Rising out of the African-American experiences of the South, blues music is a distinctly U.S. form of artistic expression.
Following the path of the Mississippi River, the sound of the blues traveled and transformed from south to north. Today, you can hear the blues in every corner of the world, but these five U.S. cities form the bedrock of blues music.
Clarksdale, Mississippi: The Blues is Born
This is where the original 12-bar delta blues was born. Stand under the guitar statue at the “Devil’s Crossroads,” where legend claims that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play the blues. Get a proper history lesson on icons like Muddy Waters, Son House and John Lee Hooker at the Rock & Blues Museum and the Delta Blues Museum. The latter houses the remains of the cabin where Waters first recorded songs in 1941.
Live music is everywhere. If you want a true juke joint experience, have cash in hand at Red’s Lounge, where the experience is as authentic as it gets. See famous and up-and-coming bands at Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by actor and part-time Mississippi resident Morgan Freeman. Hopson Plantation Commissary features great performances and a plantation-turned-motel called the Shack Up Inn. Attend the Juke Joint Festival in April, Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in August or Deep Blues Festival in October.
The famous “Devil’s Crossroads” intersection in Clarksdale, Mississippi
Memphis, Tennessee: Home of the Blues and Beale Street
Since the early 1900s, Memphis’ Beale Street has attracted blues performers and colorful characters. The bootleggers, gamblers and voodoo queens may be gone, but blues music remains. Pedestrian-friendly Beale Street is lined with one club after another, not to mention amazing restaurants serving barbecue and soul food. Favorites to try are B.B. King’s Blues Club, Blues Hall Juke Joint and Blues City Café.
In Memphis, find other historic musical treasures, including Sun Studio, a National Historic Landmark where notables from Elvis Presley to B.B. King laid tracks. Pay homage to Presley, “The King of Rock ’n’ Roll,” at Graceland, where he lived from 1957 to 1977. Visit the Blues Hall of Fame Museum to see memorabilia from inductees, walk through Memphis music history at the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, and check out Isaac Hayes’ flashy, gold-plated Cadillac Eldorado and other soul music gems at the Stax Museum of American Soul.
Viewing exhibits inside Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee
Nashville, Tennessee: Music City and Songwriting Capital
Nashville has been a country and bluegrass mecca for more than 100 years, so what about the blues? Nashville is where Jimi Hendrix said he really learned to play guitar, Little Richard got his R&B footing, Marion James became the “Queen of the Blues” and Etta James belted out her 1964 “Etta James Rocks the House” album. Now, it’s the home of Grammy-winning blues musician Keb’ Mo’.
Check out the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry; the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum; RCA Studio B, where Elvis Presley recorded more than 200 songs; and specialized attractions like the Johnny Cash Museum, the Patsy Cline Museum and the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum. Take a stroll and view the Music City Walk of Fame stars dedicated to music’s biggest powerhouses. Listen to toe-tapping sounds at B.B. King’s Blues Club and Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee
Chicago, Illinois: The Blues Goes Electric
When the blues took hold in the streets of Chicago, it brought in electric guitars and lyrics reflecting life in the city. Chicago artists like Tampa Red influenced the Southerners who brought their talents north. The roster included Mississippi-born Muddy Waters, who became known as the “Father of Chicago Blues.”
Chicago-style blues is wildly popular, and you will find plenty of venue options. Try Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. or Rosa’s Lounge in the Logan Square neighborhood. See autographed guitars and catch a show at Buddy Guy’s Legends, and save a Sunday for the Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues. In June, the Chicago Blues Festival is the world’s largest free blues festival.
Live music at Rosa’s Lounge, a haven for the Blues since 1984, in Chicago, Illinois
Houston, Texas: An Unsung Hot Spot
Houston is not often associated with the blues, but it has a storied history. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Duke/Peacock Records was considered the most influential, African American-owned label for blues, gospel and R&B artists, predating Motown by a decade. Its significance is commemorated with a historical marker in front of the old recording studio in Houston’s Fifth Ward.
Get a taste of what Houston has to offer, through their local co-op radio station, the Houston Blues Radio. Dive into the music scene at the House of Blues, The Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club, the Hideaway on Dunvale and the Shakespeare Pub. Take photos of historical markers dedicated to Lightnin’ Hopkins and the Eldorado Ballroom, a former Blues nightclub. Vinyl fans should make a stop at Cactus Music record shop.