Start in Memphis, perhaps at the front door of the Peabody Hotel, and then head south. If you’re following U.S. Highway 61, you’ll soon hear an unmistakable sound.
It’s a sound that began more than a century ago, born out of the daily struggles of former slaves who had become sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Over time, the songs of back break and heartache grew beyond laborers’ laments and became the music of the Mississippi Delta, and then the sound of the South itself.
Follow that road into the heart of Mississippi, and you’ll find yourself in the home of the blues.
Highway 61 is officially recognized as America’s Blues Highway. Groups that travel the route along the Mississippi River will find rich history and fantastic music in towns all along the way.
Although the area is known for the blues, music is only the beginning. With gaming action in Tunica, Vicksburg’s Civil War history and the grand architecture of Natchez, bank groups will encounter a wealth of things to see and do along the way.
“The thing about Highway 61 is that it’s in a lot of blues songs,” said Bill Canter, director of sales and marketing at the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It gives people that ability to pick up, pack up and leave your troubles behind on Highway 61. It’s kind of a way to get out of the Delta, to Chicago, St. Louis or New Orleans.”
From his office at the welcome center, Canter can look out and see one of the roadside markers detailing Highway 61’s significance in blues history. Tunica is the first town you’ll reach as you travel southward from Memphis and was a historic stop for people traveling into or out of the Delta. Today, locals are proud of the role the town played in the development of the blues.
“We’re in the midst of a massive renovation of our welcome center,” Canter said. “We’re going to put a blues museum here that will wrap around our building. It’s going to have the artifacts and exhibits that had been part of a blues museum at the Horseshoe Casino.”
As part of the renovation, the CVB is also moving a historic train depot from south of town and setting it up as a new Gateway to the Blues Welcome Center, where groups can stop for rest and information.
They can go to the blues museum from there, or they can continue on to sites like the Tunica River Park, a public park and education center on the Mississippi River that is being outfitted to host a series of traveling museum exhibits about the blues.
Most groups that visit Tunica drop in at one of the nine casinos in the area, all operated by Las Vegas companies. Newly relaunched in December, Harrah’s Roadhouse Casino gives a down-home feel to the property that was formerly the Sheraton Casino.
The next stop is Clarksdale, a town that was at the epicenter of blues development in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Blues luminaries such as Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker made their homes in Clarksdale; today, the city is also home to the Delta Blues Museum, the foremost cultural institution dealing with the area’s musical history.
The museum is housed in a former freight depot, built in 1918 to serve the needs of the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad. Since 1979, it has served as a blues museum, with memorabilia and artifacts linked to some of the greatest names in music.
“We have a B.B. King ‘Lucille’ guitar, and Big Joe Williams’ guitar,” said Shelly Ritter, the museum’s director. “We have some old Stella guitars, which were the instruments of choice for early blues musicians.”
Chief among the museum’s collection is a small cabin that blues pioneer Waters lived in during his time on Stovall Farms.
Other exhibits include information on the likes of Hooker, Little Milton, Jimmy Burns and other artists who spent time living and performing in the Mississippi Delta. The museum also features a series of rotating and traveling blues exhibits throughout the year.
Groups visiting Clarksdale will also find a thriving live music scene, with blues performed around town most nights of the week. Many travelers enjoy paying a visit to Ground Zero, a nightclub owned by actor Morgan Freeman, who frequents the club when he is in Mississippi.
Less than 50 miles south of Clarksdale, Cleveland is a small university town with a thriving retail scene and lots of opportunities to hear live music. Blues fans who visit the city flock to Po’ Monkey’s, which maintains the humble tradition of the Mississippi “juke joint.”
“Po’ Monkey’s is an international favorite, and it’s an experience of what old juke joints were like,” said Cheryl Line, tourism manager at the Cleveland-Bolivar County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a rural place in the middle of nowhere; you’ve got to know where you’re going to find it. But when you’re there, you have music and dancing, and you get to be a part of that scene. It’s fun, and it’s safe.”
Four miles east of town, groups can also visit Dockery Plantation, a site instrumental to the growth of blues. In the early 1900s, the plantation was a large cotton farm with more than 2,000 workers. Some of those workers, including Willie Brown, Patton and Johnson, began their musical careers while employed at the plantation and made it an informal gathering place for musicians. Many music historians credit Dockery with being the birthplace of the blues.
Groups that visit Cleveland often take advantage of its downtown shopping and dining, or spend some time exploring its civil rights history and other points of interest outside of the blues.
“If you give me a group that likes heritage and culture, I’ll give them a taste and feel of all the sights, the food and the music,” Line said. “We have great Southern food here. One of our restaurants was a soul food cafe where civil rights workers used to meet.
“And there’s a place on the riverside that has been listed in Gourmet Magazine for their hot tamales. It’s a little dinky place, but it has that history and experience that people are looking for.”
As the southbound bus rolls into Vicksburg, your group will take a detour from blues melodies into the haunting sounds of regimental drums and bugles. In this town, Civil War history is monumental.
“Vicksburg National Military Park is right on Highway 61,” said Bill Seratt, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s America’s most ‘monumented’ military park. It has works of art by the leading artists from the early part of the 20th century, and it attracts around 600,000 visitors a year.”
The park commemorates the campaign, siege and defense of the city of Vicksburg during the Civil War. On July 4, 1863, Confederate troops at the site surrendered to the Union, giving the North control of the Mississippi River. Today, the park features 1,340 monuments, a restored Union gunboat and a national cemetery.
Step-on guides conduct tours for motorcoach groups along a 16-mile road through the park. The tour includes a visit to the Shirley House, an antebellum home that still stands on the battlefield, as well as the famous Illinois Monument.
As the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War begins, events in Vicksburg will relate to the area’s war history.
“The month of April each year is our pilgrimage called Tapestry: The Pilgrimage to Vicksburg,” Seratt said. “There are 18 properties that participate with themed, costume interpretation that tells the history of the homes and of Vicksburg. This year, they’re all tied into the Civil War.”
Two upcoming museums will give groups additional insights into the area’s history. The Mississippi Transportation Museum will open this year in a restored 1904 train depot; work is also under way on the Lower Mississippi Museum and Interpretive Center, which will detail the Army Corps of Engineers’ work to control flooding on the river.
Forty-one miles from the Louisiana line, Natchez is the last stop on a Highway 61 expedition through Mississippi. Although it is one of the oldest cities on the Mississippi River — established by French settlers in 1716 — today, Natchez is most famous for its bevy of historic homes.
“We have two pilgrimages each year,” said Sally Durkin, media liaison for the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau. “During the pilgrimages, a number of privately owned homes are placed on the roster for tour, along with the tour houses that are open daily.
“After the war [Civil War], we had a reconstruction period in the 1880s and ’90s when the Victorian architecture was introduced into the city, so we have a large amount of Victorian homes.”
Many tour groups visit for the spring pilgrimage, which takes place in March and early April, when the azaleas, wisterias and Carolina jasmine are in bloom. These tours usually feature 13 homes, both private and public.
But at any time of year, groups can visit key antebellum homes such as Stanton Hall, Melrose and Longwood Plantation.
“Longwood is a must-see,” Durkin said. “It’s the only octagonal residence structure in the country. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and has also been deemed a national historic landmark.”
Highway 61 continues on from Natchez, of course, following the Mississippi River south to Baton Rouge and, eventually, New Orleans. And although there are plenty more sights to see along the way, you may just find yourself missing that Mississippi sound.