Highway 61 Revisited

Photos: Jim Austin

I'm sitting in a rented Nissan just off Highway 61—yes, that Highway 61—looking out at a Shell station through the bug-stained windshield and across a litter-strewn, not-yet-planted cotton field. It's late March, and I've just left Clarksdale, Mississippi, on my way to Memphis. Leaving Clarksdale made me thoughtful, so I've pulled over to jot down a few notes.

Clarksdale—specifically, the intersection of highways 61 and 49, at the town's southern edge—is the crossroads where, according to legend, Robert Johnson encountered the Devil and exchanged his soul for his legendary guitar chops. The list of musicians born in this small city (pop. 18,000) includes Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, Son House, and Ike Turner. Johnson lived here; so did W.C. Handy. Muddy Waters moved here as a child.

As you drive west through Clarksdale's outskirts on Highway 49, and then onto Desoto Street, aiming toward the center of town, you pass acres of broken-down shacks and mobile homes. Downtown is unprepossessing, full of empty storefronts and red-brick skeletons. There is no Starbucks. Kai Ryssdal, host and senior editor of NPR's Marketplace, said in a report on the Mississippi Delta that, "in terms of economic mobility and poverty, this stretch of land is far behind anywhere else in the developed world."


Music, though, is ubiquitous here. At Deak's Mississippi Saxophones & Blues Emporium, bluesman Deak Harp sells harmonicas, folk art, and cold beer, and performs "open harp surgery" on diseased instruments. The barbershop was founded by the late Wade Walton, who, after a promising start playing blues, chose a steadier income. There's Bluestown Music, Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, and Delta Digs, which was closed when I was there but I think it's a record store. The Delta Blues Museum occupies the renovated train depot. And then there are the juke joints.


The first juke I came to yesterday—minutes after parking off Yazoo Avenue—was Red's Lounge. It's not a pretty place. What once was a window is now a sheet of unpainted plywood. The music calendar is scrawled in black Sharpie on an office-style whiteboard under a failing gray-white awning.

After trying Red's doorknob and finding it locked, I had one of the "what the heck am I doing here?" moments I often have while traveling. I texted an old friend for some Clarksdale advice.


Years after I'd escorted her for a local Teen Miss America pageant, Beth married blues-harp virtuoso Ed Johnson, aka Porkchop Slim. When Porkchop played Red's Lounge a few years ago, Beth accompanied him. She was online and wrote right back, offering sage advice: Go to Red's for the music, she wrote, but "wrap yourself in Saran Wrap and suffer through, or stand outside and try not to get knifed." But Thursday's space on the whiteboard was blank, and that locked doorknob was putting out scary vibes.

At the Ground Zero Blues Club, Thursday's attraction was Arkansas transplant Lucious Spiller, whom one critic has called a "soon-to-be legend." Spiller wears a bandana headband and has some Hendrix in him. He's no blues purist—he's opened for Bo Diddley and been known to play Prince—but Spiller can flat-out play the old-time Delta blues.

The Ground Zero was sticky but not gross. Every surface is covered in old blues posters and marked with graffiti. Where Red's seemed unimproved, GZBC is self-conscious, cultivated: juke-joint authentic, real but not infectious. Its owners include actor Morgan Freeman, born in nearby Memphis, and Bill Luckett, a local property lawyer and developer who himself has acted in half a dozen Hollywood films. Until he was voted out last May, Luckett was Clarksdale's mayor.

This ain't Disneyland, but Clarksdale is stage-managed. It's subtle but not hard to see. And while there may not be a Starbucks, there is Yazoo Pass, an espresso bar with copies of The New Yorker sitting on the wicker coffee table. That is not the rural Deep South I know.

You can't force things back the way they were, and you wouldn't want to if you could. The blues gestated on the porches of African-American shacks—gritty, impoverished places—in the minds, throats, and fingers of former slaves. The roots of the blues—hence of all America's music, including jazz and rock'n'roll—are in that suffering and the effort to redeem it through art, or at least to find peace.

Sometimes I think the time has come to put this music in a glass case in a museum. Clarksdale is a museum of sorts, but its residual grit makes it a fitting tribute to the music. As long as there are suffering, talented musicians, and a respect for what's real and true, there is hope for the music's continued vitality.

dalethorn's picture

It's hard for me to imagine a place without the Delta Blues and other blues genres. From ca. 1970 to the early 90's, my wife's brother collected every significant blues recording he could get his hands on. He put 10 thousand songs on tape, stretching from around 1923 through the 60's or 70's.

