Blues is a genre full of rich history, culture, and good ol’ fashioned heart and soul. And what better way to appreciate the music than to put yourself in the shoes of the blues greats? If you’re gearing up for a trip to Mississippi – or in search of your next great road trip — add the Mississippi Blues Trail to your list. Think of it like a scavenger hunt for music lovers, one that will open your eyes to the sights and sounds that shaped musicians such as BB King, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters.
About The Mississippi Blues Trail
While the name may be misleading, this trail isn’t one you can stroll down! It spans across the state of Mississippi from the Gulf Coast north up several highways (including Highway 61, known as the “Blues Highway”), and even some out-of-state locations.
The trail was created in 2006 by the Mississippi Blues Commission, working with blues scholars and historians to designate locations throughout the state and beyond that either played a part in the history of the genre, or that represent a specific artist. As of now there are almost 200 markers, but don’t worry: it’s self-guided and with no set flow, so visitors can pick and choose which landmarks to include in their journey, from city streets to cotton fields, train depots to cemeteries, and many other stops worth checking out.
So, What are the Best Stops on the Blues Trail?
The trail markers all signify a part of blues history, but some are certainly more exciting than others. If you’re only hitting a few stops, here are some of the highlights:
- Coast Region (Biloxi, Gulfport, Hattiesburg)
- Hattiesburg, MS: Although rock ‘n’ roll is most commonly connected to the 1950s, the Mississippi Jook Band earned a nod from Rolling Stone as the first “fully formed rock and roll” recording in Hattiesburg in 1936. The city was also the site of a historic series of recording sessions by Mississippi blues, gospel, and country performers – although most of the recordings were never released.
- Biloxi, MS: As the Mississippi Coast flourished into a popular destination for tourists, gamblers, and maritime workers, the city of Biloxi made a name for itself as a hotspot for musical culture. Many prominent musicians and bands made stops along Main Street in the 1940s, including Bill Johnson’s Creole Band, which introduced New Orleans-style music to the area.
- River/Capital Region (Jackson, Vicksburg, Natchez)
- Highway 61: You might get your kicks on Route 66, but dozens of blues artists have paid tribute to Highway 61. B. B. King and several other musicians lived near this highway, and sung its praises in their lyrics. To many, Highway 61 signified opportunities to head out of town and leave their troubles behind.
- Pines Region (Meridian, Columbus, Starkville)
- Columbus, MS: Eastern Mississippi was home to several great blues artists, including Howlin’ Wolf and Bukka White, and the city of Columbus was one of the main stops for touring acts. Most artists stayed at the Queen City Hotel, which for many years was the only hotel that catered to African Americans. The trail marker here is on the 4th street in an area known as “Catfish Alley,” where local fishermen brought their catches in to be cooked and sold on the streets.
- Delta Region (Robinsonville, Cleveland, Tunica)
- Dockery Farms: Known as the “Birthplace of the Blues,” this plantation farm was intermittently home to Charley Patton for almost three decades, and regularly hosted musicians like Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson.
- Nelson Street: This iconic street in Greenville, MS, played a huge role in the Delta blues culture, with a flourishing nightlife throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s. Live music was everywhere, ranging from Delta blues to big band jump blues to jazz. Famous blues clubs on Nelson Street included the Casablanca, the Flowing Fountain, and the Playboy Club.
- Riverside Hotel: Looking for a place to stay in Clarksdale? The Riverside Hotel is a fully-functioning hotel that boasts a rich history. Prior to 1944, the building was the G.T. Thomas Hospital, serving the African American population of the area. Later on as a hotel, it became a mainstay for traveling musicians like Ike Turner, Johnny O’Neal, and Robert Nighthawk.
- Hills Region (Aberdeen, Tupelo, Oxford)
- Elvis Presley’s hometown: Imagine life as The King by exploring Elvis’s hometown of Tupelo, MS. His musical style was partly inspired by the blues he heard growing up in Tupelo, especially around the Shake Rag area, a predominantly African American neighborhood.
Planning Your Mississippi Blues Trail Road Trip
The great thing about the trail, as mentioned above, is that there’s no set starting point or end – so the itinerary is yours to create! Starting your journey from a major city can make the trip easy, as there’s so much to see from the start. From Biloxi, for example, check out the trail marker at the intersection of Main and Murray Streets, grab lunch nearby, and then pack up for a 30-minute drive west to Gulfport, where you can learn about the active rhythm and blues scene in this popular town for tourists. After you’ve done some exploring there, hit the road to Hattiesburg, about 70 miles north, where rock and roll found its roots.
Need some more itinerary ideas? The Mississippi Blues Trail website offers downloadable maps, as well as app to help you plan your route. The choice – and the adventure – is yours. Turn up the music, roll down your windows, have fun exploring some of blues history and culture firsthand!