Thursday, April 8, 2010

Highway 61

It is universally understood that Highway 61, that stretch of road that extends south from Memphis into Mississippi, is sacred ground. This road has been immortalized many times, most famously by John Hammond's two trophy bookends, bluesman Robert Johnson and icon Bob Dylan. Should someone should ever ask you, 'hey, where you headed?' I'm not sure that any resident of Planet Earth could offer any answer cooler than: 'I'm headin' down Highway 61."

Highway 61 begins in Memphis - downtown Memphis. [The church I used to attend is there, St. Peter's, a Dominican parish]. Downtown Memphis has two Downtowns. The 'North End', also called 'the Pinch', was where the European immigrants (and there were many in the 1800's because of The River) settled. The 'South End was an African American neighborhood. This is where Beale Street could be found. This is where the Lorraine Motel is. This is where the real Highway 61 begins.

Heading south, Highway 61 quickly frees itself from the mechanics of downtown Memphis and an anonymous industrial area greets you next. Next is a fleeting abyss of strip malls, cheap hotels and temporary storage unit facilities. Then Highway 61 unfolds into the rolling rural stretch of road that I've tried to portray in this illustration.

[I write this having encapsulated this place as it was in 1992. That was almost two decades ago. God knows it must have changed. ]

There are Casinos in Tunica, Mississippi. They arrived in the early 90's. Casinos seemed to have infiltrated incongruous and legally ambiguous places throughout America and now I'm never surprised to stumble across one.

In the early 90's, I'd just relocated to Memphis. It was hard and I'd been consumed with an intransigent depression brought about by the pain of homesickness and the ache brought on by the absence of females in my all-boys school.

But then I found the guitar. My newfound love of blues music propelled me to align the guitar into my life and I realized I could play it well. Then I found Memphis' WEVL, a listener supported station that played blues standards deep into the night. I'd found blues. I'd found some something, and it made me feel that the abyss I carried about was not something penitentually unique but rather in sync with something cosmic, beyond me, perhaps an unseen discourse awaiting my participation.


Drive south from Memphis. The hills will roll and the trees will close in. You will pass over a ridge. I'm hoping that my illustration gives you a fraction of what this moment might be like. You pass over this bluff. And shortly thereafter, your car bottoms out into the flattest place you'll ever know.

This is the Delta. But before you hit this point, your car negotiates these mystical bluffs, wondering what's coming next...

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