With the tomb of a king, a deal with the devil, and the start of World War III in its rear view mirror, it’s no wonder U.S. Route 61 is called the Blues Highway.
Of course, there’s a more literal translation for the nickname: The road marks the path many blues musicians took when traveling from the Mississippi Delta up to northern strongholds like Chicago and Saint Paul, spreading the sounds of the first truly American musical art form.
Sticking close to the Mississippi River, the road snakes down the country’s center, highlighting an area typically overshadowed by its coastal cousins. But its lesser-traveled status means that much more of the highway’s history has been preserved—not to mention its hotels, restaurants, and attractions are typically easier on the wallet.
And aside from housing Elvis’ final resting place, the mythological crossroads where Robert Johnson signed a hellish pact for his guitar-playing skills, and the bleachers where a Bob Dylan character plotted the next great world conflict, the road includes a number of sights—and, especially, sounds—that any traveler, music lover or not, will enjoy.
Saint Paul, MN
“I met her accidentally in Saint Paul, Minnesota,” starts the ballad Big River, in which Johnny Cash bemoans his failed attempt to track an elusive love interest down the Mississippi.
Fittingly, the city also marks the start of U.S. Route 61.
As the state capital, Saint Paul has plenty to offer travelers kicking off their journey down the fabled road, including a zoo, a conservatory, an amusement park, and a number of museums.
The State Capitol building itself is renowned for its architectural beauty, and for those who can’t afford a trip to Rome, the Cathedral of Saint Paul—a replica of the Italian city’s St. Peter’s Basilica—is also conveniently located in town.
If you’re more of a literary type, the house F. Scott Fitzgerald finished his first novel in—a gorgeous New York-style rowhome called Summit Terrace—can be found on Summit Avenue, a walkable neighborhood filled with beautiful historic estates.
And of course, there are a number of performance spaces, included on this list of best places to hear the blues in the Twin Cities.
Afterwards, contemplate your experience at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area before getting in your car and following the body of water down south.
St. Louis, MO
You’ll pass some moderately-sized cities as you continue down Route 61, but keep your eyes on the prize: St. Louis is where the first known song mentioning the highway was recorded by blues group The Sparks Brothers.
But that’s not nearly the only show in town.
Famous for its baseball obsession, no trip to the Midwestern locale can be complete without seeing the home of the Cardinals, Busch Stadium—or the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, which also calls the city home.
St. Louis also features a zoo, its own Walk of Fame, a huge number of parks and museums, and a number of architectural anomalies like the Eads Bridge, built in 1874, or the 1929-commissioned Chain of Rocks Bridge, which includes an eye-bending 30-degree turn in the middle.
Other structures of note in the town include the boyhood home of ragtime piano virtuoso Scott Joplin, and one more tiny addition: the 630-foot tall St. Louis Arch, considered the Gateway to the West, which tourists can ride to the top of to look out upon the great American frontier.
Just four hours south of St. Louis is perhaps the mecca of Mississippi blues towns: Memphis.
The city played a crucial role in blues history as the home of Sun Studio, which has seen such legends as B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis—to name just a few—grace its microphones. It’s a must-see for any music lover traveling Highway 61.
Follow that experience with trips to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum to trace the beginnings of such artists and their sounds, or see the last resting place of one of them: the famous Graceland Mansion that Elvis called home.
If you’re more of a locaphile, check out the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, which honors musicians hailing from the town.
Unfortunately, Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel recently closed, so if you’re feeling lonely in the city, you’ll have to look elsewhere to cheer yourself up, like one of the area’s many parks, museums, and gardens—or its famous pyramid.
Highway 61 may terminate, but your fun doesn’t have to. If you follow the road to the end, you’ll wrap up your journey in a city known worldwide for its musical prowess.
With a casual walk down Bourbon Street or throughout the famous French Quarter, you can hear blues, jazz, and zydeco—the famous bayou mashup of musical influences—wafting out of nearly any door.
The city plays host each year to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, featuring a number of stages with live performances of the genres, and is home all year long to an array of celebrated blues clubs.
That goes without mentioning the town’s rich and varied history, which brings to it a battery of museums, historical houses, and haunted tours. (Where else can say not just one but two local cemeteries are frequented by tourists?)
And if all those blues have you jonesing to eat your feelings, you’re in luck. The city is a culinary capital, known for its mix of African, French, Caribbean, and Cajun delights. Or you could stand in line for a famous beignet at Café Du Monde. Go ahead, blues traveler, you’ve earned it.
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Have some extra time to wander off the beaten path? These locations may not make the marquee or fit neatly along Route 61, but they can offer plenty of history and insight into blues music and culture in the United States.
Not too far from the highway’s start in St. Paul is Chicago, the end goal of most blues musicians traveling up Route 61.
The city gained prominence for the musical style during the Great Migration, the period between 1916 and 1970 where large numbers of African Americans left the segregated South for a fairer shake, taking their Delta Blues with them.
Lending its name to its own brand of the music—the Chicago Blues, which typically features more guitar- and harmonica-heavy riffs—the city is namechecked by nearly every boldface name the genre produced, from Muddy Waters to Robert Johnson.
And while more than a handful of huge blues artists recorded there, few of the studios remain in the Windy City. But don’t fret: plenty of venues keep that spirit alive today.
Another short jump from the fabled highway is a town you’ve never heard of—unless you listen closely to Johnny Cash records.
Dyess, Arkansas is the location of the famous singer’s boyhood home, which has been preserved and turned into a museum for fans who want a better idea of the recording artist’s deepest roots.
Just about two hours from Memphis lies another little-known town with big blues implications: Clarksdale.
The Mississippi locale has a serious claim to blues fame as the former home of a cadre of the genre’s most influential musicians, including John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Junior Parker, Eddie Boyd, and Big Jack Johnson, to name a few.
Baton Rouge, LA
This Louisiana city was once the former blues heavyweight of the nation, laying claim to giants of the genre like Buddy Guy and Slim Harpo.
And while little of that prestige remains today, the town still offers some old juke joints and famous—if abandoned—blues establishments of years past.
Any aficionado should stop to appreciate the rich history the town has to offer.