U. S. Highway 61, known as the "blues highway," rivals Route 66 as the most famous road in American music lore. Dozens of blues artists have recorded songs about Highway 61, including Mississippians Sunnyland Slim, James “Son” Thomas, “Honeyboy” Edwards, Big Joe Williams, Joe McCoy, Charlie Musselwhite, Eddie Shaw, Johnny Young, Eddie Burns, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. The original route, now called Old Highway 61, was just west of here.
Travel has been a popular theme in blues lyrics, and highways have symbolized the potential to quickly “pack up and go,” leave troubles behind, or seek out new opportunities elsewhere. As the major route northward out of Mississippi, U. S. Highway 61 has been of particular inspiration to blues artists. The original road began in downtown New Orleans, traveled through Baton Rouge, and ran through Natchez, Vicksburg, Leland, Cleveland, Clarksdale, and Tunica in Mississippi, to Memphis and north to the Canadian border. Mississippi artists who lived near Highway 61 included B. B. King, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (Rice Miller), Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk, Sunnyland Slim, Honeyboy Edwards, Sam Cooke, James Cotton, Jimmy Reed, and Junior Parker.
The first song recorded about the road was Roosevelt Sykes’s “Highway 61 Blues,” cut in 1932; at the time Sykes was a resident of St. Louis, the first major city along Highway 61 above the Mason-Dixon line. In 1933 two Memphis bluesmen, Jack Kelly and Will Batts, recorded "Highway No. 61 Blues," and the Tupelo-born Sparks Brothers cut "61 Highway." Other 1930s recordings included "Highway 61," a sermon by Raymond, Mississippi, native “Hallelujah Joe” McCoy; "Highway 61" by Jesse James; and "Highway 61 Blues" by Sampson Pittman, recorded for Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress. In 1947 Gatemouth Moore recorded a jump blues version of “Highway 61 Blues,” and in 1956 pianist Sunnyland Slim (Albert Luandrew) of Vance, Mississippi, recorded “Highway 61.” Over the next decades Highway 61 songs often appeared on albums by James “Son” Thomas of Leland, Honeyboy Edwards, Big Joe Williams, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and other traditional blues veterans.
Although many bluesmen used the lyrics “Highway 61, longest road that I know,” their descriptions of the highway’s route were often misleading. Some suggested that the road started at the Gulf of Mexico (100 miles south of New Orleans) and ran through Atlanta, New York City, or Chicago. Many Mississippians certainly did begin their migrations to Chicago via Highway 61, but most finished their journeys by continuing from St. Louis to the Windy City along the famous Route 66. In 1965 the road gained an even more mythological reputation when Bob Dylan recorded his influential album “Highway 61 Revisited.” Dylan was well versed in the blues, but his inspiration may also have come from the fact that Highway 61 ran through his home state of Minnesota.
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