For most of those years he was a seller of rare 45's and 78's from his house in Akron OH, until he moved to Arizona and married a Navajo woman, and raised three kids on the reservation there. We have a large box of cassette transfers from his reel-to-reel tapes, which I'd like to see in the hands of someone who would digitize at least some of them, someday.

I see the old blues as just another music genre, so when I take the time to "get my head into it", I enjoy it immensely. One caution is good to have when exploring this music, and that is that like most any music genre, the vast majority of what you'll dig up isn't noteworthy, or listen-worthy. If you put together a collection of the better material - what you think would survive in your collection for a long time, you'll have a treasure-house of unique listening on hand.

Reading through some of the blues books like the History of the Blues, you learn about the violence and tragedy that affected many of these players, and in an odd coincidence of history, even given the different circumstances of our past three decades, a similar violence and tragedy is chasing today's leading artists in hip-hop and related genres. Something tells me that we shouldn't forget the lessons of history, and we should make sure to have a place reserved in our music collections for the Folk Blues, Delta Blues, and what followed them.

dalethorn's picture

I mentioned violence and tragedy chasing today's leading artists in Hip-Hop and related genres, and I hadn't even heard the news - two more young rappers were murdered yesterday - 20 y.o. 'Xxxtentacion' in Florida and 21 y.o. Jimmy Wopo in Pittsburgh. And there have been several others since the beginning of the year.

jimtavegia's picture

I would love to go down their with my 6 track Tascam DR-680 and a few mics from my cabinet and record whoever is game. I would rather not get knifed, but at 2496 it would be great fun and maybe something for the Stereophile Label?

Have recorder will travel. From ATL not too bad of a trip.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Hi ....... Do you use any tube equipment for your recordings? ...... Like for example tube mic pre-amp? .......

jimtavegia's picture

I did own a couple of Personus units years ago and for their cost they were just ok. I did run their tube circuits through my FFT program in my daw and found out that with more tube drive it just created a huge suck out at about 12khz, which definately altered the sound, but in an EQ way and added a huge coloration to the sound. I am seriously looking at a couple of Portico 5017 from Rupert Neve, Grace 101's, or Focusrite ISA 1's. for some 2 channel work. For now my Mackie's and Yamaha boards do good work with a touch of Lexicon reverbs. The important thing is not worry about what you don't have, but work to use what you have in the best way.

The mic press in the Tascam are just acceptable, but I view it as more of a 6 track recorder, but considering the price and it can record 6 tracks at 2496 and 2 at 24192 it is a very good buy. I also have two of the Focusrite 2i2 24192 usb devices on two of my computers and one Steinberg UR-22's on my Mac mini. The new version has Rupert Neve transformers which might also be an option as a stereo mic pre as a stand alone device. I would want to hear it.

Most of my recording work is for individuals at my home for practice and for school concerts so what I have is acceptable for that. I still can make some decent recordings with what I have, but then for serious commercial work one has to buy better mic press to really get into the game professionally. But for this work from this article I could do a nice job and it is more important to record it in some way rather not do it at all. Even the audio into my 2 Zoom 1080p video cameras can sound very good using outboard gear. They both can do 2496 audio.

dalethorn's picture

My experience in ad-hoc recording in coffee shops and stores etc. has been that the sound usually has some of that "bottom of the well" flavor to it. Maybe you've solved that long ago, or your setups prevent that sort of thing in the first place. Part of the reason I mention it is because I hear a little bit of that on some of the recent videos here on Stereophile, where they're recording an audio system demo.

jimtavegia's picture

The biggest problem there is the ambient noise of the room and the guests there. There is often so much background noise it can walk all over your recording work, but those who like live recordings with patrons, it doesn't seen to mind them.

I have about 20 mics, half are vocal and the rest are 3 AKG C-3000s, 3 Rode NT1-As, two Sennheiser 614 Pencil condenser mics, 4 Behringer B-5 pencils with both omni and uni capsules ( bought those when I first got started over 15 years ago and with decent mic press sounded OK and the equal of anything built into a recording device. I have especially made some nice ensemble recordings with those in Onmi mode...if the room is fairly quiet. I recommended a pair of Rode M5 small capsule unit's for their grand piano at a church and with some judicious use of EQ really made the piano much better than it was ($199 a pair). They didn't have much money to spend.

