Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bo Diddley, Ike Turner, Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Dolly Parton, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Sidney Bechet, Howlin’Wolf, BB King, Albert King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, but also, for connoisseurs, Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson and Tommy Johnson, the founding fathers of the primal blues… All shone in the south of the United States, in this territory located between Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. Jazz was born in New Orleans, the blues in the Delta and in Memphis where he gave birth to rockabilly and rock and roll, and country music in Nashville.
For those who love popular music, going to this part away from the usual tourist circuits provides an emotion equivalent to visiting the sites of Kheops, Petra, or Angkor for an archaeologist. It is discovering the places where it all started: without this territory which runs more or less along the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, music, as we know it today, simply would not exist. Without Robert Johnson, Louis Armstrong or Hank Williams, there would not have been the Beatles, and everything that followed. It is a vibrant land, steeped in history, where the ghosts of these legendary musicians still wander along the highways and at the crossroads of the national roads. This heritage is also not forgotten: from Nashville to New Orleans via Memphis, music is everywhere.
Nashville first. Simply nicknamed “Music City”. It has long been corny and neglected. But, since musicians like Jack White, the White Stripes or the Black Keys, as well as a cohort of others from independent rock, settled there, it has become the trendy city of the South (like Austin, in Texas). We went there in the 90’s, during the awful country days of Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus. It was a big, sinister suburb. We go back today, it’s a pretty, fairly bourgeois city – strangely, we see a predominantly white population – where the center of activity is organized around Broadway. There, it is an alignment of bars where musicians play from 10 am. Some, historic, are deliciously preserved in their own juice: you have to go to Tootsie’s, Legends, Rippy’s or Robert’s Western World, slip into the bar in front of the yellowed photos of legendary musicians, order a Jack Daniel’s and listen.
The country practiced today by sometimes very young and super-looked musicians takes its inspiration from the pure and elegant honky tonk of the 50s. Broadway is a party from morning to night, and the tourist will not fail to go and buy Discs at the very cult Ernest Tubb Record Shop before visiting the imposing Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a very well designed museum, brimming with instruments and vintage clothing dedicated to the tenors of the genre, from Jimmie Rodgers to Steve Earle.
Direction Memphis, after driving for a few hours amidst the green landscapes of Tennessee. There, it is a completely different atmosphere: old cut throat still twenty years ago, Memphis, in spite of big efforts of gentrification, remains a rather poor city – one comes to settle there because life is less expensive there – , with a large black population, living largely on its heritage: the omnipresent King and the blues. It is there, in Beale Street, that the young Presley came to drag his two-tone moccasins purchased from Lansky (the shop was reinstalled in the shopping gallery of the sumptuous Peabody Memphis Hotel) and listen to blues in the bars of the district, then frequented only by the black community. Beale Street has been redone to give it a “vintage” look, but you can really feel the American tourist exploitation.
There are still some authentic blues clubs, like the Blues Hall Juke Joint, beautifully weathered by time, or the BB King Blues Club, also dedicated to the art of twelve bars. Those who have time will visit Graceland, home of the touching King of childishness and bad taste, but also and above all the Sun and Stax studios. The first is this tiny place where rock and roll was born in 1954, when the brilliant boss Sam Phillips detected talent in the young Presley, but also in Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, sorry.
In Memphis, black and white music coexist
It is a moving place, alas quite badly redone: the bar where, in the 90s, you could still come across Rufus Thomas, was replaced by a souvenir shop. But the walls where so many tubes have been recorded still resonate, and a small museum installed on the first floor will delight fans of original rock and roll. The Stax studios, meanwhile, were razed to the ground in the 1970s. Madness: this is where Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Booker T and The MG’s, Arthur Conley recorded. or Wilson Pickett. A museum that will excite soul lovers has been built on the original site, located not far from Graceland, and recalling that, by its mixture of black music (soul, blues) and white music (rockabilly), Memphis has done a lot for the bringing communities together. You can have a breakfast at Arcade, the oldest bar in the city, frequented in their time by Elvis and his troops, wander in the Main Street district strewn with pretty shops, have a rest in the juke joint (originally, an underground bar frequented by blues musicians) Ernestine and Hazel, incredibly authentic, and getting around thanks to the ancient and superb trams that crisscross the city.
