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This Might Be America’s Most Fascinating Road Trip

From Mississippi to Chicago, the Blues Highway honors both music history and the complicated past of the deep South.

It’s often said that America’s number one export is its culture, and American music is no exception. From gospel to hip-hop to rock and roll, American sound is found worldwide but has roots in the deep South. The foundation of American music is said to have started with the blues, a unique sound that combined the rhythm of work songs with the soulfulness found in spirituals.

The blues were a product of the South’s formerly enslaved people and reflect the violence, injustice, and inequality that plagued the Black community over the decades. The South is dotted with places that have strong ties to the blues and teach the history of American music. The easiest way to take them all in is by traveling from Mississippi to Tennessee and up to Illinois along Highway 61, also known as the Blues Highway.

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The Birthplace of the Blues

WHERE: Cleveland, Mississippi

Outside of Cleveland, Mississippi, Dockery Farms claims to be the exact birthplace of the blues. This was the home and workplace of Charley Patton, one of the earliest blues musicians whose family worked as sharecroppers. In his early years, Patton was known to play on the steps of the commissary. Patton’s unique sound would draw listeners from miles around, influencing generations of musicians to come.

INSIDER TIPPlan your road trip on the Blues Highway by picking a favorite musician and following their trajectory from the juke joints of the Delta to the cities of the North.

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The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center

WHERE: Indianola, Mississippi

The B.B. King Museum & Delta Interpretive Center is not only a great place to learn about one of the world’s most famous blues musicians, but it also gives visitors a taste of what it was like to live and work in this area back in the early 1900s. The museum examines the life of B.B King while also offering a look at the conditions African Americans were subjected to during the Jim Crow Era and the steps they took to escape injustice and flee north.

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The Delta Blues Museum

WHERE: Clarksdale, Mississippi

A bit further north, Clarksdale is a mandatory stop for any music fan. Here, you’ll find the Delta Blues Museum as well as the birthplace of famed musician Muddy Waters. Clarksdale is also home to Red’s, one of the last operating juke joints in the South, hosting several blues-related festivals each year, such as the Juke Joint Festival and the Deep Blues Festival.   

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The Country’s Most Historic Recording Studios

WHERE: Memphis, Tennessee

Though home to the Gateway to the Blues Museum—a surprisingly high-tech museum housed in the town visitor’s center and built to resemble an old school juke joint—Tunica, Mississippi was one of the last stops musicians made in the rural Delta before arriving at Beale Street and Memphis.

Memphis still sports some of the most historic recording studios in the country, though many have now been turned into museums. Sun Studios, for example, is where music legends like Elvis Presley and Howlin’ Wolf recorded and is largely considered one of the first rock and roll recording studios. Across town, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music documents the history of R&B music in the former home of the country’s foremost R&B recording studio.

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The National Civil Rights Museum

WHERE: Memphis, Tennessee

To visit Memphis is to honor the Black community and the tragic injustices and torment they were subjected to as a result of systematic racism. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis can be found at the former Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968.

The museum looks at the history of the American Civil Rights Movement and its prevalence in today’s culture. More than six million African Americans fled the American South between 1916 and 1979, bringing their food, culture, and music north with them. Industrial towns like St. Louis and Chicago became musical hotbeds as the promise of factory work and some small semblance of safety drew the Black community in droves.

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The National Blues Museum

WHERE: St. Louis, Missouri

The vibe and pace of these northern and midwestern cities had as profound an effect on the music as the music had on the cities. In St. Louis, the existing piano sound of musicians like Scott Joplin blended with the blues to create a more ragtime tune that became the lay of the land. “St. Louis Blues,” composed by W. C. Handy—often referred to as the Father of the Blues—remains a blues and jazz standard, and the city is home to the National Blues Museum, which speaks to this important genre of music and how influential it was to the city of St. Louis.

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The Windy City's Blues Clubs

WHERE: Chicago, Illinois

Further north in Chicago, the city’s influence was even more profound. It was here that the introduction of the electric guitar—a necessity for playing in crowded clubs and competing with street noise—transformed the blues into rock and roll. Chess Records was one of the Chicago labels that saw this transformation happen and is now the Willie Dixson’s Blues Heaven Foundation, operating as both a museum and a nonprofit organization supporting the city’s existing artists and musicians. Chicago is still home to countless clubs like Kingston Mines and Buddy Guy’s Legends, which feature the work of blues, jazz, and rock and roll musicians following in this long-standing musical tradition.