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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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Although we had already spent four nights in Louisiana, the road trip only began in earnest on Saturday morning as we queued up for our booked hire car at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. I say “queued” because that is what we had invariably been obliged to do on most occasions in the past.

But not this morning.

The most extraordinary thing about the rapid transaction was that we weren’t offered an upgrade from our standard SUV (which we were more than happy with anyway).

We were on the I-10 heading towards our halfway pit stop in Baton Rouge within minutes under a leaden sky.

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And yes, we were Texans for the next two weeks!

After the customary familiarisation with the car’s controls, it was time for the all important search for the Grateful Dead Channel on Sirius XM. It took a while, but once we had safely negotiated our way through all the Hip Hop, Sports and Christian channels, not to mention right wing”shock jocks, we were able to “settle down easy” with our favourite station.

We had not had breakfast, so planned on finding a roadside eatery between New Orleans and Louisiana. That was easier said than done. We left the road at at La Place and Gramercy Lutcher to follow the signs to the “services”, but on both occasions found ourselves driving several miles with no Subway or McDonald’s in sight!

We did, however, pop into the Gatorville Cajun Village which boasted several exhibits and stores dedicated to……well, you guessed it, Cajun culture. There was an attractive looking restaurant which offered breakfast, but the line to even sign up, let alone get in, was too long.

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Eventually, at Donaldsville, we pulled outside McDonald’s.

Now, this is where I insert rule number one about taking a road trip. You are only allowed to eat cheap, “rubbish” food. No more of them fancy oyster things, or crawfish, or even jambalaya, but proper “rubbish” food.

Egg McMuffins and coffee were the order of the day, and although they were smaller, disappearing in a couple of bites, than i recall from when I last had one in the previous century, they “filled a hole”.

And, boy, was it cheap. Whereas, with tip, we had spent $80 on breakfast in Brennan’s in new Orleans the previous morning, We had been impressed too with the standalone digital ordering screens that greeted us. Our meal was, however, deliver by a member of the human race, and a pleasant one at that.

We arrived in Baton Rouge, the state capital, at lunchtime and were astonished to find so few people about the streets. Of those that were wandering aimlessly about, most were wearing either Ole Miss Rebels or LSU Tigers football colours. They were due to take up arms against each other that evening (they had a long wait). For the record, the home team, LSU, won convincingly 45-16, so perhaps Baton Rouge came alive then.

But it was clearly an important city as it had not one, but two, state capital buildings. The Old State Capital below was certainly the more architecturally appealing.

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The absence of traffic as well as people made it all the easier for us to take a stroll around the riverfront and downtown areas. Janet did, however, come across a couple of old timers who willingly posed for a photo with her and their pride and joy.

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Baking heat and unforgiving pavements made the amble around the Spanish Town more arduous than it might have been, but there were some beautiful homes to drool over.

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With Halloween at the end of the month, we were increasingly coming across houses decorated for the occasion.

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We left tranquil Baton Rouge for Lafayette in western Louisiana, arriving half an hour before the scheduled check in of 3pm.

We had selected Lafayette over Baton Rouge as our first overnight stop because the town is regarded as the place of pilgrimage for lovers of Cajun and Zydeco music, a raucous fusion of blues, rhythm and blues and African-derived styles which makes much use of fiddle and accordion.

And remember, this whole trip was about the music.

In particular, the Blue Moon Saloon and Guest House, a few hundred yards from our hotel, is renowned throughout the world as the best venue to witness live music in this style. It is also a youth hostel, described by its owners as “a home-grown honky-tonk where all kinds and sizes are welcome”.

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With tonight’s gig at the Blue Moon not scheduled to start until 9pm, we were not planning to eat until around 7.30pm. So, as Pooh would have so eloquently put it, it was “time for a little something”.

One southern “delicacy” that we had still not sampled was a Po’ boy, a traditional sandwich from Louisiana. Given their size, it would have been uncharacteristically greedy had we consumed a full one, so I plumped for a half-sized version of the Crawfish Boil Sausage Po’ boy.

Delicious.

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We ate at the Sainte Marie restaurant, where we shared another popular dish of the region, fried green tomatoes (with shrimps), which, needless to say, we’re scrumptious. I followed up with crawfish étouffée, a thick soup-like dish with rice. Not only was the food outstanding, but our young server, Taylor, kept us enthralled with her energy and attentiveness,

And now to the reason why we were in Lafayette – the music at the Blue Moon.

