Like an asphalt shadow snaking the land by the river, Highway 61 works its way through Mississippi from Memphis in the north down to the Louisiana line in the south. Though its full length stretches from Wyoming, Minnesota, to New Orleans, Mississippi’s 61 is arguably the most famous and infamous link in a highway whose history touches the core of the American narrative. Known for its modern association with blues history, Highway 61 also witnessed the movement of countless African American migrants escaping the harsh realities of Jim Crow and shifting agricultural patterns in the Mississippi Delta and Deep South. This iconic stretch of road passes through Tunica, Clarksdale, Cleveland, Vicksburg, and Natchez, following the river as it carries the weight of myriad histories down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Though Highway 61 runs the length of the state, its passage through Mississippi’s Delta contributes to its widely known moniker, the Blues Highway. In the twentieth century many African Americans in the Delta labored as sharecroppers on vast plantations. After a brief post–Civil War period of limited landownership and increased political representation, southern governments realigned to maintain white supremacy under the Jim Crow system. The mechanization of agricultural labor and sustained political, economic, and social inequities combined to push African Americans out of Mississippi in great numbers in the early to middle part of the century. Known as the Great Migration, this exodus was also aided by the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper that disseminated to southern blacks information about industrial employment opportunities and favorable living conditions in the North. As World War II mobilization efforts created labor shortages in northern industrial centers, African Americans increasingly left the harshly segregated South in hopes of finding better fortune, treatment, and opportunity in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and other cities. Highway 61 served as a primary conduit for thousands of these migrants. More recently, their descendants have begun to return to their southern roots in search of family, familiar landscapes, and employment opportunities in the gaming and tourism industries. Highway 61 remains an important channel for this reverse migration.
In the late twentieth century, Mississippi sought to develop and transform its economy through the engines of casino gambling and tourism. As a primary link in this developing chain, Highway 61 slips through cotton fields, dropping visitors into the neon glitz of Tunica. Farther south, the association with Mississippi blues history and culture is clearly evident. The town of Clarksdale and the state tourism office promote the connection between Highway 61 and an enticing blues narrative. Publicity for the town claims, for example, that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale. In 1941 a sharecropper named McKinley Morganfield sat down for an interview and field recording session with John Work and Alan Lomax at the Stovall farm near Clarksdale. After hearing his recorded voice and guitar for the first time, Morganfield decided to leave the heat and labor of the Delta and travel the Illinois Central Gulf rail line that paralleled Highway 61 to Chicago. Within a few years, Morganfield changed his name to Muddy Waters, forever shaping American music and cultural history. These images are routinely employed in Clarksdale’s tourism literature and within Mississippi’s continuing effort to brand itself as a blues cultural mecca. As Mississippi’s Blues Highway, Highway 61 serves a critical modern function by providing a touristic experience in which distinctive mythic landscapes and histories are promoted, encountered, and interpreted.
As its tourism economy gathers steam, Mississippi needs to involve local communities along the Highway 61 corridor in the creation and packaging of heritage-based narratives. Like many unique southern locales, the Mississippi Delta obtains significant economic benefits from heritage tourism efforts. As blues culture continues to form the core of these efforts, local input is critical to maintaining historical integrity within highly complex and at times controversial themes.
- Alan W. Barton, Attitudes about Heritage Tourism in the Mississippi Delta: A Policy Report from the 2005 Delta Rural Poll, Policy Paper no. 05–02, Center for Community and Economic Development, Delta State University (December 2005)
- James Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- Alferdteen Harrison, ed., Black Exodus: The Great Migration from the American South (1991)
- Benita J. Howell, ed., Cultural Heritage Conservation in the American South (1990)
- Stephen A. King, Arkansas Review (April 2005)
- Randall Norris, ed., Highway 61: Heart of the Delta (2008)
- Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (2004)