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Best American road trips: Explore the history of Black music in America

Get ready to hit the road and turn up the volume on this musical journey through the American south. | By Marquita Wright | February 1, 2022

This Black History Month, we’re taking one of the best trips in America and traveling through the South to visit the birthplaces of legendary Black music genres. Our road trip itinerary starts in New Orleans, before traveling east to Mississippi and further north to Tennessee and North Carolina. Buckle up and create memories from the sounds of the rich musical history that the Black community has contributed to this country and the world by:

  • Dancing the night away: You’ll find no shortage of lively music venues on this adventure

  • Soulful sips: Toast your trip and its amazing soundtrack with a classic cocktail

  • Follow in the footsteps of greatness: Walk the same paths (literally) as musical legends on the Mississippi Blues Trail

New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz

The first stop on our journey is New Orleans, home to Congo Square, now found within Louis Armstrong Park. It’s an outdoor space where, before the Civil War, enslaved people would gather each week to sing and play music from their various native countries. The blended sound created a harmony that became the foundation of jazz. This music genre is such an intrinsic part of city life in New Orleans, from the French Quarter, Frenchmen Street and most neighborhood bars.

Some notable venues include Kermit’s Tremé Mother in Law Lounge, found in the oldest Black neighborhood in America and owned by the famous New Orleans jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. This beloved space features live music, surprise guest musicians and a side order of classic New Orleans’ cuisine.

Prefer the musical stylings of Henry Roeland Byrd aka Professor Longhair? Head to Tipitina’s, a circa-1977 “neighborhood juke joint” that is named for one of Byrd’s most famous recordings. It was originally created as a place for him to perform in his final years.

Those in search of a more upscale evening should stop by Bourbon Street’s The Jazz Playhouse in Royal Sonesta New Orleans, where the handcrafted cocktails and local musical talent will sing all your cares away.

Onwards and upwards

Next stop on this classic American road trip will have you traveling five hours northeast to the Mississippi Delta. It’s the birthplace of the delta blues, one of the earliest forms of blues music. This musical style centers around solo performances enhanced by guitar and various techniques such as bending notes by sliding a metal object along the instrument’s fingerboard. This style was developed and shared with the world by pioneers such as Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson.

You can follow the Mississippi Blues Trail, a route steeped in so much history and culture it could be a contender for the best road trip in America alone. Follow an interactive journey through history that explores the evolution of blues and the artists that forged its legendary sound. Want even more history? Visit the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale — an epicenter of America’s blues culture since the 1920s. The state’s oldest music museum has an impressive collection of blues artifacts including original instruments, sheet music and more. Finish your trip at Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Inc, where you can pick up the perfect souvenir in the form of a record or CD.

The fun doesn't stop here, however. Many delta blues artists continuted their musical endeavors in the "unofficial capital" of the Mississippi Delta: Memphis.

The sound(s) of Tennessee

A short 90-minute drive from Mississippi will take you to Memphis. In the 1930s, local composers began writing gospel songs for famed musicians such as Mahalia Jackson, widely known as the “Queen of Gospel Song.” Combine their successes with the fact that the city was already home to a few popular gospel harmony quartets, and it’s clear why Memphis and gospel seem to go hand-in-hand.

Begin your soulful exploration at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which first found fame as a record shop and recording studio (Stax Records) that promoted gospel songwriting and an R&B sound through its subsidiary label, The Gospel Truth. You’ll find a reassembled circa-1906 Mississippi Delta church, an Express Yourself dance floor and exhibitions showcasing period equipment.

A musical journey through Tennessee wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Nashville. Three hours away from Memphis, this popular city houses Fisk University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). In 1871, a group of Fisk students formed an a cappella group to raise funds for their school. The singers traveled through Europe and the United States, performing spirituals written by enslaved people for audiences that included President Grant and Queen Victoria. Their global popularity is said to have taken Black music mainstream and the group — known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers — still performs today.

To learn even more about Nashville’s musical roots, head to the Jefferson Street Sound Museum, which takes visitors back to the “Golden Age of Jefferson Street” Put it this way: If you wanted to make it in music, you made your way here, first. In this space, you’ll hear the talents of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole. The National Museum of African American Music is another note-worthy stop. It’s the only museum committed to preserving and showcasing the impact of African Americans on America’s music scene.

Last stop: Funky town

Drive 10 hours east from Nashville, and you'll find yourself in Kinston, North Carolina.

Kinston is a 45-minute drive from Greenville and a 1.5-hour drive from Raleigh and Wilmington. Why go this route? The town is widely celebrated as the birthplace of funk music, a blend of gospel, soul, jazz, R&B and Afro-Cuban music styles that creates a sound of its own. Head to the African American Music Trails for a deeper dive into the history of funk through the streets that were once home to some of the country’s most influential musicians. The town claims five members of the James Brown Band as its own. Funk music.

Make your musical travel memory

There are many great places to include when road-tripping through the South for Black History Month. But what better way than through the lens of the universal language of music? You’ll be sure to create a soundtrack (and memories) that will last a lifetime on one of the best road trips in America.

Marquita Wright, The Traveling Twin Mama, has been to 36 countries and is determined to share her love of traveling with her children.

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