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Posts Tagged ‘Highway 61’


Back on the road today.

Jazz, blues, zydeco, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, funk – we had experienced them all in the first ten days of the trip, And we had travelled in a south-north direction, driving or, on occasions, skirting Highway 61.

But now, we were not only switching the musical focus to country, but taking a two hundred and ten mile detour eastward to Nashville.

We left our East Memphis house on a warm, partly cloudy morning with the temperature gauge in the car already touching ninety. Once we had settled onto Interstate 40, our companion for the journey, the traffic lightened and the straight roads with forested trees either side that we had become accustomed to in recent days, resumed their natural position.

We filled the car with gas for the second time on the trip, taking the cost so far to $56 (we had picked it up in New Orleans with a full tank, and we’re required to return it in the same state i..e. full, not in Louisiana).

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As we approached Jackson, the first town of any real significance, and were looking for an attraction to break the journey (we were nearly half way), we came across Casey Jones Village which marketed itself as the “best whistle stop between Memphis and Nashville” and officially one of Tennessee’s top 10 travel attractions.

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The extensive complex contained an Old Country Store, a restaurant, nostalgic gift shoppe, an 1890’s Ice Cream Parlor & Fudge Shoppe, the Dixie Cafe Takeout or Dine-In, a village baker’s, a village chapel and many other features.

In addition, it was home to the Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum, which commemorated the legendary railroader who worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, and who was killed on 30th April 1900, when his train collided with a stalled freight train near Vaughan Mississippi. His spectacular death while trying to stop his train and save the lives of his passengers made him a national hero.

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He was subsequently immortalised in a popular ballad sung by his friend Wallace Saunders, an African American engine wiper for the railroad. It had first come to my attention when, as a small boy in the late fifties several thousand miles away, I sat spellbound by the television programme starring Alan Hale Jnr.

Around fifteen years later I learned a different account of the incident from rock band, the Grateful Dead, with the drug-riddled refrain “driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you’d better watch your speed”.

I still prefer that version!

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John Luther Jones was particularly famous for the manner in which he tooted his train whistle on “Old 382” Engine. Visitors can climb aboard the replica inn the museum and perform that act themselves.

At the time of his death, Jones was living in the house pictured below, which we were also able to explore.

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We spent a pleasant hour walking around the village, but, even though it was lunchtime by now, the food on offer in the restaurant was not to our liking.

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We returned to the road in pursuit of coffee and eats. But we were not hungry enough to be tempted by the regular sight of roadkill.

Our salvation, not for the first or last time on the trip, proved to be………yes, you guessed it, McDonald’s (we were to eat here more often in a fortnight than we had in thirty years),

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We encountered more traffic, especially trucks, on this stretch than we had done before, though the fact that the road had only two lanes, and it was Friday afternoon, might have contributed to that.

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Another phenomenon that occurred to us for the first time today were the strong “southern” accents of everyone we came into contact with.

At the risk of offending (I don’t mean to) Tennesseans, the intonation was reminiscent of the British comedian, Benny Hill’s, character on his television show in the seventies and eighties, when he performed a sketch about ‘teddy bear’s chair”. I can never hear a southern accent without recollecting that performance.

But then if any American is upset by this, I will just mention three words………….Dick Van Dyke.

You know what I mean, y’all.

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As Nashville got closer, the traffic, especially, got much heavier. But we safely negotiated it and located our artist’s bungalow in East Nashville, booked through Airbnb,  without difficulty.

We were staying in a variety of different properties on the trip. Starting off in a classy hotel in New Orleans, we had spent the subsequent nights on the road in modest motels before residing in a suburban house in Memphis. We were living for the next four nights in a bungalow in the back garden, next to the garage, of our hosts’ family home.

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It was clear on our arrival that some of the home comforts we had enjoyed in New Orleans and Memphis in particular would not be available to us in our temporary Nashville home.

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Our only cooking facilities, for example, were a kettle and basic microwave, as well as a refrigerator. We drove to the local supermarket to buy some basic provisions, including potatoes, salad, cheese, ham and avocado that made up a presentable jacket potato.

And, our spirits were not going to be quashed. Tomorrow, we would begin to investigate the home of country music.

And it would be my birthday!

 

 

 

 

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Our second day on the road was a quiet and uneventful one. Consequently, I will give a blessedly shorter account than usual (well, that’s what I say at the beginning of it).

Besides, it was Sunday too, so I’ll keep this all quiet and peaceful like, y’all.

Breakfast in the room was included in our Juliet hotel tariff, which made a pleasant change to our early morning routine. Unfortunately, the weather was not as accommodating as we left in that light drizzle we had become accustomed to over the past few days. But when we left, the temperature was still in the low eighties.

