Tuesday, July 08, 2008

My Mississippi Manifest Destiny: Highway 61 Blues Museum

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son."
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but the next time you see me comin' you better run
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."

Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited," 1965.

With the exception of Route 66, none of the old US Highways have as much mystique as US Route 61. In Mississippi, it's known as the Blues Highway--it bisects the Delta region of the state--and that's where most, if not all of the legendary Misssissippi blues artists come from. B.B King hails from Indianola, Robert Johnson (more on him when I get to Clarksdale) was born in Hazlehurst, Muddy Waters grew up in Clarksdale, Jimmy Reed in Dunleith.

Located on Highway 61, roughly at the geographic center of the Delta region, is the town of Leland, and that's where the Highway 61 Blues Museum is. When I dropped in two months ago, it was an auspicious time for the institution, they were just two or three days away from moving to a larger location on Broad Street, Leland's main thoroughfare. That's the new museum up above.

I arrived at the old museum shortly after noon, which was unfortunately when the host, an elderly woman named Martha Fratesi, was enjoying her lunch. I paid my $5.00 admission fee, she quickly finished eating, and then popped in a CD by Mickey Rogers, who lives in Panther Burn, just south of Leland.

Fratesi gave me the full tour, and as we walked past each display case, she offered stories about the blues and Leland. She told me that her "memory wasn't what is used to be," but it seemed as sharp as a guitar pick to me. I mentioned to her that I was from the Chicago area, and she quickly directed me to the two posters on the right, promoting long-ago concerts by Bobby "Blue" Bland, one at the UIC Pavilion, the other at the Gary Renaissance Center in Indiana. Little Milton played with Bland at the Gary gig.

B.B King has a display, so does Jimmy Reed, and so do many other worthy performers. But I'm sure the new location has much more to see, so all I have to say, is go there yourself and report back to me.

Although I'm pretty familiar with blues music, many of the musicians I hadn't heard of until that afternoon. In some of the photographs, the honorees pictured are quite old, some in wheelchairs, some are missing limbs. It undoubtedly means a lot to the musicians, as well as their families, that there is a place that remembers their contributions to a great American form of art.

Fratesi took me to the Johnny and Edgar Winter. "Wait, hold on," I exclaimed, "they're Texans." But she explained to me that the Winters' father was Leland's mayor during the 1930s; the family moved to Beaumont, Texas sometime in the 1940s. Some biographies of Johnny Winter, who is older than Edgar, list Leland as his birthplace, but Johnny Winters' website says he was born in Beaumont.

Four murals dedicated to blues music are located in Leland, and they'll be the topic of my next post.

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