The Mississippi Blues Trail celebrates the people and places that have influenced the development of the blues, the soulful musical genre that combines lyrical tales of tragedy, hardship, and lost love with creative and evocative harmonics. Perhaps the greatest creation to come out of Mississippi, the blues have inspired musicians around the world and shaped popular culture in America. The Blues Trail consists of markers placed at sites around the state, each recounting the story of an artist, venue, or event that played an important role in the development of the blues. The markers serve as a source of civic pride, keep alive local stories and sentiments, stimulate economic growth, attract tourists, and provide opportunities for education about the cultural heritage of Mississippi communities.
Each marker documents an important legacy that has local, national, and global significance. Some capture stories at risk of being lost forever, as they have persisted only through oral history or have been suppressed by those who have devalued the blues as the “devil’s music.” Once in place, the markers create greater interest in the roots of American music, attracting blues fans and heritage tourists from around the world. Visitors are eager to experience the places that have been immortalized in song and that gave the blues life and want to learn more about the people who made the music. The sites along the Blues Trail convey these stories from a hometown perspective.
Tourism benefits the communities where markers are placed, as it stimulates economic growth, creates opportunities for local jobs, and brings visitors from all over the world to Mississippi towns. Residents who are unaware of their local heritage can learn about people and events that crafted the fabric of their community and can take pride in sharing these stories with others. The Blues Trail also provides schools with a tangible means to educate young people about Mississippi’s cultural history.
Heritage preservation efforts such as the Mississippi Blues Trail frequently enjoy broad public and institutional support because they bring together diverse interests. By linking cultural stewardship and economic development, the Blues Trail appeals to artists and musicians, historians, fans of popular culture, travelers, business and economic growth advocates, educators, and conservationists, among others.
Several trends inspired the creation of the Mississippi Blues Trail. Tourism grew as an engine of economic growth and gained institutional support in Mississippi after casino gaming was legalized in 1990. As the state built a tourism infrastructure, interest in heritage tourism increased, especially after the US National Park Service sponsored a 1996 conference to explore the cultural heritage of the Lower Mississippi Delta region. The blues emerged as an important theme, and early in the twenty-first century parallel efforts spearheaded by the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, the Delta Research and Cultural Institute at Mississippi Valley State University, and the B. B. King Museum in Indianola coalesced to increase interest in blues tourism and opened the possibility for political action. When the Memphis-based Blues Foundation declared 2003 the Year of the Blues, Mississippi governor Ronnie Musgrove created a commission to find ways of recognizing and promoting the role the blues has played in Mississippi’s culture. The following year the state legislature passed and new governor Haley Barbour signed a measure drafted by the commission that created the eighteen-member Mississippi Blues Commission to oversee blues preservation and development.
The Mississippi Blues Commission took on administering the Mississippi Blues Trail as the centerpiece of its activities. A blue-ribbon panel identified more than one hundred sites worthy of commemoration. Blues historians and scholars carefully research and write each story, which is then placed on a marker with raised lettering on the front and a variety of text, photos, maps, and other artifacts on the back. The first marker, honoring Charley Patton, was unveiled on 11 December 2006 in Holly Ridge, and over the next decade more than two hundred other markers were added. The dedication ceremonies have taken on tremendous meaning for the communities where the markers are located and have attracted families of those honored, blues artists involved in the story, and dignitaries, some of whom have traveled great distances to attend.
The thirteen-member nonprofit Mississippi Blues Foundation was created to raise money for the Blues Trail and other efforts to preserve and honor blues legends, and the Mississippi Development Authority’s Division of Tourism Development provides statewide institutional support for the Blues Trail. The Blues Trail’s success led to similar efforts, including the Mississippi Freedom Trail, which honors civil rights activities, and trails honoring country and gospel music.
- Blues Foundation website, www.blues.org
- Luther Brown, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University and member of the Mississippi Blues Commission, interview by Alan W. Barton (1 August 2007)
- Marvin Haire, director of the Delta Research and Cultural Institute at Mississippi Valley State University and chair of the Mississippi Blues Foundation, interview by Alan W. Barton (7 September 2007)
- Mississippi Blues Commission website, www.msbluestrail.org
- Mississippi Development Authority website, www.visitmississippi.org
- Alex Thomas, director of heritage trails, Mississippi Development Authority, and member of the Mississippi Blues Commission, interview by Alan W. Barton (14 September 2007)