Americans invented blues music, and it has become our most significant contribution to the music of the world. It was born as a raw expression of hard work and heartbreak in the fertile delta of the Deep South and as the musicians traveled north along what has become known as the Blues Highway, the changing landscape and the differences between rural life and city life changed the music.
The history of the blues is rich, full of both honesty and myth, and for those with a yearning to experience the real thing the good news is, it's a living history. Better yet, for pilots, flying the Blues Highway brings it all together; with the aviator's perspective of the Earth below, it's easy to see how the migration of the music was shaped by the contrast of countryside and city. The first stop...New Orleans.
Precariously perched on the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, along with vast swaths of the city itself, New Orleans' Lakefront Airport suffered Hurricane Katrina badly, and as this is written, it is working its way back to its status as one of the country's great Southern airports.
Addie Fanguy, an AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer, a lifelong resident of New Orleans, and a former member of the New Orleans Police Department, Homicide Division, is the regional vice president and general manager for the Million Air FBO at Lakefront. He's quick to note that along with the rest of the airport, Million Air (which lost its buildings on the southwest corner of the field) has struggled from the first days after the great storm. "Since the hurricane, and through all the adversity, my company has committed to staying here and keeping the airport viable."
Before Katrina, for most tourists their first thoughts of The Big Easy were of the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, or maybe those hunks of fried dough and cups of coffee at the Café Du Monde. But when it comes to the blues, the most authentic music can be found in clubs such as the Banks Street Bar & Grill on the north side of town, about a 10-minute cab ride (the recommended mode of travel) from downtown.
Local and traveling bands play the club almost every night, and Maria, Banks Street's manager, proudly notes that the club was one of the first two to reopen after Katrina, and served as a musical oasis in the area, getting by for months on candlelight and "Red Cross" ice.
One of the first musicians to play there after the storm was local favorite and longtime recording artist Walter "Wolfman" Washington, who spoke about his return to the city: "I was away, and when I saw what had happened, I drove all night to get here. This is my home and these are my people. I had to come back and play here. For my band, it's not just our musical home, it's our home."
Jackson-Evers International is what you'd expect of an airport serving a seat of government, with parallel 8,500-foot runways and a variety of instrument approaches. Less busy, but still with a tower, is Hawkins, with both 5,300- and 4,800-foot runways, and three FBOs.
It's at Hawkins that you'll find the Turbo Baron flown by Wolf Stephenson, co-owner and vice president of the Malaco Music Group, the home of Malaco Records, the one record company that probably has done more than any other to fan the flames of blues and rhythm and blues in the Deep South for the past 40 years.
Of the company's first real success, Stephenson says, "Mississippi Fred McDowell was a fantastic Delta Blues bottleneck guitarist and vocalist of worldwide fame, and we used to hire him to play parties at Ole Miss. Somebody came in and did an album on a Delta Blues artist of some kind, and we thought it was OK, but we figured we could do a hell of a lot better with Fred McDowell." That early success would lead to good times and lean times, and along the way Malaco recorded artists such as King Floyd ( Groove Me), Jean Knight ( Mr. Big Stuff), and later Dorothy Moore, with one of Malaco's bestsellers, Misty Blue.
In 1985, Stephenson and his partners bought the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama. By 1990, the constant, long drive between the two cities prompted Stephenson to get a pilot certificate and, in effect, made him one of the first people involved with the production of blues music to use an airplane to get his work done. Recalling those days, Stephenson says, "From about '92 until we sold Muscle Shoals two years ago, about 85 percent of my flying time was between Muscle Shoals and Jackson. I know every landmark, and the frequency for every VOR along the way."
Across town from Malaco you'll find the 930 Blues Café, located at 930 North Congress Street, just a few blocks from the stately Mississippi Capitol building.
The 930 has played host to a number of national acts such as Bobby Rush, Koko Taylor, Kenny Neal, and Willie King, and on most nights, you can hear local favorites "Ironing Board" Sam (the "Human Jukebox") and Jackie Bell. Downstairs you'll find a colorfully decorated restaurant known for its fried catfish and the house specialty, ribs, and the food is very reasonably priced.
It's a short flight from Jackson to Clarksdale, Mississippi. But you'll want to make it last a little longer by heading due west for a while until you reach the Mississippi River, and then turning north to follow the big river toward Clarksdale. Along the way, you'll witness the rolling terrain becoming the table-flat Delta. From the south, as you arrive at Clarksdale's cotton-field-surrounded Fletcher Field and look down Runway 36, that'll be Highway 61 stretching off into infinity to your right. When you land in Clarksdale, you've landed in the true ancestral home of the Delta Blues.
Actor Morgan Freeman and Clarksdale attorney Bill Luckett are both active pilots and they share ownership of a Cessna Citation, a Cessna 414, and a soon-to-be-delivered Sino Swearingen SJ30-2. But their most visible partnership, and one that has certainly pumped new life into the blues scene in Clarksdale, was their creation of the Ground Zero Blues Club.
Luckett explains how the venture came about. "Morgan and I began musing about what we could do to preserve this music, and at the same time have a place for us to go, so we started a search about six years ago for a building. About that time my friends, the Stovall family, were selling out their business, and this building was just a leftover remnant of that business. I offered to buy it from them, and we opened on May 11, 2001, as the Ground Zero Blues Club."
Over the past six years, the club has become the go-to place for tourists in search of good music and good food (start with the big basket of tongue-scalding fried green tomatoes), and a must-play place for blues artists, with both local and national acts, such as the Oklahoma-based harp- and slide-guitar-playing Watermelon Slim, on stage almost every night.
