HIGHWAY 61: THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA BLUES
HEADING UP NORTH ON HIGHWAY 61:
For the bluesmen of the 1930s and ’40s, Highway 61 heading north out of Mississippi provided a tangible lifeline: an escape route from crippling poverty. Thousands of Mississippians fled north to Chicago and Detroit, where employment in heavy industry was both easy to come by and fantastically lucrative by comparison with sharecropping. Bound up in the same pitiful economy, these bluesmen, now revered but then equally impoverished, joined the migration.
Awaiting them was something unexpected: the electric guitar, which the blues migrant musicians to Chicago, such as Buddy Guy, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker, grabbed onto eagerly and used to transform their original folk style into what became known first as rhythm and blues and, eventually, into rock and roll. In Chicago, the bluesmen’s eventual transition to rock and roll flowed through the legendary old Chess Recording Studio at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue, on the city’s Southside.
THE OLD CHESS RECORDING STUDIO
CHESS RECORDS: PRESENTLY HOME TO THE WILLIE DIXON BLUES FOUNDATION
Musicians having long-time recording associations with Chess inluded Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Etta James, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, Ramsey Lewis, Ahmad Jamal, Aretha Franklin and dozens of others. Recordings such as “Johnny B. Goode,” “Rescue Me,” and “Red Rooster” were all recorded at Chess. In the 1960s, The Rolling Stones immortalized the address of Chess Records in their blues instrumental “2120 S. Michigan Avenue,” much of which was recorded there. And it was to the musicians at Chess Records that members of many other great rock and roll bands frequently made pilgrimages to hone their musical crafts at the feet of the old masters.
THE ROLLING STONES AND MUDDY WATERS: “MANNISH BOY” (“I’M A MAN”)
(The Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago)
Driving back south down Highway 61 today, into the Mississippi Delta lowlands that the bluesmen left behind, feels rather like a journey back to pre-war, pre-amplified America. Incredibly, for a highway so rich in history, the road remained a “one lane each way” route right up until 2006. The surrounding flatlands have long been used primarily for cotton farming. Ploughed for winter, the fields stretch out seemingly endlessly, with only scattered overhead irrigation systems, clumps of barren hardwood trees, and the odd tumbledown wooden shack breaking the sightline to the horizon.
MULTIMEDIA PRESENTATION: HIGHWAY 61: THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA BLUESMEN
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