It’s time to leave Tennessee to join the poorest state in the United States, Mississippi. Direction south, preferably passing through the flirtatious and bourgeois city of Oxford, in the university of which there is a whole section devoted to the archives of the blues (more than 60,000 records!). This village is a true splendor with a high literary content. It is home to the excellent writer Tom Franklin, star of the superb local bookstore Square Books, run by a friend of Richard Ford, a few kilometers from Rowan Oak, a beautiful southern colonnaded house by Faulkner, perfectly preserved with its original furniture ( and its many bottles of bourbon).
Then heading towards Clarksdale, we finally arrive in the most legendary region for apprentice musicologists: the Delta. Which is, not the real delta of the river, but a piece of territory wedged between the Mississippi and the Yazoo River, vaguely marrying the shape of a triangle. It is on this land crossed by legendary musicians that the blues was born. Former stronghold of a true Who’s Who of the blue note, it is the country of Fred McDowell, Bukka White, Sonny Boy Williamson, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Elmore James, Son House, Howlin’Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and the two most legendary figures of the so-called Delta blues, Charley Patton. And that of Robert Johnson, the man who would have sold his soul to the devil at a mythical crossing to become an ace of the guitar, before dying of poisoning, supposedly by a jealous husband, more probably by a slightly hysterical woman.
These itinerant musicians, walking along the roads or jumping on trains to reach Memphis or Chicago, all resided in the perimeter of Clarksdale, Greenwood, Indianola, Cleveland or Grenada. About a hundred square kilometers: the birthplace of the blues. This flat, much drier country than Tennessee is the poorest region in the poorest state in the United States. During the blues era, it was a cotton paradise, but also the most openly racist place in the country, a reputation from which it still suffers today. The bluesmen were sharecroppers on the plantations. We can still go to the best known today: Will Dockery Plantation, where Charley Patton, on Saturday evening, taught his art to so many others, including Son House, who himself taught it to Robert Johnson. There remains only a period petrol station, a few barracks and a large, very moving sign. It is the Nazareth of the blues. Nearby, Clarksdale (where there is a charming little Delta Blues Museum) and Greenwood are worth visiting. Half-ghost towns with an evanescent charm, they still retain their old black neighborhoods (including the New World of Clarksdale), now deserted.
No one has thought of shaving them: to replace them with what? Cotton no longer exists, and there is no petroleum. Unemployment is bloated, we are trying to develop tourism there. But the spirit of the blues still hovers there, like, at Clarksdale, at the run-down club Red’s Blues or at Ground Zero, run by Morgan Freeman, born here, or the infernal Po Monkey’s, juke joint planted in the woods on the side of another mind-blowing ghost town, Merigold. In Greenwood, we find the tomb of Robert Johnson (the third, but it seems to be the right one), and the neighborhood where he lived hidden, chased by the bosses of the plantations where he refused to go, too busy to lead his decaying life. It feels like O’Brother by the Coen brothers.
After visiting the impressive BB King Museum (Indian King and Delta Interpretive Center) in Indianola, it’s time to head west to join the Mississippi and stop in one of the sumptuous wonders of the South Natchez, gateway to Louisiana. Known for its antebellum style colonnaded houses (before the Civil War), it is a magnificent city, as if frozen in time. Going down the city, it is a question of having a drink at the saloon Under The Hill, the oldest bar in Mississippi, ideally preserved in its juice, adjoining the modest hotel where Mark Twain liked to reside, and where one can stay overnight (Mark Twain Guest House).