The club also has served as the location for several major documentaries on the blues. When he's not away working on a film, Freeman, who keeps a home nearby, often can be found enjoying the show as if he were just another tourist stopping by the club. He says, "I'm a music lover, and you get around people who make it, it's just that much more enjoyable."
Both Luckett and Freeman make constant use of their small fleet of airplanes. Early on, local flights with Luckett revived Freeman's childhood dream of flying, which once led him to join the Air Force, and prompted him to get his pilot certificate. But now Freeman uses the Citation and 414 for business travel, and laments, "I have to do so much flying now that there's no longer the desire to just go flying up and down the river."
Encouraging those pilots who may be interested in a journey to explore Clarksdale's musical history, Freeman says, "It's the nature of Mississippians to pride ourselves on Southern hospitality. So, y'all come on down here and kick back and relax and have a good time."
On the hop from Clarksdale to Memphis, unless you plan to slip in under the ever-lowering floor of the Class B, it's best to give approach a call on 119.1 just after you pass Helena, Arkansas. If you want a great view of the city with its barge traffic on the river, and its huge pyramid arena, work it out with Memphis Air Traffic Control and head on up the river to General DeWitt Spain Airport. Its 3,800-foot Runway 17/35 sits just east of the river; the folks there are accommodating, rental cars are available, and it's only a few minutes to downtown.
For many music tourists, Memphis means Beale Street, and there's no doubt that there are plenty of decent music venues and eateries on that short row. But the Beale Street of today is just a reminder of the long-past glory days when Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Albert King would tear the place up on a Saturday night. That's not to say you can't satisfy your blues urge on Beale, though, as it still plays home to live-music spots like the Blues City Café (blues on some nights — check the schedule) and B.B. King's Blues Club, where the living legend will still play a set on occasion.
While you're in Memphis, stop by 706 Union Street, home of the famous Sun Studio, for a quick tour of the hallowed ground where many feel that rock 'n' roll began. Everybody knows it as the home of Elvis' early work, but it's also where owner Sam Phillips recorded Delta bluesmen Ike Turner, Little Milton, and B.B. King. And if a strong blues and rock 'n' roll history wasn't enough for Memphis, it was the soul and rhythm and blues capital of the world with the incredible lineup of artists (Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. & the MG's, and Rufus Thomas) who recorded on the Stax Records label. The original studio building was torn down, but recently the new Stax Museum of American Soul Music was built on the site.
Flying into St. Louis from Memphis is a trip from one Class B up the middle of America into another Class B. With Creve Coeur chosen as the airport for this trip, the ride into downtown was a little long; if that's an issue, check out St. Louis Downtown Airport just across the river to the southeast.
Before you head out for dinner and music, it's worth a ride to the top of the Arch for the incredible views of both the city and the Mississippi River. But when it's time to eat and listen, you can take care of both at the nearby BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups at 700 South Broadway, just a few blocks west of the new Busch Stadium, home of the Cardinals.
The building that houses BB's was originally built in the mid-1800s in an area known as Frenchtown, and has a history of serving as a hotel, a boarding house, and a house of ill repute. Now, under the guidance of proprietor Mark O'Shaughnessy, it is the leading blues club in the city, and boasts an incredible menu as well. Music is seven nights a week, and it's blues every night except Monday, when the up-to-16-piece jazz band plays (lots of horns in this one).
In business off and on at the location since 1976, O'Shaughnessy says of his quest to keep blues music alive in the city, "We'll pull in national acts, but mostly we're dedicated to St. Louis music and musicians. There was a need for a place that could display St. Louis culture and musical history. These people have had some real wisdom and depth in their music for a lot of years."
Chicago is where the blues went to become citified. You'll reach it after a flight over the plains of Illinois, and more or less along Highway 55, which takes the place of Highway 61 as the Blues Highway into the Windy City. The Chicago Class B is ringed with general aviation airports, and though none offers the world-class convenience of the departed Meigs Field, on the western side, Dupage and Schaumburg Regional airports will get you into position for a reasonably short rental-car ride into the city.
Chicago was where migrants from the Deep South reached the end of the line on the Illinois Central Railroad, and with them came blues musicians. Many arrived after World War II, following in the footsteps of Big Bill Broonzy, who left the Delta for Chicago in the 1920s. The 1940s saw the music change with the coming of "Sonny Boy" Williamson, Tampa Red, and especially Muddy Waters.
By the 1950s, the Chicago Blues sound (strong on electric and slide guitar with a lot of blues harp mixed in) was being played and recorded by the biggest names in the history of the genre, musicians like Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Elmore James, Junior Wells, and Bo Diddley. Later would come Koko Taylor, the reigning Queen of the Blues, and Chicago's Blues Master in residence, Buddy Guy.
If you've time for only one club in Chicago, make it Buddy Guy's Legends at 754 South Wabash, just on the southern side of the Loop. Guy, a guitarist that other guitarists go to hear, still plays there every January, and his reputation not only draws a good crowd but also draws some of the best musicians to play in the city.
By now, as you begin your flight back home, if you started in New Orleans and made it to Chicago, with a blues club at every stop along the way, you should have heard some great music, and seen some of our country's best scenery along the Mississippi, the Delta, and the Plains. You will have met some fine people, and either discovered or rediscovered America's singular and soul-stirring contribution to world music; you will have met the Blues.
Charles H. Stites is an aviation photographer and writer.