After paying our $10 cover charge, we took up our seats on a back bench (the place is essentially a shack), and ordered our drinks. Everyone there was drinking out of plastic glasses, but for some reason, the barman, rather conspiratorially, explained to me that I could have a real glass for Janet’s gin and tonic, provided she “looked after it all evening and didn’t break it”. A whiff of that voodoo atmosphere we encountered in New Orleans returned to haunt me.

The music was great, though the second band did not come on stage until nearly midnight. And the evening wasn’t wholly satisfactory.

It appeared that the event was being used as an excuse for a school or college reunion, as a large group of twenty somethings appeared more interested in catching up with each other, and doing a lot of hugging, than engaging with the music.

And I could write another piece on the personal and sexual politics that were being played out before our eyes while we tried to peer over their heads to see the bands!

But it was an experience.

 

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Day two of three in the Big Easy was going to involve a lot of water. Firstly, we had booked a four hour swamp and bayou sightseeing tour.  And in the evening, we had made a reservation on the three hour dinner jazz cruise on the Creole Queen paddlewheel steamboat, a staple on the Mississippi since 1983.

Although we were unlikely to get wet during either event, the weather gods had lived up to the previous evening’s predictions by unleashing torrential rain upon us as we embarked upon the ten minute walk from the hotel. With characteristic British stiff upper lip we had made a conscious (and doubtful) decision not to purchase an umbrella, relying on our waterproof jackets.

With near ninety degree temperatures dictating that the rest of our attire need not consist of more than t-shirts, shorts and sandals, it was inevitable that we would still get drenched, standing for nearly half an hour waiting for the feeder bus under the wholly inadequate cover afforded by the ticket booth.

The Cajun Pride launch point from where we were to take our boat was a thirty five minute ride away. By the time we pulled in alongside the lush Manchac Swamp in Laplace among the South Louisiana bayous for our 12.45am start, the rain had abated and was to stop altogether once we were on the water.

As we stepped onto our boat we were greeted by one of the locals with some timely advice.

Within minutes the senior residents of the swamp introduced themselves. These were American Alligators, whom it transpired, were particularly partial to marshmallows.

Or not.

I think it might just be a droll way to entertain the gullible tourists.

The moment our boat captain, Danny, rustled in his bag of marshmallows and hurled them overboard, the alligators tucked in.

“Captain Danny” proved the most knowledgable, amusing and skilled tour guide imaginable. His deadpan southern drawl only added to the appeal. And he never drew breath throughout the tour, except to answer questions.

 

The most fascinating story involved the legendary voodoo queen, Julia Brown, who would sit by the bayou frightening anyone who passed. On the day of her funeral in 1915, she could be heard wailing over and over again “One day, I’m gonna die, and I’m gonna take all of you with me”.

Shortly afterwards, a devastating hurricane wreaked havoc in the area, completely destroying three villages and killing hundreds of people. There were reminders of the event on the swamp.

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Whilst the alligators were the stars of the show, we saw other wildlife, notably a colony of raccoons, who wandered down to the bayou’s edge as we passed. Soft shelled turtles, egrets and squirrels also made periodic appearances.

But the highlight of the ride was the opportunity to handle Bruce, a baby alligator whom Danny plucked from a large cool box towards the end of the tour. Although Bruce was still young and remarkably well behaved, his gnashers were still sufficiently sharp to inflict damage on a human, hence the muzzle.

The tour was one of our most enjoyable, informative and entertaining. Even the sun eventually made an appearance.

But light rain had returned by the time we were required to check in on the Creole Queen at 6pm for our dinner jazz cruise, scheduled to commence an hour later. However, probably because of the inclement weather, we were welcomed on to the boat and into the elegant dining room early. We were already demolishing the first plate of our Creole buffet when the majority of diners were ushered in.

Jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice, seafood pasta, meats and cornbread all featured on the menu. I cannot report what the dessert might have been as we never got past the main course. On reflection, it was the least satisfying of the four evening meals we consumed in New Orleans, but that is not intended as a criticism. Whilst I can’t claim I lose my appetite at buffets, I do wish I was able to take more advantage of the unlimited food available and get full value for money.

The boat moved away from the dock promptly as dusk, unveiling fine views of the Mississippi riverfront.

