Derek Bright – Highway 61: Crossroads On The Blues Highway
The Choir Press
176 pages Softcover edition
There have been many books written about blues music, some focusing on musicians, others on the sociological aspects and history of black Americans as related to the roots of the music. Other works explored the clubs and theaters that supported the musicians. Recent editions raise questions as to where the music truly originated, or who does it really belong to.
In the updated version of his book first released in 2014, author Derek Bright attempts to merge people, places, and history in a narrative based on his three visits to the U.S., trips that form a blues pilgrimage that provided the resident of the United Kingdom with the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the music. His first visit in 2007 found him visiting the Mississippi Delta region with his friend, Phil Sugden. In 2013, along with his son, he visited Chicago and Memphis.
The key elements of his narrative were gathered during his 2012 adventure, which found him traveling from Chicago to New Orleans, with plenty of stops along the way. As one might glean from the title, his journey follows the famed Highway 61, which stretches from Wyoming to the Gulf of Mexico. An integral part of the crossroads myth where Robert Johnson “sold” his soul to the Devil, the highway was also a main thoroughfare for blacks who were part of the great migration from a life of poverty in the Southern states to the promise of a better life in the Northern big cities.
Accompanying Bright on his journey was his good friend, Richard Brown, who documented their travels with his photographs. Brown’s b&w photos are distributed throughout the book, accenting various points of Bright’s narrative. His color photos are showcased in a 22 page section filled with vivid images like the B.B. tribute mural in Leland, MS, or the ‘Great Migration’ mural by Marcus Akiniana on Chicago’s South Side.
To his credit, the author doesn’t limit himself to only musical subjects. He makes frequent references to the steady flow of blacks from the states where Jim Crow was the law of the land to the industrialized North, where cotton fields gave way to meatpacking plants and steel mills offering better pay, but still left the transplanted souls near the bottom of the economic ladder. In the opening chapter on Chicago, Bright offers a telling statistic. “In the first sixty years of the twentieth century Chicago’s black population increased from 30,150 to 812,637, an increase from just under 2 per cent to nearly a quarter of the city’s total population.”
The another chapter finds Bright visiting St. Louis, making another attempt to find the spirit of Chuck Berry and his music in the musician’s hometown, getting their first glimpses of the mighty Mississippi river on the way as Highway 61 veers close to the banks, only to move away from the river a little further along. They take in several blues clubs, then head across the river to East St. Louis to the site where once stood the Cosmopolitan Club at the corner of Seventh and Bond, another vital crossroads where Berry and his piano player, Johnnie Johnson, once spawned the music soon to be known as rock ‘n’ roll.
The author does not shy away from commenting the issues of racism and segregation. Some of his remarks are telling, given that he has an “outsider” viewpoint. He admits to being overwhelmed by the courage of black, and white, individuals who endured humiliation and violence in the pursuit of equal rights for all, as vividly portrayed during his visit at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. At the remains of the Bryant Grocery store in Money, MS, Bright sheds a few tears at the site where Emmett Till allegedly flirted with the white woman running the store, leading to his brutal murder, followed by a national outcry for justice.
Later, he and Brown make their first stop in Jackson, MS, at the museum dedicated to the memory of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Field Secretary of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP, in his former home where he was murdered in 1963, a crime that went unpunished for thirty years. Standing there, Bright comments that he saw it as testimony to a man denied the opportunity to attend the college of his choice due to the color of his skin, and now has a college, an airport, and a US naval vessel named in his honor.
The trips also included visits to a variety of grave sites, including one near Greenwood, MS, one of several purported to hold the remains of Robert Johnson. The duo were not immune to lure of regular tourist attractions like the Sun Records Studio, or Po’ Monkey’s, one of the last remaining Delta juke joints, situated near Merigold, MS. Also nearby was the Dockery plantation, where Charley Patton once resided, as did Tommy Johnson, “a place where ‘people lived, worked, and took leisure in a single location.”
The travelers reach Helena, Arkansas, in time for the King Biscuit Blues Festival, enjoying sets by Vasti Jackson, guitarist Roy Rogers, Big George Brock, and James Cotton. But Bright recalls his first visit in 2007, commenting, “I remember how overwhelmed I’d been by the feeling of decay, as though the town had shuttered up a couple of decades prior to my arrival.” In the section on their stay in Clarksdale, MS, where Highway 61 intersects Highway 49, the legendary crossroads, the author follows the challenge laid out by researcher Francoise Hamlin, to consider the legacy of blues music in conjunction with the history of the communities and the people that fostered it, an approach he utilizes throughout the book.
After three weeks on the road, Bright and Brown reach their final destination, with one evening to sample the many musical and culinary delights that New Orleans has to offer. They are able to view the building on Rampart Street that housed J & M Records, along with the studio that owner Cosimo Mataassa used to record many of the hit records that define the New Orleans musical legacy. Now a dry cleaners, it is another reminder of the often sorry state of preservation of key historical sites in the blues history continuum.
Bright’s engaging style keeps the story flowing, deftly weaving the various elements into a story-line that goes beyond a mere travel guide. By the end, most readers will undoubtedly be forming plans for their own blues pilgrimage, and judging by this book, it could very well be a trip for the ages!