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We made two false starts as the windscreen was greasy and it took several ingenious attempts to clear it. A4 printer paper did the trick, and we finally left the environs of Lafayette at 10.30am.

One of the fascinating aspects of driving in the USA is the preponderance of massive roadside signs, advertising everything from hotels, restaurants, casinos, gas stations, people running for political office and, of course, in this part of the country, extolling the virtue of having Christ in your life.

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And then there are the churches themselves, principally Baptist and Pentecostal, many of which pop up from nowhere with their immaculate, well scrubbed exteriors and attached cemeteries on a much more modest scale than those we had wandered among in New Orleans.

Some are so small that the congregation could not be more than a couple of dozen. We speculated, however, that, on this late Sunday morning, they would be packed with worshippers.

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Aside from those signs, we had very little company on the road (perhaps everyone was in church).

We drove through miles of bullet (unfortunate use of language in this part of the country, sorry), straight road with grass verges on either side, watched over by woods and forest. An occasional vehicle came into view and disappeared as quickly again.

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We slowed down as we drove through Baton Rouge for fear of waking it up (though last night’s football victory might have done the job for us).

Our intention on this trip had been to spend as much time on the (‘Blues”) Highway  61 as possible. Our sat nav, however, had taken us up Highway 19 at the intersection of both roads at Baker, and we were required, unless we were to turn back, to continue to Centreville where we could turn west to return to the 61.

Small towns with names as exotic as Slaughter (back to the bullet theme), Zachary and Ethel passed by in a blink of an eye.

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We crossed into Mississippi, annoyingly missing the large welcome sign, and sought sustenance at a roadside McDonald’s just south of Natchez.

Although it didn’t have the high tech booking system that we had marvelled at the previously day, the restaurant was clean, colourful – and “minimalist”, as remarked upon by a Facebook friend at the time.

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We didn’t believe that we could pay less than yesterday for our lunch, but the bill below cannot lie.

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We pulled in to the Vicksburg Best Western hotel at 3.15pm as planned, affording me the opportunity to complete a blog piece before dinner.

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In keeping with the “rubbish” food theory I expounded in the previous article, we refrained from negotiating the hair-raising road intersection to get to a Mexican or barbecue restaurant, deciding to walk the two hundred metres to the Waffle House. 

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I did not expect my Steak ‘n’ Eggs to warrant any Michelin stars, and although there was some gristle in the steak, it was cooked to my requirements and was edible.

And cheap!

We rounded it off with yoghurts bought from the supermarket next door.

And we went the whole day without alcohol!

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The idea for this trip came thirteen years ago when I bought the book entitled The Blues Highway: A Travel and Music Book by Richard Knight.

But then, as we were on the point of booking the trip, Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans, the planned starting point for the trip. We resolved then that we would wait to do it when life in the city had returned to some semblance of normality.

In 2012, we did finally embark on a road trip, but in a very different part of the country – the National Parks of the South West, covering the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

Setting off from Las Vegas, our expedition took in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon, followed by a sizeable detour through New Mexico, visiting Santa Fe, Albuquerque and iconic locations on Route 66 such as Winslow, Arizona (“Standin’ on a Corner”) and Gallup, New Mexico before returning to Vegas.

Numerous trips to San Francisco, Tahoe, Vegas as well as the North East (of the U.S, not England!) followed, as the Southern states, other than Florida, failed to seduce us sufficiently into venturing in their direction. Maybe their racist past (and present), Christian fundamentalism and gun culture all have had something to do with it. Moreover, the scene from Easy Rider where the main protagonists get short shrift in a southern diner still haunts me, and the song by Folkestone band, the Transients, entitled They Don’t Like Hippies in Baton Rouge, only serves to exacerbate the anxiety.

But now, with mid-term elections looming and the divisions in America widening, we have chosen this moment to plunge ourselves into the belly of Trumpsylvania, though a Californian friend’s recent assertion that we were essentially visiting “blue cities in red states” is a comforting and far from innacurate one.

So what is the attraction of this particular itinerary that has stubbornly refused to disappear from our vacation radar?

The Blues Highway, essentially Highway 61, runs, for the most part alongside the mighty Mississippi, from New Orleans  to Chicago and traces the migration of many African Americans from the Deep South to the Northern cities following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Equally, it charts (sic) the development of the major music genres for which we are so much indebted to the United States for, principally the blues and gospel (Mississippi delta, Memphis, St Louis and Chicago), but also jazz (New Orleans), cajun and zydeco (Lafayette), country (Nashville) and soul (Memphis again, and not forgetting Elvis!).

After an initial overnight stay in Newark, New Jersey (flights from the UK being so much cheaper), we fly to the “Big Easy” for four nights before hitting the road with single overnight stays in Lafayette, Vicksburg and Clarksdale. A three night residence in Memphis follows before we head east to Nashville for four nights, arriving on the eve of my birthday.