Crime has dropped dramatically
Then we take the road, down Highway 61, to join one of the splendors of the United States, New Orleans, The Big Easy. In the same way that some travelers from the 70s will constantly explain to you that New York is no longer worth a nail since the Giuliani years (the mayor would have “sanitized” the city), many French people believe that, from Katrina, New Orleans has lost its charm and authenticity. What do the locals think? Pretty much the opposite: everyone will tell you that you would never have set foot in places destroyed by the hurricane. As a direct result of the disappearance of certain neighborhoods, crime has dropped drastically, to the point that the French Quarter has almost doubled in size: we can now wander through streets that would have been far too dangerous before Katrina. As a result, tourism has increased sharply, which the hotel and catering industry is delighted with.
New Orleans lives only for cooking and music. They are everywhere. The first is an enchantment combining seafood and Creole, Cajun or African influences, or delicious sandwiches that are only found here (muffaletta and po-boy). The second, omnipresent, is found on every street corner. It is the country of jazz. A New Orleans trend, of course. Groups play in the streets of the French Quarter – this sublime neighborhood if you avoid Bourbon Street, too touristy, ugly and uninteresting – in Frenchmen Street, where the locals choose their clubs, like the Spotted Cat, in the very bohemian neighborhood of Marigny. What is striking is that jazz is not played by old disguises like Place du Tertre: here, brass bands (brass bands launching into amazing trombone and trumpet battles) are made up of young people Blacks in Olympic form who seem to ignore hip-hop or R’n’B. Jazz is omnipresent, from the traditional style with banjo and double bass made with a bucket and a broomstick, to the most virtuoso be-bop.
It is a festive and libertarian city from its origin, the San Francisco of the South. You can drink alcohol on the street and smoke in many establishments. Yesterday a city of debauchery and brothels, it has kept, today, this spirit unique in the USA: we walk there, we stroll there, under the wrought iron balconies decorated with colorful flowers, we visit the many antique dealers of the French Quarter or the wacky and vintage shops of Magazine Street, you can drink sophisticated cocktails (it is the specialty of the city) like the famous sazerac in its many bars. In short, we relax – which is not so common in the United States -, saying only one thing: soon, we will come back to it.
The travel diary
In English, on the websites of the Tennessee (www.tnvacation.com) and Mississippi (www.visitmississippi.org) tourist offices. In French, that of Memphis which also deals with Mississippi (www.memphis-mississippi.fr) and that of Louisiana (www.louisiane-tourisme.fr).
Organize your trip
With Travelers to the United States (01.42.86.17.30 ; www.voyageursdumonde.fr). For its ultra-complete itinerary which adds to the stages of our report Chicago and Saint Louis, two high places of the blues linked by the legendary Route 66. In 12 days and 10 nights, a road trip to live to the rhythm of the blues, country, rock and Cajun and Zydeco music. Between April and August, the circuit is from € 2,300 per person in a double room from Paris, car rental included (GPS offered by the tour operator with route map and addresses).
Housing: Union Station Hotel (615.726.1001 ; www.unionstationhotelnashville.com). The 19th-century architecture of the old Nashville train station is the backdrop to this amazing hotel on the bottom of Broadway, a 5-minute drive from the bar area and the Country Music Hall of Fame. The hall, where one bought his train tickets, is a splendor. The night from 120 €.
Restore: Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant, (615.770.2772), 500 Church St. Set back from the hustle and bustle of Broadway, a very bobo decor for the finest of Southern cuisine. The Loveless Café, 400 Tennessee 100. On the old highway connecting Nashville to Memphis. Magic for breakfast, this former motel nicknamed the “No Tell Café” (it was reserved for 5-7 adulterers) offers in a charming setting specialties of smoked ham and “cookies” (kinds of scones) homemade.
Listen to music: Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, 422 Broadway; Legends Corner, 428 Broadway; Robert’s Western World, 416 Broadway. Record store: Ernest Tubb Record Shop, 417 Broadway. All the country on CD!
