The Heart of America - The beat track

American music - blues, jazz, country, R&B, soul, and eventually that giant hybrid rock'n'roll - all grew up in the heart of the US. BEN ROSS tunes in

WHERE SHOULD I START MY MUSICAL TOUR?

Head straight for the Deep South, and in particular New Orleans in Louisiana, which many see as the birthplace of Western popular music. It was here that jazz first raised its cornet at the start of last century, as a vast number of black ex-slaves arrived from the plantations. Jazz's emphasis on rhythm and improvisation probably had its roots in Africa and the "holler gangs" of the plantation slaves, while its syncopation, harmony and instrumentation may have come from Western folk music, ragtime and the blues.

Jazz soon progressed from New Orleans's red-light district of Storyville, upstream to the furthest reaches of the Mississippi and beyond to Chicago, running in parallel with the post-slavery migration northwards. Louis Armstrong, one of the first jazz greats, learnt his trade in New Orleans's "Dixieland" jazz combos, while these days the Marsalis family (Wynton and Branford in particular) keep "the Big Easy" on the musical map.

New Orleans still abounds with late-night jazz venues, and the Jazz and Heritage Festival (www.nojazzfest.com) at the Fair Grounds Race Course from 22 April to 1 May, is a vital stop-off on any jazz fan's itinerary.

See "48 Hours in New Orleans" on pages 40-45 for more on this great city.

IS JAZZ LOUISIANA'S SOLE CLAIM TO FAME?

Far from it. After you've soaked up the rhythms of jazz and blues in New Orleans, buy yourself some sturdy dancing shoes and head inland to Lafayette in Cajun country.

The Cajun style has its roots in the folk music of the French settlers who came to the area in the late 18th century after being driven out of the Canadian province of Acadia ("Cajun" is a corruption of Acadian). The songs are still often sung in French or Creole. Mostly, however, it's about dancing, and the many Cajun and Zydeco (a more bluesy variant usually performed by black musicians) festivals that take place in and around Lafayette should give you plenty of practice. The five-day Festival International de Louisiane (www.festivalinternational.com), held each April, is Lafayette's grandest cultural festival. For further information on Louisiana's festivals, call the Louisiana Tourism UK Office on 01462 458696 or go to www.louisianatravel.com.

WHERE'S THE NEXT STOP IN THE SOUTH?

Anyone straying north, west or east from any town in Texas will find it difficult to tune the car radio without encountering a country station; simple tunes of love and hate, saloons and beer, pick-up trucks and put- down lines are close to the hearts of millions of Americans. While slickly produced artists like Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks are drawling their way to the banks of Austin, Texas, Nashville remains the spiritual home of country. The country boom of the Fifties was centred upon the Tennessee state capital, where the Grand Ole Opry radio show (which is still going strong) had already turned "hillbilly music" into the enormously successful country and western form.

The "Nashville sound" has a reputation for being heavily produced and glitzy, and the city has a larger-than-life attitude towards its C&W heritage. Visitors can take in one of the shows at the Grand Ole Opry (001 877 677 9333; www.grandoleopry.com), or make for the Ryman Auditorium (001 615 889 3060; www.ryman.com), the self-proclaimed "Mother Church Of Country Music". For the ultimate country fix, go to the Country Music Hall of Fame building (001 615 416 2001; www.halloffame.org; admission $15.95/pounds 9), and worship the likes of Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves. Elvis Presley was inducted into the Hall of Fame only in 1998.

ELVIS PRESLEY? ALWAYS ON MY MIND

The King has, of course, left the building, but his legend lives on. His birthplace in the deadbeat town of Tupelo, Mississippi, has become something of a shrine (see box), and the 200-mile drive across Tennessee from Nashville to Memphis is another worthy pilgrimage for Presley fans.

Memphis, where the Presley family arrived after trying to leave the destitution of the South behind, is full of Elvis connections. Graceland (3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard; 001 901 332 3322; www.elvis.com/graceland), where Elvis lived and died, is the most popular tourist attraction in the South. It has been left as it was when Elvis died of heart failure.

From the mirrored ceilings to the last leopard skin in the Jungle Room, you can sense the despair of Presley's later years. A $27 (pounds 15) ticket entitles you to "the Platinum Tour" package, which includes a tour of the mansion, as well as self-guided tours of Elvis's two custom aeroplanes, the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum and a memorabilia museum called Sincerely Elvis. Besides Elvis Presley Boulevard, on which Graceland stands, the Presley name is celebrated at a nightclub, on a Day (8 January, his birthday) and a bus (number 13).

Just as important to the America's musical heartland, as well as the ascendancy of Presley, is Memphis's Sun Studio (001 901 521 0664; www.sunstudio.com; daily tours $9.50/pounds 5.25), where he recorded his first few singles, thereby transforming Memphis from a blues town to rockabilly central. It was at Sun that a white boy hijacked the blues, and music would never be the same again. Elvis was never the same again, either, and it would be a shame to dwell upon the time he spent as a bloated self-parody in Las Vegas. Memphis, though, remains forever young. Learn more about the music scene at the Memphis Rock'n'Soul Museum (oo1 901 543 0800; www.memphisrocknsoul.org; daily 10am-6pm; adults $8.50/pounds 4.75).

MEMPHIS: BIRTHPLACE OF THE BLUES. TRUE?