What I have found it that different mics add the same colorations as different mic preamps do and I find it always better to have more mics and try different ones and let the client choose what sound they like. I have my choices but it is never about me or what I like. I will add one more Sennheiser 614 so I can have 3 sets to be able to Decca Tree arrangements when needed. The 614's also sound very nice on acoustic piano work. 10" from the dampers at C3 and C5.

I like the AKG C-3000s on my voice the best in the studio. From the hand held mics I let the client try them all and decide. I have 3 Rode M1's, a Shure SM 58, 3 Sennheiser e835's, Sennheiser e945 (my fav for live work), an SE V7 and a SE V7x (more like an Share SM 57). Next buy will be either a Rode Tube mic or their Ribbon model. Neumann's are out of my budget, sadly.

Much of my work done at home is for free as I want people (especially students) to get started, not stay away due to cost. I want folks to practice and get better if it matters to them. The only way to do that is to hear yourself as the audience does. If I do make some money I just buy other mics to have other options. My recorders are 2 Tascam DR-40's, 2 Tascam DR-2d (older models), and my DR-680MK2 (24/192). All are SDHC card recorders and do 2496. I achieve a -80 db noise floor here at home with just some nicer Furman AC devices that seem to work well. If there is some noise my DAW FFT add-in will tell me at what frequency it is and then I can work to get rid of it. It is just great fun for me. I now appreciate well recorded music now that I know how hard it is to do it.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Do you have any experience with binaural recording(s)? .............

jimtavegia's picture

Might be something in the future, possibly. I might try some M/S if I bought a figure 8 mic as my Tascam DR-680MK2 can do that.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Please correct me if I am wrong ........ With M/S type of recording you may be able to get ITD, but may not be able to get true HRTF ...... like reflections from the pinna, for example ........ Am I right? .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The "Iso-Mike" recording technique may be something similar to simulate binaural recording ......... but may not be able to get true HRTF ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Some of the "binaural" type of recordings some Streophile reviewers made with mics hanging from the hat may be able to do ITD, but not realistic HRTF .......... The binaural recording JA made with Ambeo "insert" type of mics for Infinity IRS speakers, is much more realistic type of HRTF binaural recording .........

jimtavegia's picture

In MHO all of these are just different ways to record. I have some of Ray Kimber's IsoMic recordings which are excellent. The binaural recordings made from the trade shows and the one from AD house just don't seem quite the same from what I hear from my best commercial recordings I have purchased and played back on my mid-fi audio systems. I do understand the effort to try and recreate what we hear from headphone listening.

With ensemble work I have often set up at least two mic set-ups; one of an omni pair and then possibly an ORTF; and on occasion a Decca Tree arrangement and listen to all three once I get home and pic the one I like the best. All of this is Just stereo. It is a good way for one to experiment with differing engineering and see what works in that venue.

I think the Ambeo mic is not inexpensive so that is a consideration as well. It is well designed and is really 4 mics, so realistically a bargain in that regard. There is no problem with trial and error and many situations are different, even so in audio for video. That is something I need to look into this year. I. don't own any true video mics.

The Ambeo mic would be a great match for the Tascam DR680MK2 with an output for each capsule's cable and then run the output from the DR680 into a mixing board and then experiment with the sound field in 4 tracks/channels. I do wish their site had some sound samples we could audition.

It is great fun recording and I wish more would give it a try. You can get a nice little Yamaha or Mackie mixer, some mics, and a recorder for under a grand and have fun. For stereo work one could use an old cassette deck for recording that may be just lying around.

JimAustin's picture

don't get the wrong idea about Clarksdale or the musicians who live there. These guys are pros. The time when anyone could wander by with a recorder and expect to make field recordings passed decades ago.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Is there a "Heart break hotel" there? ............

dalethorn's picture

"I'm checkin' out of this heartbreak hotel"


Bogolu Haranath's picture

Ha ha ha ........ Meryl Streep? ......... I am talking about Elvis ..............

dalethorn's picture

I knew that, which is why I gave you Meryl Streep. You'll get it eventually.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

I think B.B King was born and raised in that area .......... Also, I think Elvis Presley was born and raised in that area ...............

dalethorn's picture

At one time people made pilgrimages to places in the Delta, up the river to Memphis, and on to Chicago. Does the address 2120 South Michigan Avenue ring any bells?

John Atkinson's picture
dalethorn wrote:
Does the address 2120 South Michigan Avenue ring any bells?