Museum: Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (www.countrymusichalloffame.org) 222 5th Ave S. Huge, exhaustive and essential.
Housing: The Peabody (901-529-4000 ; www.peabodymemphis.com). All the stars have stayed at this legendary Memphis hotel. Remarkable architecture and, every evening, its ducks which join the lobby fountain. From 130 €. River Inn Of Harbor Town (901.260.3333 ; www.riverinnmemphis.com). In a residential area along the Mississippi. The address will appeal to lovers of tranquility. From 130 €.
Restore: Charles Vergos’Rendezvous (901.523.2746), 52 South 2nd Street. The paradise of barbecue and ribs. A delirious setting, a stone’s throw from the Peobody. The Arcade Restaurant (901.526.5757), 540 S Main St. The oldest restaurant in Memphis. The food is nothing short of extraordinary, but this totally fifties dinner located in the pleasant Main St district was Elvis’ landmark. Bar Earnestine and Hazel’s, 531 S Main St. Main St. district Change of scenery guaranteed in this former brothel converted into a juke joint.
To have: Sun Studio (www.sunstudio.com), 706 Union Ave. The studio where rock and roll was born. This is where Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison recorded their first hits. Stax Museum of American Soul Music (www.staxmuseum.com), 926 E McLemore Ave. Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett frequented the Stax studios which now house this museum dedicated to soul. Graceland (www.elvis.com/graceland), 3734 Elvis Presley Blvd.
To have: The Blues Archive, (www.olemiss.edu/depts/general_library/archives/blues), University of Mississippi, MS 38677. Within the prestigious University of Mississippi, a series of delusional archives on the blues.
Housing: Shack Up Inn (www.shackupinn.com). 5 minutes from Clarksdale. The most blues hotel in the world: you sleep in the old shacks of a plantation. And we lend you a guitar for the night. Concerts in the main hall which acts as a bar. From € 50.
To have: Delta Blues Museum (www.deltabluesmuseum.org), 1 Blues Alley Ln. Nice little museum dedicated to the Delta blues.
To have: Delta Blues Legend Tours (www.deltablueslegendtours.com). Sylvester Hoover accompanies this “blues tour” in Clarksdale and its surroundings, to the grave of Robert Johnson.
To have: B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center (www.bbkingmuseum.org), 400 Second St. A museum to the glory of B.B. King, on the outskirts of his hometown. It also houses a reconstruction of the little cabin where Muddy Waters grew up.
Housing: The Elms (601.445.5979 ; www.theelms-natchez.com). A romantic bed and breakfast at will in a historic house. From 107 €.
Housing: Monteleone Hotel ( 866.338.4684), 214 Royal St. In the heart of the French Quarter, this is the Danieli of The Big Easy! William Faulkner, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Ambrose Bierce and Tennessee Williams frequented it and we still come across legendary artists such as Dr. John, singer and pianist from New Orleans. Arranged on a rotating carousel, the bar is quite unique. From 100 €.
Restore: Arnaud’s Restaurant (504.523.5433 ; www.arnaudsrestaurant.com), 813 Bienville St. Hard to imagine that this restaurant near Bourbon Street could be as distinguished: fine cuisine, amazing wine list (Château Cheval Blanc 1949 at $ 5,000) and burnt coffee, a spectacle in itself! GW Fins (www.gwfins.com), 808 Bienville St. Almost opposite Arnaud’s, a fabulous address specializing in freshly caught seafood (oysters, shrimps, crayfish, etc.).
Listen to music: The Spotted Cat, 623 Frenchmen St. The favorite club of New Orleans residents. Several quality concerts every evening, in the very hyped district of Marigny. Record store: Louisiana Music Factory, 210 Decatur St. Two steps from Charles Street, thousands of jazz, blues, soul, etc. references. Vinyl upstairs.