A day of a blues festival provided plenty of people watching opportunities.
Amazingly the Chicago History Museum was founded in 1856, just a few years after the settling of the town. Although twice destroyed by fire (once during the Great Chicago Fire), they still have a vast collection of artifacts celebrating the history of the city.
During our visit to Chess Records I had heard that the History Museum had a nice exhibit on the Chicago Blues, which was our encouragement to go to the History Museum.
In the display is this map showing the amazing collection of recording studios and clubs that featured the blues that have existed in Chicago over the years.
Raeburn Flerlage was a famed photographer of the blues scene from 1959-1971, although his career in music lasted much longer.
His photographs were used for many album covers.
Included in the collection is a copy of what is generally acknowledge as the first blues record of all time, St Louis Blues by W C Handy, from 1925.
The south side of Chicago was the hub of the blues, with Maxwell Street being the epicenter.
All of the blues greats were celebrated here, including Muddy Waters.
In the 1950s record companies were only allowed to have so many records in radio station airplay rotation at one time, so they would just start another record company.
This record of Koko Taylor’s Wang Dang Doodle is on Checker Records, the sister company of Chess Records.
Moving on from the blues display we checked out Chicago – Crossroad of America. This documented Chicago as the transportation hub of the country since the early days of the railroad.
Also on display was one of the original El cars from 1892.
A number of focus displays included one of the infamous gangland activities during prohibition in the 1920s.
Keeping with the infamous Playboy Magazine started in Chicago, as did the original club with the hostess (bunny) outfit on display.
As noted in other postings, Chicago was always mail order center of the country.
Another section celebrated entertainment events in Chicago including the 1893 World’s Fair.
As well as the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair.
Finally there was a small section celebrating the professional sports teams of Chicago – baseball’s Cubs and White Sox, football’s Bears, basketball’s Bulls and hockey’s Blackhawks.
Gennett Records was a prominent record company based in Richmond, Indiana in the early 1920s. They are known for producing early recordings of numerous well known artists.
The company was founded in 1917 by the Starr Piano Company. A park in Richmond contains the remains of the Starr Piano factory, as well as a walk of fame.
The walk of fame highlights the artists and their history at Gennett. Each marker is a three dimensional, cast bronze and colored mosaic tile emblem in the form of a 78 record. A few are shown here including:
Hoagy Carmichael – An Indiana native Hoagy began his jazz career at Indiana University. While his early recordings were with Gennett, he only recorded with them a couple of years.
Hoagy had a long career and wrote such classics as Georgia on My Mind and Skylark. Hoagy remains a legend in jazz to this day, almost 40 years since his death.
Duke Ellington – While he had a few early recordings with Gennett, Duke had a long career in jazz.
Jelly Roll Morton – Another early jazz musician, he is most noted for a collection of recordings later that reside in the Smithsonian as the definitive example of jazz.
Charley Patton – As a Delta Country Blues performer Charley wrote and recorded numerous classics. Known as a classic guitar player, Charley is sometimes known as the Founder of the Delta Blues.
Fats Waller – With a style all his own, Fats could bridge the gap between white and black artists, jazz and blues. In addition he was known as quite the character.
Gene Autry – Gennett Records gave Gene Autry his start. From there it was on to superstardom as a country musician and actor/entertainer.
Artie Shaw – Known as one of the greatest clarinetists of all time, as well as a bandleader. His early recordings with Gennett were lost as the masters were inexplicably destroyed.
Big Bill Broonzy – One of the original bluesmen. His style lead to Chicago blues. If you listen to Eric Clapton, you are listening to Big Bill Broonzy, as Eric idolized his style.
Blind Lemon Johnson – Before Robert Johnson, before Big Bill Broonzy there was Blind Lemon Johnson.In 1929 he hired a Ford car with a chauffeur and came to Richmond, recording 12 country blues songs. Sadly later that night back in Chicago it is believed he became disoriented and lost. When he was found the next morning he had frozen to death on a Chicago sidewalk.
He continues to influence many, the bands Blind Melon and Jefferson Airplane are named in his honor.
And finally – Sachmo – Louis Armstrong – One of the earliest recordings in Richmond were from Louis. He is likely the most important jazz musician of all time.
There are more honored on the walk – make your way to Richmond for a music history lesson someday.
The park is well worth the visit.
Shortly after leaving for the day we arrived in downtown Texarkana, at the state line of the city where the US Post Office straddles the state line between Texas and Arkansas. A nice old lady who had come to pick up her mail from her post office box took our photo at the state line marker in front of the post office.
Scott Joplin, the great Ragtime artist, was from Texarkana.
Our route for the day took us past Shreveport, Louisiana, and across the northern portion of the state – completing my tour of the lower 48.
