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Visiting these cities isn’t just about the music; it’s a peek into American culture.
You don’t have to be a die-hard blues fan to embrace this art form’s influence. The blues has strong connections to other styles of music — gospel, soul, rock — not to mention its ties to American history.
The origins of the blues can be traced back to the American South — and the Mississippi Delta, in particular. The communities that call the blues home still attract the best talent at clubs, including a few that have been around for decades. These cities also host museums, historical sites and other points of interest, making them the best spots for travelers exploring their love for the blues.
Artists may tour all over the country, but these seven cities are the ones to visit on your next trip.
A word of caution before you head out, though. While Covid-19 brought live music and travel to a halt, these destinations and their attractions, festivals and events are beginning to reopen. Still, it’s a good idea to consider travel insurance plans that offer coverage in case you need to cancel due to the pandemic or for separate injury or illness.
As the legend goes, musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in order to play a mean guitar at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Whether there’s truth to that or not, there’s no doubt the blues were born in the Mississippi Delta. Icons like Muddy Waters recorded in town, and music still runs deep here. Trace musical history at the Rock & Blues Museum and the Delta Blues Museum, two outstanding sites that even casual blues’ lovers will enjoy.
You’ll find sizzling performances at Ground Zero Blues Club, the Shack Up Inn and Red’s Lounge. Clarksdale is also home to numerous blues festivals: visit for April’s Juke Joint Festival, August’s Sunflower River Blues or October’s Deep Blues Festival.
Tunica isn’t just a casino resort town. For music lovers, the main draw is the Gateway to the Blues Museum, a place that’s half historical exhibits and half an excuse to let out your inner musician. Interactive exhibits teach you to write your own blues song and play a diddley bow or lap steel guitar. Once you’ve mastered your new skills, you can record your masterpiece in their on-site studio and email it yourself for a one-of-a-kind souvenir.
Tunica is an easy day trip from both Clarksdale and Memphis (or an ideal stopping point if you’re heading from one to the other), so there’s no excuse not to squeeze it into your plans.
Farther south on the Mississippi Blues Trail, you’ll find Indianola’s Club Ebony. This juke joint was once a stop on the former Chitlin’ Circuit, one of America’s first musical tour routes. Notable artists like Ray Charles and Willie Clayton performed here, and dozens of others got their start in the 1940s and ‘50s. Pay your respects or plan your visit strategically: the club still opens for a few shows per year.
Down the road, the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center tells the story of the iconic musician’s life. Exhibits seamlessly illustrate local African-American history, highlighting the struggle of life on the Mississippi Delta. You’ll also learn how the blues broke down racial barriers and served as a vital cultural exchange during a period of otherwise extreme segregation.
Memphis beckons to blues’ lovers the same way it has for over a hundred years. It’s the ideal destination for travelers who don’t want to commit in advance. Walk down pedestrian-friendly Beale Street and pop in to clubs like Blues City Cafe, B.B. King’s Blues Club or the Blues Hall Juke Joint to see who’s playing that night.
When you’re not busy listening to live music (or wiping barbecue sauce off your face), the city’s other musical attractions will keep you busy. Tour Sun Studio, where King laid tracks, or discover the memorabilia collections at Blues Hall of Fame Museum. The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Stax Museum of American Soul and Elvis’s Graceland also add fascinating context to the blues even though they’re not specifically dedicated to the style.
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans is better known as the birthplace of jazz, but it played an enormous role in establishing the blues at the turn of the century, too. In fact, Anthony Maggio’s “I Got the Blues” — the first 12-bar blues song published with the word “blues” in the title — was a hit in the city in 1908. Ever since, New Orleans has been a big player in the music world.
New Orleans blues is typically more upbeat than the original style, with extra swagger born from the influence of spirituals, Dixieland bands and Caribbean music. One thing it has in common with other blues sub-genres, though, is that every song is soulful. Check it out at spots like The Funky Pirate Blues Club or plan your trip for October so you can attend the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival.
St. Louis, Missouri
No, the St. Louis Blues isn’t just a hockey team. The classic song “St. Louis Blues,” most famously recorded by greats Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong in 1926, was drawing national attention long before the NHL existed. People still travel from far and wide to visit clubs like BB’s Jazz, Blues & Soups and The Beale on Broadway.
St. Louis is also home to the National Blues Museum, which opened in 2016. Using interactive stations, anyone can write their own song complete with harmonica, guitar and piano tracks. It’s a hit even with visitors who have never listened to the blues before. Although, if that’s the case, the museum’s Spotify playlists are available to the public and make excellent road trip music.
Chicago-style blues is a unique twist on more familiar riffs, and the city’s urban vibe makes it a strong contrast to the smaller stops in this guide. It’s also the host of the world’s largest free blues festival: the Chicago Blues Festival is held annually in June. Can’t make it? Check for other free concerts and events held all summer long. With plenty of non-blues claims to fame, this is also one of the best options for a more well-rounded vacation.
Although Chicago has quite a line-up of musical alumni — including Tampa Red and Muddy Waters — this is a destination better suited for anyone following today’s music. You’ll find fabulous venues all over the city, with favorites like Kingston Mines and Rosa’s Lounge. At Buddy Guy’s Legends, you can also hear Buddy Guy himself: he typically plays every January.