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Touring the Southern Blues Trail

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© R. Crumb, from R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country, Abrams Books

From roadside juke joints to new hotels, the blues live on along the Southern Blues Trail.

The blues, the bedrock of American music, began on a vast stretch of fertile soil called the Mississippi Delta, which goes from Memphis to the Yazoo River and southerly to Vicksburg. The roots of blues can be traced to West African tribal songs, but the first seedlings grew out of this soil, rich in cotton—and rich in the misery wrought picking it.

“The blues,” Howlin’ Wolf once said, “is problems,” and for a long time the history of the blues, like problems, was covered up. But in 2006, Mississippi began to protect its history with the Mississippi Blues Trail. Today the path courses through the Delta, touching nearly every juke joint, homestead and graveyard where the blues began. There are more than 130 markers, and as the trail heats up, more are added yearly. But it’s not just history. The blues live.

Today the blues can be heard nearly everywhere. Just turn on the radio: The 12-bar blues is the skeleton for everything from punk to jazz to country to rock ’n’ roll. But a journey across the Blues Trail yields new hues and deeper richness. The path has drawn many, from folklorist Alan Lomax in the 1930s to filmmakers Roger Stolle and Jeff Konkel, whose 2008 documentary, M for Mississippi, captured the bittersweet richness of the area’s music and musicians. And as the blues have gained popularity worldwide, new hotels, restaurants and museums and modern juke joints have sprouted like morning glories along the Blues Trail.

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