As the dining room filled up, and we became surrounded on all sides, we retired to the upper deck with our wine to enjoy the local Dixieland jazz band in the balmy evening air. Every song you would associate with the city was played, and the drummer and lead singer was also an engaging raconteur.

As we approached the dock at the end of the cruise we went in search of our server as we hadn’t yet paid for our food and drink! Moreover, once we had tracked him down, he seemed unconcerned, even surprised that we had sought him out after everybody else was a-pushin’ and a-shovin’ to disembark.

It had been a long day surrounded by water – from above and below – but a satisfying taste of Louisiana history and culture. With another busy day planned for tomorrow, we returned to our hotel for a gin and tonic at the bar.

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We arrived in New Orleans in mid-afternoon after a smooth internal flight on United Airlines from Newark, New Jersey.

On crossing the threshold of the Cambria Hotel on Tchoupitoulas Street in the increasingly upmarket Warehouse District, I was thrilled to discover in the entrance corridor a series of fifteen wooden slatted artworks celebrating many of the great bluesmen and jazz musicians of the Delta and beyond. I will confine the photographs to three of my particular favourites.

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They are the work of Connie Kittok, a Louisiana contemporary folk artist inspired by her Southern roots. Coincidentally, or perhaps serendipitously, the entire collection is entitled Road Tripping: a journey to discover the heart of the blues. The thirteen year wait between our original plan to take this trip and actually making it suddenly seemed worth it.

An incredible collage of immaculately polished jazz instruments also adorned another wall adjacent to reception.

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We decided to unpack and get dressed to ignore the rain and have dinner early.

We were staying less than fifteen minutes walk from the French Quarter, and wanted to experience Bourbon Street at first hand. After forgetting momentarily that I was not in San Francisco when I bought a Grateful Dead bandanna at the Hippie Gypsy store on Canal Street, and then elegantly dodging a streetcar after looking the wrong way, we ventured into the fabled thoroughfare.

Even though it was still early in the evening, there was a boozy and boisterous buzz about the street.

We walked as much as possible beneath the balconies, from which there was a distinct lack of falling bead necklaces (Mardi Gras was, of course, still months away). There was a considerable amount of noisy and unsightly construction underway. At regular intervals, young children were sitting on the kerb drumming on upturned buckets with astonishing rhythm and dexterity. We were confronted on several occasions by drunks attempting to foist beads on us before demanding money, but we managed to deflect their tiresome attentions.

As this was our first visit to the Big Easy, we were determined to try as many of the  essential NOLA dining experiences as possible. Given that we were in the heart of the French Quarter, it was incumbent upon us to begin our exploration with a Hurricane cocktail (rum, passion fruit syrup and lime juice with an orange slice and cherry garnish) at its original home, Pat O’Brien’s.

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We had drunk many in the past at various Margaritaville and Hard Rock locations, but this was where it was first served. It was no less powerful than what we had become accustomed to, even though we declined the signature glass option. We sat at the bar and chatted with the big bearded barman before stepping out to select our dinner venue.

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We had already been struck from the outside by the appearance and enticing menu of the award winning Red Fish Grill, and decided to eat there. We were not disappointed. A handsome and attractive dining room and pleasant staff complemented superb seafood. My Cajun Jambalaya Risotto in particular was divine.

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The persistent drizzle failed to dampen the spirits of the early evening revellers. Live music spilled out of most of the bars – a cacophony of jazz, blues, hard rock and even country as an inevitable accompaniment to bull riding. With an abundance of choice available, we plumped for the Famous Door, a legendary live music venue where the excellent band ran the gamut of seventies and eighties American rock music – from Jackson Browne and Carole King to Foreigner and Guns ‘n’ Roses.

By this time the potency of the Hurricane, upon which by now we had piled cocktails and double gin and tonics, was beginning to take its advertised and insidious effect. I am convinced, however, that the periodic movement, as if across a ouija board, of our (plastic) glasses was not solely attributable to our mushrooming inebriation. After all, we were in the home of voodoo with many haunted locations close by, so it should be no real surprise that glasses should be sashaying around the table. In an even spookier twist, they stopped abruptly at the table’s edge, thankfully, saving us from having to order another, ultimately lethal, round.

Two flights, of eight and three hours duration respectively in the space of twenty four hours, combined with the alcohol, were beginning to take their toll and we returned, a little unsteadily, to our hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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