Congress officially declared 2003 to be The Year of the Blues, as a way of marking the 100th anniversary of the day when African-American composer W.C. Handy stood on a train platform in Mississippi and encountered what he called "the weirdest music I ever heard." W. C. Handy became fascinated by those sounds, and ended up doing so much to help make them popular that he's come to be known as the father of the blues.
The year has been full of blues festivals, films, teaching projects and other centennial events, including the publication of a new guidebook by British travel writer Richard Knight. He is among the many people worldwide who have become passionate fans of the Blues. His travel guide is titled The Blues Highway: New Orleans to Chicago.
Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra aren't the only musicians to think about traveling when they perform the blues. There really is a Blues Highway from New Orleans to Chicago, and Richard Knight says it was the scene of one of the major migrations in American history.
"The Blues Highway is one road, which was taken by African-Americans who left the Deep South, heading for Chicago in search of jobs and better lives in the first half of the 20th century," he explains. "It's Highway 61, which eventually turns into Highway 55 and travels through the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, St. Louis and eventually on into Chicago. It's christened the Blues Highway because many of the innovators of jazz and blues and these related types of music traveled north and took this music with them, and they influenced every town along the way."
Richard Knight and his girlfriend spent four months along the Blues Highway, navigating their big recreational vehicle over desolate country roads and congested city streets. The result is The Blues Highway, a guide to music clubs, festivals, museums and other landmarks along the way. The book also contains hotel and restaurant tips, and interviews with famous musicians like Ike Turner. Despite his book's title, Richard Knight says you'll hear all kinds of music along the Blues Highway.
"There are several very distinct musical genres which are related to one another," he says. "Blues, jazz, rock and roll, gospel, zydeco and even to some extent country music. Blues is probably the glue which binds them all, but in some places along the way these types of music went into a musical melting pot and a whole new kind of music came out."
Richard Knight points out that the blues grew out of the music African-American slaves brought with them to America, and New Orleans, the first stop on the highway, played a critical role in its evolution.
"As a big southern city it was something of a center for people who were taken from Africa to America. But in New Orleans certain distinct things happened," he says. "For example, slaves were allowed to meet and make music in New Orleans much, much later than they were anywhere else, so some of these musical traditions were able to survive intact. But also these people mingled with people with European musical traditions, the French, but also to some extent the Scottish, the Welch, and German people in New Orleans who had their own musical traditions. And they fused with African music and created something which only could have happened in America. It's a place where you hear music oozing from almost every door in town."
In the 'Big Easy,' blues fans can make a time honored pilgrimage to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz band, view a statue of trumpet great Louis Armstrong, or see what's billed as the boyhood home of piano player 'Jelly Roll' Morton. A few hours up the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee you can visit what Richard Knight calls "the birthplace of rock and roll.
The southern born musician Muddy Waters sang a song called The Blues Had a Baby and They Named it Rock and Roll.
"Memphis in its geographic position at the top of the Mississippi Delta acted like a funnel through which all this talent passed," says Richard Knight. "Blues men people traveling north from Mississippi met people from the hills of east Tennessee, who played country music and also met a great tradition of gospel music and put the three together. And that's pretty much what rock and roll is."
In Memphis, you can visit Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion and Sun Studios, where record producer Sam Phillips helped launch Elvis and other rock and roll legends. Richard Knight says he also came across echoes of the blues in more unexpected places. Take Davenport, Iowa, located further north along the Mississippi River, west of Chicago. There you can visit the birthplace of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke.
"Bix Beiderbecke heard somebody playing a coronet on a steamboat as it went past, and that man he heard was Louis Armstrong," says Richard Knight. "And Bix Beiderbecke was so inspired that he decided to get a coronet of his own. So you'll find that music influenced people up and down that route in unexpected ways."
Richard Knight ends his musical odyssey in Chicago, where you can visit the home of Muddy Waters, one of many southern-born musical legends who eventually made their way north.
Knight: Chicago was the place everyone was trying to get to, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people succeeded, people who arrived at Union Station in Chicago and made for the South side. They went to the tenements of an area which became known as Bronzeville. So southside Chicago became an absolute mecca from both jazz and blues traditions. And it's a place where you will still find a lot of this music being played night after night.
Beardsley: And is the sound different from what you would hear in New Orleans?
Knight: It is. New Orleans is essentially a jazz city, and Chicago is probably more of a blues city, although it does have a great jazz history too. It is a different style of blues as well. In the South and Mississippi, blues is a simpler style. In Chicago it's more urbanized, more refined, louder.
While Richard Knight's book is filled with famous names and places, he says some of his most memorable experiences along the Blues Highway came at remote spots, well off the familiar tourist trails. He advises people who go in search of the blues to be adventurous.