It had been a couple of weeks since we crossed that small stream that was the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota, but now we were back. This far south it was far more than a stream.
The Vicksburg visitor center, overlooking the Mississippi River, provided us information on the Mississippi Blues Trail. Outside on the property at the Visitor Center were cannons from the Civil War and a train crossing an old bridge passing a riverboat casino.
We paused for lunch in Vicksburg at Rouxater, a small cafe and bakery. We ate chicken salad sandwiches with some sweet tea. The chicken salad was not tasty and it was on stale white bread. Ugh! We went to the Coke a Cola museum next door after lunch.
It featured a soda fountain that used coke syrup to make the cola at the fountain. The museum had all the equipment from long ago to mix the ingredients. One bottle was made at a time to fill a case and then sent for delivery for purchase. Lots of other Coke items were seen as we wandered through the store as well as hundreds of old bottles of Coke lining the shelved walls. I have often heard of Vicksburg being beautiful but that day, and the places we went it seemed an old tired river town.
Leaving Vicksburg heading north on the legendary Route 61, aka – Blues Highway, we passed cotton fields on our way north and listened to blues music by B.B King, Muddy Waters and others making our way through Mississippi, home of the Delta blues. Interestingly while it used to take throngs of people to pick the cotton, as we drove we would see one lonely, huge, John Deer combine picking the entire field with one guy sitting in the air conditioned cab (likely NOT listening to the blues).
The Blues Trail led us to Rolling Fork where McKinley Morganfield, aka, Muddy Waters lived as a child. There was a bold blue marker with a small record at its peak designating it part of the Blues Trail along with a tribute guitar with Muddy’s signature and noting the town of Rolling Fork in one of his song lyrics. We saw the shotgun cabin where he lived. The term shotgun cabin came to be known from the way that a gunshot could run through all the rooms in a straight line since the rooms are stacked behind each other without a hallway and one had to walk through one room to get to the next room. The cabin was incredibly small. In fact, it was really only half the size of an actual sharecropper’s home.
Rolling Fork also had a carved statue of Teddy Roosevelt and a bear. We saw bear crossing signs in the city limits.
The cotton fields are bright white for acres in all directions as we drove on the Blues Trail Highway. A crop duster sprayed fields; it was truly amazing to see how low he flew over the crops. Huge machines picked cotton as we continued through Mississippi. Bits of cotton lined the edge of the road so I suddenly stopped the car and ordered to go pick cotton.
US Highway 61 is the famed route from the south to Chicago – making it the Blues Highway. Nearly every town along the route had some tribute to the blues.
We got to Leland, Mississippi mid afternoon to see the B. B. King Museum. The museum had a theater and a lot of history about B.B. King’s life and stages of his success. King’s real name is Riley King but he changed it when he went to Tennessee to start his career in music. He named his guitar Lucille when he went back into a burning building to save his guitar from the fire that was started by a woman named Lucille who caused a brawl between the men and tipped over the heater fuel that started the fire.
The museum noted that King began with gospel music but when his gospel band didn’t want to go to Tennessee with him, King moved there on his own. He needed a catchy name for his new radio show in Memphis: “Beale Street Blues Boy” was shortened to “Blues Boy King” and finally to B.B. King. The museum also exhibited the hard times that King and his band encountered because of prejudice and Jim Crow Laws in the south. B. B. King passed away in 2015 and is buried on the museum property.
Late afternoon found us at our hotel, a Holiday Inn Express in Greenville, Mississippi. As we checked in the desk clerk said ‘have you heard about our water here in the Delta?’. Why no – what about the water. It seems it has a brown haze to it (think Marty McFly in Back to the Future III when he is in the cabin), but they assured us it was safe, but if liked we could get some bottles of water for free – which we took them up on. And yes the water is a dirty color.
The desk manager recommended a BBQ diner called Tabb’s for us and we took off to find some good eats. We drove for a while but could not find the restaurant. We asked a man in the parking lot where we thought it should be and he said it closed down a while ago. I guess the Holiday Express needs a concierge. We drove to the end of town and decided on Revel’s Steakhouse, we both had shrimp. Our plates were piled high with so much food that neither of us could finish our meals. The rice had a distinct flavor that I did not recognize so Allison our waitress brought a sample for us to take with us. The flavoring is called Cavender Greek Seasoning and comes from the Ozark region in Arkansas.
We drove across town to see the mighty Mississippi River. The road led us to the top of the levee. The river here is stronger and wider than where we saw the trickling stream of the headwaters in Minnesota. I read a marker that noted the river rose 64.2 feet at this point in 2011 as we sat and watched the sun set on the river.