Not quite. The first known blues composition was WC Handy's "Memphis Blues", published in 1912. But the blues began in the late 19th century in three main areas: the Carolinas, Texas and Mississippi. The mournful songs of southern black labourers had evolved from church music, but would eventually influence everything from jazz to R&B, to soul, and - perhaps most importantly for the late 20th century - rock'n'roll. Although the form originated in rural areas, the Great Depression soon sent the blues to cities. Each area quickly evolved its own sound and its own legendary performers. The parallel rise in sound recording probably accounts for the blues' rapid evolution, as an oral musical tradition began to be replaced by gramophone records, which were efficient at passing on new styles.

WHERE'S THE BEST PLACE TO GET THE BLUES?

The Beale Street Music Festival (www.memphisinmay.org), from 29 April to 1 May, centres on Memphis's historic centre of blues and claims to capture the essence of Memphis music, which mean blues, soul, gospel and rockabilly.

A tour of other blues centres would have to include the state of Mississippi, home of delta blues, with its characteristic slide guitar. Visitors to Mississippi should time their trip to coincide with the King Biscuit Blues Festival (further information from Mississippi Tourism: 01462 440 787; www.kingbiscuitfest.org) in October.

Alternatively, head to what many would call the blues capital of the world: that toddlin' town, Chicago. The blues are carved into the history of the place: Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf made their names here, as did slide guitarist Elmore Jame and John Lee Hooker. A musical trip to Chicago is unlikely to disappoint: aside from the hundreds of jazz and blues venues in the city, there's the Chicago Blues Festival in June and the Chicago Jazz Festival in September. Call 001 312 744 3315 or go to www.ci.chi.il.us.

A BIT MORE SOUL?

Where there's the blues, soul music tends to follow - Memphis's Stax sound and Chicago's Curtis Mayfield bear witness to the fact - but Detroit took things a stage further with the foundation of the Motown label (www.motown.com) in the Sixties. The Motown Museum at 2648 West Grand Blvd (001 313 875 2264; www.motownmuseum.com; admission $8/pounds 4.50) is virtually the only remnant of "Hitsville, USA", but is packed with memorabilia related to the time when Smokey Robinson, The Temptations and The Supremes reigned, er, supreme.

These days, soul festivals in Detroit are thin on the ground, as the town has moved to the cutting edge of techno, which originated here. The Detroit Electronic Music Festival (www.demf.org) commemorates the rise of dance music in Motorcity. Alternatively, the Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival (www.detroitjazzfest.com) every Labor Day weekend (first Monday of September) should soothe the soul. Call Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau on 001 313 202 1800 or go to www.visitdetroit.com.

I WANT A WINTER WARMER

Head for Texas, which aside from serving as a base for country "outlaw" legends such as Willie Nelson, was also a cradle for the blues, with legends such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightnin' Hopkins making their names there. The proximity of Mexico means Tejano (Tex-Mex) music is also popular here. And let's not forget Buddy Holly, R&B's first tragic hero, born in Lubbock, Texas.

Musical adventurers should head for the state capital, Austin, which has a plethora of live music venues. Aside from laying claim to Antone's, one of the most famous blues clubs in the world (also a record shop and label), and the nearby annual Kerrville Folk Festival (www.kerrville-music.com), the town puts on South by Southwest (www.sxsw.com), a festival-cum-music conference that takes in everything from breakbeats to bluegrass, funk to folk. For further information, call Texas Tourism (020-7978 5233) or go to www.traveltex.com.

HOW SHOULD I GET THERE?

The best airline for musical itineraries in the heart of America is Northwest, which has hubs in Detroit and Memphis - plus a main base in Minneapolis, close to Prince's Paisley Park. A Gatwick-Detroit-New Orleans-Memphis-Minneapolis- Gatwick itinerary in March costs from pounds 382 through Trailfinders (020-7937 5400; www.trailfinders.com).

For an itinerary with Texas thrown in, Quest Travel (0870 444 5552; www.questtravel.com) quotes pounds 479 for a London-Washington-Nashville- Chicago-Austin-Chicago-London extravaganza on United.

Meanwhile Peregor Travel (01895 630 871; www.peregor-travel.co.uk) offers a 14-night "Rhythms of the South" package which starts and finishes in Atlanta, taking in Nashville, Memphis, Lafayette and New Orleans. It costs pounds 355 per person, based on two adults sharing, including accommodation but excluding flights. Car hire for a mid-size vehicle works out at about pounds 280 for the duration of the holiday.

WHERE THE PRESLEY LEGEND BEGAN

Elvis was born in the ghetto, almost. Tupelo, Mississippi, calls itself a "model city of nearly 35,000 offering a high quality of life". It has seldom been an alluring place - certainly not at the tail end of the Depression, on 8 January, 1935. Early that morning Gladys Presley gave birth to twins at 306 Old Saltillo Road. One, Jesse, was stillborn. The other grew up with his parents in the two-room shack.

Although one local rumour maintains that the building at what is now 306 Elvis Presley Boulevard is not the original, you can judge for yourself by visiting the tiny property (001 662 841 1245; www.elvis presleybirthplace.com; adults $2.50/pounds 1.40). Across the road is the Birthplace Museum and completing the Elvis Triangle is a chapel built after his death in 1977. Contact the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau (001 800 533 0611; www.tupelo.net) for more information.

For something with a bit more style, check in to the Scottish Inn in North Gloster Street (001 662 842 1961), where a room costs $35 (pounds 20). It is close to Lawhon School on Main Street, where a young Elvis failed to win the singing competition with a rendition of "Old Shep", a song about a dying dog.

BORN IN THE USA:

SIX HEARTLAND ANTHEMS

Chicago (Frank Sinatra)

In the Ghetto (Elvis Presley)

Walking In Memphis (Marc Cohn)

24 Hours From Tulsa (Burt Bacharach)

Graceland (Paul Simon)

Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd)

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