.B. King, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Muddy Waters and Little Milton.  Even when segregation was in force, whites attended when certain acts, especially Louis Armstrong, were book at the club.

In the 1920s, Vicksburg was uniquely positioned to play an important role in blues and jazz history.  Much of that history was made in the area of Vicksburg known as Marcus Bottom.  A wide range of musical traditions mingled there as professional travelling bands, itinerant guitarists from Delta cotton plantations, barrelhouse piano players and others worked the clubs and cafes in Marcus Bottom and in areas of town closer to the river.

The Highway 61 – Vicksburg marker is located at the corner of Washington and Jackson Streets.  U.S. Highway 61 occupies an important place in the blues as a popular lyrical symbol for travel and as the actual route by which many artists moved northward.  As designated by the Federal Highway Act of 1926, U.S. 61 begins in downtown New Orleans and ends at Grand Portage, Minnesota, on the Canadian border.  During the Great Migration U.S. 61 was the primary route for Mississippians to reach Memphis, St. Louis and St. Paul.  Known as America’s Blues Highway, Highway 61 is legendary in blues lyrics.  By 1940 at least seven singers had recorded songs about U.S. Highway 61.  No other byway in the country is as well documented in popular music as America’s Blues Highway:  U.S. Highway 61.

Vicksburg’s legendary band, The Red Tops, share the distinction of being one of two musical groups honored on the Mississippi Blues Trail – right up there with the Staple Singers.  Between 1953 and 1974 The Red Tops ruled the dance floors of the region.  The Red Tops performed at venues for both black and white audiences.  Under the leadership of manager Walter Osborn, the band operated as a business with strict rehearsal schedules and rules of conduct.  The Red Tops marker is located in front of the B.B. Club at the corner of Clay and Walnut Street.

For a tour of the Mississippi Blues Trail you should download the app.  The app includes great information and video presentations of the blues performers featured on the trail.  Be sure to visit www.msbluestrail.org for more information.  You can find live blues music in Vicksburg:  The Key to the South.