Drove past it once while traveling through Chicago, to see where the magic was laid down.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Is that the Rolling Stones instrumental recording? .............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Google search shows that there is also an album by that name by George Thorogood & the Destroyers .........

dalethorn's picture

Onetime home of Chess records, where Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon .... so many of the greats recorded. On a side note, for decades we could get a shortened stereo copy of the instrumental by the Rolling Stones, and finally in the 2000's we got the full length copy.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

I am not sure about that address ......... I thought it was the address of "Graceland" ........ I looked it up and it is not .........

dalethorn's picture

Since you've indicated interested in Elvis twice here, I might as well risk a brickbat or two on this one, i.e. one of the many differences between Elvis and Jesus:

"Jesus lived in a state of Grace in a far Eastern land."
"Elvis lived in Graceland in a far Eastern state."

Bogolu Haranath's picture

One of the famous quotes by Elvis ......... " I was training to be an electrician ...... Somewhere along the line I got wired the wrong way" ......... We are glad, he got wired the wrong way ............

ok's picture

Till 1991 driving up north Highway 61 led you straight to Duluth Minnesota where Robert Zimmerman was born. Some say young Dylan not only followed this route southbound musically speaking, but that he also stood at the very crossroads where Robert Johnson made his pact with the };-)

dalethorn's picture

I'll be sure not to ask whether Mr. Z might have made such a pact. After all, umm, his success is beyond amazing.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Wonder whether Jim Austin had an Elvis sighting on highway 61? .............

JimAustin's picture

Closest I came:

I went to Memphis,

saw Sun Studio and Stax Records

but I avoided Graceland.


Bogolu Haranath's picture

Did you have any "peanut-butter, banana and bacon sandwiches"? :-) .............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

So, "the thrill is not gone" ......... the thrill is still there ..........

JimAustin's picture

I agree--the thrill isn't gone.

After I left Clarksdale I went to Memphis an ended up in a slick venue in--is it Five Points? Can't quite remember what they call that area--listening to a slick, shiny country act. Young lady is charting--can't remember her name--but I found it unlistenable: all those musical and lyrical clichés! I left at the first break.

Meanwhile back in Clarksdale, the previous night, this young man from Canada in the cap prepared to go on for open-mic night as his pretty sister looked on. The young man shredded, dueting with Lucious Spiller in music that, to me at least, seemed authentic.

There's still real passion in the blues.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Is that "lady in red"? .......... It is a black and white photo, can't really tell ( I am not color blind, I don't think ) :-) ...............

JimAustin's picture

Neutrals I think. Black leather.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Black magic Woman" :-) .............

Allen Fant's picture

Nice Road Trip -JA
excellent stories and pics -All.

TNtransplant's picture

Thanks for the great write-up Jim! I drove down to Clarksdale a few years ago on spur of the moment after looking at a map and surprised that it wasn't too far from Memphis.* Had seen photos in books of places like Dockery Farms years ago but must confess still had no real sense of what it might have been like a century ago. Even with the signs for what I subsequently learned were Tunica casinos, many roads seemed to be stuck in time and had a feel so very different from my adopted Nashville -- let alone NYC where I grew up. Went primarily to check out the train depot museum, which was nothing special unless you really were a fan of Charlie Musselwhite. Driving through the town was sobering. Didn't even contemplate being brave enough to venture out to check out the local music scene. You've inspired me to build up my courage and prepare for return visit road trip. (Uh, if don't make it back alive, please cancel my subscription.)

* Excursion to Memphis was largely to check out George Merrill's turntables (no Stereophile reviews?) but realized after getting there not much else to see: Sun Studios, Beale St., etc. - great, Graceland - check the box, but the National Civil Rights museum was fantastic and I understand recently improved.

JimAustin's picture

Here's Porkchop Slim playing with Kingfish. Kingfish was in the original version, but this had to fit on one page. Kingfish was playing Friday night at Red's. Wish I'd stayed.


Bogolu Haranath's picture

"I guess that is why they call it the blues" :-) ...........

Anton's picture

The pic that opens the thread is just beautiful. Perfect. I would buy a print if that at a gallery! Kudos.

JimAustin's picture


Thanks Anton.

spacehound's picture

What a disaster !!!!

Ours is permanently empty except for a few old guys on Sunday mornings :-)

Brown Sound's picture

Thanks for that leg work, very cool, sir.