June 1, 2008
JACKSON, Miss. -- The Mississippi Blues Trail is the most ambitious heritage marker project I've seen since the Illinois Department of Transportation put similar postings along Route 66.
More than 40 markers telling the stories of native blues legends and events have been placed along the state's highways and byways, and plenty more are on the way.
Some are easy to find, like the James Cotton marker (No. 30 on map) at the intersection of U.S. 61 and Bonnie Blue Road, about 45 miles south of Memphis. Others are difficult to spot, like the David "Honeyboy" Edwards marker (No. 8), which I couldn't locate despite spending a half hour driving around Mississippi 448 in desolate Shaw while listening to Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft."
That's the point. Even though I never saw the Honeyboy marker, I felt the Delta heat. I absorbed the moisture of Porter Bayou. I saw the desperation of abandoned buildings in uptown Shaw. I did not have to take notes. I will always remember a place where I saw the blues.
The first of the regal blue and gold markers went in the ground in December 2006, and nearly 100 more will be added before the trail is complete, according to Heritage Trail director Alex Thomas. One side of each marker is cast iron with raised gold leaf lettering. The flip side is vinyl with images, photos and detailed information. The markers are easy to see, measuring 45 square inches.
The trail runs as far north as Tunica, where a Son House marker (No. 13) sits near Clack Road and Grand Casino Pkwy., and meanders 340 miles southeast to Gulfport, where a marker (No. 24) commemorates WJZD, the first African-American-owned radio station on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Photos of Chicago DJs E. Rodney Jones and Pervis Spann, who cut their chops in Mississippi, are on the other side of the marker.
"The goal is to give people a road map to trek around the state," said Thomas, 34, over iced tea at the Broad Street Baking Co. near downtown Jackson. "People know about Mississippi artists, but many don't know what part of the state they were born in, where they grew up or where they are buried. A lot of those places had not been marked. We are researching history, writing history and preserving history."
The more than 700 Civil War trail markers in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina were a template for the blues trail initiative.
The state tourism office collaborated on the project with former Chicagoan Jim O'Neal, the trail's research director and co-founder of Living Blues magazine, and Scott Barretta, former Living Blues editor. Funding comes from grants given by the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mississippi Transportation Department. Marker sites were picked after meeting with scholars, blues experts and Mississippi cultural organizations, O'Neal said.
"If an artist or event is known worldwide in the blues, even if they didn't have a lot of history in Mississippi, they got a marker," he said. "Like Otis Rush [Philadelphia, Miss.] or Magic Sam [Grenada]. Anyone who is in the Blues Hall of Fame [in Memphis] is automatically on the list. And then there are certain areas that are eligible, like Nelson Street in Greenville [a stomping ground for Little Milton, T-Model Ford and others] or certain plantations."
Then there are ringers like Elvis Presley in Tupelo (No. 28) and country-blues singer Jimmie Rodgers in Meridian (No. 10).
"Part of the point is to show the influence blues has had," O'Neal said. "We're not saying Elvis was a blues artist. We're saying the blues were an important part of his rock 'n' roll."
Some sites are as curious as they are compelling. The Muddy Waters marker (No. 9) is on an empty mound in Stovall, near Mississippi 1 and Oakhurst Road about five miles northwest of Clarksdale. The marker denotes the site of the plantation where Muddy lived from 1915 until his move to Chicago in 1943. You can stand on the mound and feel a lonely, howlin' wind -- even though the actual Muddy Waters one-room cabin has been moved to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale.
A Robert Johnson trail marker (No. 11) was installed last year on Money Road near the cemetery where he's buried in Greenwood. Johnson was a seminal influence on Muddy Waters and Elmore James ("Dust My Broom"). He was allegedly poisoned and died in 1938 at Star of West Plantation just south of the Little Zion MB Church cemetery.
"We are trying to restore Robert Johnson's childhood home," Thomas said. "He's originally from Hazlehurst, Miss. We're trying to acquire the house and hopefully turn it into a museum."
It was easy for me to locate a marker for the Vicksburg-based blues-jazz band Red Tops (No. 33) in downtown Vicksburg. The map I pulled off the trail Web site said the Willie Dixon marker (No. 14) commemorating the future Chess Records bassist and songwriter was nearby. I walked around the block and down to the Mississippi River. I never found it. The remedial blues trail map may be viewed at www.msbluestrail.org.
You can't buy a trail map -- at least not yet. "The trail is a work in progress and its changing daily," Thomas said.
Each community chooses where the marker goes, O'Neal said. In Natchez, I visited the "Natchez Burning" trail marker (No. 36), which commemorates the 1940 fire at the Rhythm Club that killed more than 200 people, including bandleader Walter Barnes. The marker said the club is "less than a mile southeast of this site."
"Sometimes if it is on a dirt road way out in the country they don't want to put them out there because they figure nobody is going to see them," O'Neal said.
Thomas is not worried about rising gas prices keeping trail tourism down. He said there hasn't been a drop-off in interest from international blues fans. In fact, a large group of Belgian motorcyclists were staying at the Shack Up Inn near Clarksdale when I arrived for my one-night stay in the Crossroads Shack.
"We've noticed that heritage and cultural travelers are very specific," said Thomas, whose uncle is blues singer Tommy Thomas. "They are going to go after what they want. The gas prices haven't affected them.
"The whole experience of driving down Highway 49 or 61 -- especially at night -- you think about what life was like during those early years. These artists went above and beyond to create this culture. You see the old plantations, the cotton fields and some of the catfish farms. You can't go to any other place and say it looks or feels like the Mississippi Delta."