The blues trail – New Orleans to Vicksburg

There’s a famous road that follows the Mississippi river as it tears through the land: route 61, also known as the blues trail. This is the road that gave blues musicians the freedom to travel up and down the state and spread the love of blues. So, it seemed like a must-do for my degree!

New Orleans

We started in New Orleans, landing at Louis Armstrong airport, a city not often linked with blues but it has deep connections here. Jelly Roll Morton started he heard blues, or something similar as the genre was developing, as he was growing up in the city. But today jazz dominates – the music is everywhere, on street corners, in parks, though the area of Storyville where jazz is thought to originated is lost. Storyville was created due to laws that put African Americans, Creole descendants, Native Americans, anyone who wasn’t white, together. Brothels were across the road from doctors. These people had to find a way to live together. African American men were also banned from patronising brothels with women of any race, but they could play music there. Many brothels preferred women musicians playing for their visitors as they didn’t disturb the other working women.

Enough history, after an evening recovering from the flight in a local bar watching basketball – go team! – we spent the morning in a friendly church, St Augustine’s, where they have a lot of information on African American slave history, highlighting the plight of their ancestors. There is a cross made from the cuffs of the slaves outside along with an acknowledge to the unknown slave buried underneath the church. The service was supported by a fantastic gospel choir, which brings a whole new aspect of joy to the priest’s words, reinforcing his statements with positivity and joy through their music.

Then it was on to learn more about voodoo and how Catholicism (NO is 65% Catholic) influenced voodoo in the nineteenth century. Voodoo has become a caricature in modern media – it was never a belief system to do bad, but one created to support people through life, much the same as religions, and is very much misunderstood. We visited the History of Voodoo, a mad place packed out with information that spans ceiling to floor – you could visit ten times and see something new every time. There was lots of information about Marie Laveau, the famous voodoo priestess of New Orleans, how the crossover between voodoo gods and saints occur – Papa Legba is seen to be the equivalent of St Peter – and I know now how to create a zombie army.

We watched a couple of weddings dance their way through the French Quarter, the same musicians playing the same song – When the Saints Come Marching In; the paddle steamers waiting on the side of the Mississippi, all playing jazz; the little hustlers, boys aged about nine or ten, working on the street with buckets and demonstrating their skill at playing rhythms with sticks, a bucket and the floor, and who are utterly incredible already; the river herself, a huge brown, swirling mass of currents that run away from each other at speed, so strange to see.

We’ll be back to investigate, but this trip isn’t about New Orleans, it’s about the Mississippi.

Route 61

It goes over the bayou, swamp that goes on for hundreds of miles with trees sticking out, a lot of them dead and grey but still home to the birds that live there. It’s eerie to see, totally unlike the English landscape, and one I’d like to explore more. There are channels cut through it, but it’s been largely left to itself.

A terrible photo taken while driving over the bayou, but you get the idea

And then we hit land: Mississippi. There’s a difference between the south of the state and the Delta, the land is different. In the south, the land is green and wooded and there are small hills that break up the driving. The communities are small and there’s at least one church to support the people who live there – the church is incredible important for bringing these communities together, and, I guess, providing them with entertainment or access to things to do. There’s not much around.

We arrived in Natchez, once the richest city in Mississippi state, and full of antebellum and postbellum houses, beautiful to see. We stayed in one and it’s an incredible space, high ceiling, elaborate fire places, and a porch where you can spend your time watching the world go by. We visited Melrose estate, not a plantation but a house built for pleasure by a rich lawyer in the antebellum period, and here I filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge about plantations and slavery.

The big house

Slave quarters – ten people per building

The estate grew crops but they weren’t for sale, and the family owned slaves. There are bells in each room so that the slaves would know what they had to bring to which room. They didn’t have to speak to ask questions. Part of the windows opened out, turning into a door, meaning the slaves didn’t always have to walk through the house to deliver the goods. The slave quarters had ten people to a room. In the UK, we don’t have to face the results of slavery, we only have the output from the money made by slave traders and plantation owners, we don’t see the conditions a displaced people lived and worked in, the scars left on people over one hundred years later. It’s noticeable here in Mississippi, and has really brought home the damage these crops have wrought.

Here we got our first taste of Mississippi blues: YZ Ealey, yep, he played our first night here in the state. Just turned 81 years old and he has played with everyone and anyone. And he was incredible. We ate catfish and listened to this man sing songs from when he first started playing back in the 1940s, and then I got it, I really got what the blues was for an oppressed people. It was dangerous to talk to white people in those days – you couldn’t say yes or no to a white man, a black man couldn’t look at a white woman without trouble, a black woman couldn’t say no to a white man if he wanted her. The blues gave a voiceless, powerless people the chance to speak and tell their story.

Natchez was flooded when we were there, up to 56 feet of water, and when it gets to 57 feet then it’ll be a new record for the town. The Mississippi was there, brown and fast-moving, a strong current that I watched boats fight against as they pushed up the river. She doesn’t make it easy for them.

The Mississippi river at Natchez

The road

Back on 61 and the road changes from smooth riding to concrete slabs that have been put down on a slightly raised road to drive over the flooded fields that stretch for miles and miles. The crops – cotton, soybean, etc, have just been planted and each row stretches out for at least one or two miles. The earth is grey, light grey in the south, and a yellow-grey in the north of the state, and it shimmers in the light from the water. I think it’s silt, looks like it and the earth crumbles in your hands. The sky is so so blue and the land is vast and flat. You can see back for miles and miles until a small treeline in the distance breaks up the view. Creeks and drainage ditches run alongside the road, alligators sunbathe on old logs, turtles stretch their necks up to the sun, storks walk carefully through the water, hunting frogs. This landscape isn’t still, look close enough and you can see life everywhere.

The Delta.

We stopped off in Vicksburg – the start of the Delta region – and to check out the town. It’s very much geared up for the Confederate history buffs, with very little about the blues here. Vicksburg was once home for Charley Patton, Bo Carter and Honeyboy Edwards, Little Brother Montgomery, Willie Dixon, Milt Hinton, Johnny Young, Walter Barnes, and Thomas Pinkston. Everyone has played here at one time or another, from Louis Armstrong to King Oliver, but there’s nothing here to celebrate it. Jazz music was piped into the street as we walked, the river beside us as we looked at place where the levee camp once was, and the rail road that also follows part of the river. Levee camps were often made of prisoners and/or free men, working on the levee and they needed music – levee work was hard, really hard, nearly as bad as gravel camps where men would break up rocks for gravel. If your crop had failed or done badly that year then you might have to work at a camp to make up the shortfall in your money.

Disappointed in the lack of blues markers, we headed on up the road – it feels endless, grey earth, blue sky, huge plantations everywhere interspersed with small collections of worn down trailers or slightly better long wooden cabins huddled together, usually with at least one church nearby to support the community there. Some of the churches are huge brick buildings, enough for hundreds of people, while others are one storey, wooden structures for the few worshippers in the area. There some beautiful houses on raised hillocks, and then there are a lot of rundown shacks. It’s a land of extremes.

The blog post is long enough, I’ll write more in the next one. It’s stopped raining and I want to hit the road.

3 thoughts on “The blues trail – New Orleans to Vicksburg”

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