The Heart of America - Highway blues

FRANK PARTRIDGE seeks out dwindling `juke joints'and Bob Dylan's inspiration as he travels along Highway 61

From somewhere across the room, an old man was singing, in something close to a wail: "I cried last night, and the night before," he lamented several times, before resolving: "I'm gonna change my way of livin', and I won't have to cry no more."

After an evening spent drinking and talking later than was sensible, the stranger's resolution to sort his life out struck a chord. Then it all came back to me. I'd failed to switch off the television before falling asleep and it had carried on all night without me. The old crooner in the box hastened my return to consciousness with a rendition of "Delta Blues" by the great Son House.

The winter sun had only just risen over the Mississippi Delta, and the thin curtains of my sharecropper's shack, one of half a dozen old dwellings on a former cotton plantation about four miles from the town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, were no match for the sharp light. The Shack Up Inn is the whim of Bill Talbot, a music-loving, pony-tailed entrepreneur who likes to collect things. Among the artefacts in my room were: a honky-tonk piano (minus two keys); an ancient gramophone with a supply of spare needles; some rusty crop-spraying equipment, and a giant brown fridge, circa 1950, still able to chill a Bud. The place is typical of the American South: quirky, spirited, rough around the edges, take it or leave it. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Clarksdale is the birthplace of Charlie Patton, the aforementioned Son House, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker. BB King worked in the fields nearby for a dollar a day. It also contains the famous crossroads where Highway 49 meets Highway 61. Famous, perhaps, but entirely bogus in its claim to be the place where the blues prodigy Robert Johnson made his legendary pact with the Devil, selling his soul for the gift of being the greatest guitarist of his generation. If that transaction ever did take place, it was surely not at one of the busiest junctions in the Mississippi Delta.

Tracking down the real crossroads is something I was forced to leave to lifelong blues scholars, just as I had to admit defeat in finding a connection between a single line of Bob Dylan's ground-breaking album and the highway after which he named it. Highway 61 Revisited was released 40 years ago this year. But the thoroughfare contains absolutely nothing at which the travelling fan can point and say, "This is what he was writing about". At least Lennon and McCartney left us Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane - places we can find on a map.

The real, asphalt Highway 61 is a rewarding road to travel on, providing you avoid it during the withering heat of summer. Technically it runs all the way from New Orleans in the Deep South to Chicago in the heartland, but the essence of 61 is the section that crosses the Mississippi Delta, starting at the languid, elegant ports of Natchez and Vicksburg and finishing up in throbbing, edgy Memphis, just over the border in Tennessee.

The towns along the way reflect both the wealth and the poverty of the South. Natchez capitulated so quickly in the Civil War that many imposing antebellum houses remain. Port Gibson was left untouched by the advancing Union army because General Grant declared it "too beautiful to burn". Vicksburg is another attractive riverside spot, with numerous big houses converted to B&Bs. At this point, heading south to north, the Highway branches off, leaving the river a few miles to the west, and gets to the heart of the matter.

The Delta has one of the most unremittingly monotonous landscapes on Earth. The Highway runs dead straight for mile after mile, with nothing to see but telegraph poles and lonely intersections. Life here, for the early 20th-century sharecroppers, was desperately hard; as you drive through this brooding, primordial place, you can sense the hopelessness they must have felt, digging, planting and lifting their infinite rows of cotton. Music was their consolation and, for a few, their means of escape.

At Greenwood, I was invited to join some well-to-do locals at the Cotton Row Club, where liquor can be consumed as long as the bottles are disguised in brown paper bags. Lawyers played cards with labourers, but the only black man was washing someone's boots. Across town, I found a live performance by two bluesmen - father and son - but throughout the Delta I was told the traditional juke joints are closing down by the dozen.

"The kids today, they just want their rap," said a white-haired onlooker. "If this generation stops playing, this music of ours will soon be dead." I heard that lament more than once, but there are some encouraging signs. A few miles further on, the town of Leland has opened a Highway 61 Blues Museum, and has been staging an annual music festival for the last five years.

Clarksdale, poorer and scruffier than its southern neighbours, is the undisputed blues HQ, with a highly regarded museum of its own, and the Ground Zero Blues Club on Delta Avenue, part-owned by the actor Morgan Freeman, stages live music two or three times a week. A few miles north of Clarksdale, the Blues Highway crosses the state line into Tennessee and enters the outskirts of Memphis, where American civil rights took wing. For Bob Dylan in 1965, a backwoods boy from Minnesota still discovering the world, that was something for the future.

Shack Up Inn (001 662 624 8329; www.shackupinn.com), double shacks from $50 (pounds 28) per night. Highway 61 Blues Museum, Leland, open Tues-Sat 10am- 5pm (001 662 686 7646; www.highway61blues.com); entry free. Delta Blues Museum, Clarksdale (001 662 627 6820; www.deltabluesmuseum.org); open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; $6 (pounds 3.30). Ground Zero Blues Club, Clarksdale (001 662 621 9009; www.groundzerobluesclub.com).

More information from Mississippi Tourism: 01462 440 787; www.visitmississippi.org

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

    £32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

    Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

    £25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?