From “Music City” we cross country back to the main road for three nights in St Louis, followed by a night in Peoria before arriving in the “Windy City” for another four nights, when we are hoping to be joined for a couple of nights by friends from San Francisco. Two nights in New York City conclude the trip before we catch our return flight from Newark.

The trip has the added bonus of introducing us to seven new states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois with brief detours through Kentucky and Arkansas. The prospect of experiencing new cultures, historic tours and spectacular scenery is, of course, exciting, but it is the music that is the driving force of the trip. Clubs, bars, museums and street musicians will, therefore, be the major focus of the next three weeks.

And we must not forget the other star of the show – the road itself.

Little thrills the blood more than the thought of exploring this amazing country by car with the radio blaring out the music style that reflects the landscape you are travelling through at the time. I am sure it will reveal some entertaining adventures as this blog grows over the coming weeks.

So let’s get on with the show!

See y’all later!

 

 

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It’s four months now since I entered my sixtieth year on this blessed, blasted planet. In fact, 2012 is a rare year for major anniversaries – the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the five hundreth anniversary of the death of Amerigo Vespucci, the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and last, and definitely least, there’s lil’ ol’ me.

So how do you “celebrate” such a feat of stamina? Big family party? Trip of a lifetime? Crawl into a corner and curl up into a ball? Well, my 40th was spent in Amsterdam and my 50th in Paris, whilst my wife’s corresponding birthdays were played out in Paris and Venice respectively. Bit of a clue there then (though Janet also wangled a not inexpensive party for the latter in the boardroom of the local football league club)!

But I think you get the picture – we’ll be spending it somewhere other than home.

Janet has been “encouraging” me for months to decide where I wanted to spend the occasion. Unfortunately, I am no nearer making that decision than I was on my 59th birthday, though I have narrowed it down to a handful of candidates (feels a bit like I’m deciding on where the next but one Olympics or football World Cup will be held).

One trip that has been on my wish list for much of the past decade is what is known as the “Blues Highway”, effectively tracing the migration of blacks from the deep south to the north following the Civil War, and, in the process, reliving American musical history.

The tour starts in New Orleans, with extended stops at Nashville, Memphis, St Louis and eventually Chicago. Visits to such iconic venues as Graceland, Sun Studios and the Grand Ol’ Opry, would be essential, and we would also want to sample cajun and zydeco music in their locales.

A tour through blues history would not be complete without a pilgrimage to Moorhead, Mississippi where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog or Dawg, the spot where the “father of the blues”, W.C. Handy, heard “the first blues song” in around 1903, or the crossroads (there is much dispute as to its location) at which the “king of the delta blues singers”, Robert Johnson, apocryphally, sold his soul to the devil. And an evening at the Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by Morgan Freeman, in Clarksdale, Mississippi would not go amiss.

But in August 2005 Hurricane Katrina put a temporary end to that dream.

The other front runner at present is the national parks and canyons of the American south west, notably Monument Valley, Bryce and Zion Canyons, the Arches and Canyonlands. Even this trip would have some musical resonance for me in the form of the great Jackson Browne / Glenn Frey song Take It Easy, popularised by The Eagles:

Well, I’m standing on a corner

In Winslow, Arizona

And such a fine sight to see

It’s a girl, my lord in a flatbed

Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me

Come on baby, don’t say maybe

I gotta know if your sweet love

Is gonna save me

We may lose and we may win though

We will never be here again

So open up, I’m climbin’ in

So take it easy

When I first started to ponder this, our adopted second home of San Francisco figured strongly in my plans. The timing would have enabled us to attend a Giants ball game or two on their last homestand of the regular season against the Pittsburgh Pirates. But since then, in an increasingly common fit of weakness, we have succumbed to its allure and – for us – late booked a two week trip to the city in April. And we have succeeded in purchasing tickets for two of the first games of the season – against the Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies.

This has had the added advantage of granting me a stay of execution on the fateful decision on the birthday break, though I know that I cannot hide behind that excuse much longer, hence this post.

The downside is that it may now necessarily be shorter than we had originally envisaged – two rather than three or four weeks. But we shall see.

I should also mention another U.S. option – that of staying at a friend’s condominium in Tampa, Florida – because I know he will be reading this!  He has very kindly offered to accommodate us at any time, and we will certainly take him up on that offer, though perhaps not this year. So, Melvyn, you have been spared – but only for now!

And finally, I have begun to pine again for Italy, our favourite holiday destination before the United States colonised our travelling consciousness. So I would not rule out Rome, Tuscany or Sicily at this stage, though they remain dark horses.

Or perhaps I should just take my lead from Ellen de Generes’ grandmother “who started walking five miles a day when she was sixty.  She’s ninety seven now and we don’t know where the hell she is”.

So what would you vote for?

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