Toe-tapping travel, a to-do list
By Jamie Hazlett
Sun Star Columnist
Regardless of whether or not you went to see the Blackwater Blues Band perform at the Pub last Friday night, there can be no question that the blues and blues culture are a heady recipe for travel. Not only does a good playlist of Leadbelly, Willy Dixon, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker help long layovers and tedious flights pass with ease, it can be the inspiration for a whirlwind tour of the places and faces essential to the genre. With that in mind, prepare to shake off your February funk and get your toes tapping in places near and dear to the heart of the music.
By focusing on the two main centers of blues culture, Chicago and Memphis, one can easily visit a number of music-based attractions in the span of a week. The first stop is Memphis, Tennessee, where the infamous Beale Street witnessed the birth of the blues. The epicenter of Memphis nightlife in the first decades of the 20th century, Beale Street was a magnet for Delta blues musicians drawn to the sound pioneered by W.C. Handy, writer of the hallmark song “Memphis Blues.” Today’s Beale Street-bound blues aficionados can visit Handy Park to hear live performances, visit the W.C. Handy House and Museum to get a sense of the man himself, or head down to B.B. King’s Blues Club for good food and great music. Shop the myriad street vendors, drop into a club or two, and don’t forget to keep your eyes and ears peeled for the modern bluesmen who can frequently be found playing up and down the length of Beale Street.
If you really want to steep yourself in blues history, swing south to Clarksdale to visit the Delta Blues Museum. Only an hour and a half from Memphis, Clarksdale and its surroundings were the early stomping grounds of greats from Muddy Waters to Sam Cooke to John Lee Hooker. Visit Red’s Lounge to experience the feel of a real juke joint, and catch some phenomenal music while you’re there. Overall, Clarksdale can be done in a day or so, and it makes an excellent side trip from Memphis.
Fast-forward to Chicago, where blues migrated during the early 1940s. In their new urban setting, the blues took on a more electric sound that was perfected by the likes of Tampa Red and Elmore James. Go in June if you want to catch the annual Chicago Blues Festival, where performances run the gamut of blues styles and feature both well known and up-and-coming acts. If you’re an aspiring blues musician, a visit to the Chicago Music Exchange absolutely must be on your to-do list. This emporium features a wide range of new and vintage equipment, with a diverse stock that changes constantly. Your mouth will water and your fingers will itch at the sight of the guitars that cover the showroom walls. Swing by Vintage Vinyl Records or Coop’s Underground Music to search for rare recordings in any and all genres of music – there’s no better piece of memorabilia to take home from a music-centered trip than a hard-to-find LP of your favorite artist. Finally, make sure to reserve some time for the Chicago Blues Museum before taking in a drink and a live performance at one of the city’s numerous blues clubs.
Although the above itinerary highlights only the two broadest and most well-known types of blues, both new and old fans are sure to find something to delight and inspire them. Singles, couples, and families can easily tailor a music-themed trip to suit their own needs, and the beauty of traveling with everything blues as your destination is that you are guaranteed to encounter others along the way who share your passion. Whether you prefer to follow in the footsteps of iconic Blues Brothers Jake and Elwood or to have a deep conversation about the pros and cons of various scales with a local musician, there’s no better way to escape the winter doldrums then to go chasing after the blues.