But long before these changes, the original train helped spread the jazz that came to life in New Orleans and the blues native to the Mississippi Delta. Because the daytime fares were affordable, the daytime train became a central figure in the movement of poor black families from the south, especially the Mississippi Delta, heading north looking for work and a better life. Chicago was the favorite destination. And they took the music along on the ride to their new communities.
Some of America’s most famous musicians are synonymous with stops the train makes. In New Orleans think of Louis Armstrong and his powerhouse style that took jazz and gave it the power to grow and develop until it not only went to Chicago but around the world. As the train rolls out of the Big Easy toward Memphis, it runs through the land of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Son House, the first legends of the blues.
In Memphis, Beale Street lays claim to being the place where the blues came of age and begat rock and roll. The music began to lose it country simplicity and pack people into places all over town to hear the new music on what was then Beale Avenue. And to enjoy everything legal and illegal that the bustling city had to offer. It was there, in that town, which at the turn of the 20th century had a lively cosmopolitan population, that some of the first modern blues songs were written, with the legendary W.C. Handy leading the way. Late in April comes the Beale Street Blues Festival, so if you’re crossing the tracks about that time, maybe you can find a layover in your log book to take in one of America’s most American music festivals.
It is Memphis that Elvis Presley, a Tupelo, Miss., native, came to call home. In 1954, Presley recorded at Sam Phillips’ Sun studios in Memphis, the regional hit “That’s All Right, Mama,” an old blues song. At the same time the studio brought out the first work of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. Rock and roll was on the way and here to stay.
The rock and roll of Memphis exploded and ran north to Chicago, too, until that city was alive with all of America’s own music.
When poor blacks from the South headed north in search of jobs a hundred years ago, they took the simple blues of guitar and harmonica with them. In Chicago the blues that began cooking in Memphis were urbanized, and drums, bass guitars and pianos became part of the music. Saxophones and electricity came along and added to the changes. Later still came the dance beats that help popularize the city’s “electric blues” scene. Today every blues aficionado knows the electric blues and the Chicago sound that started so far away, so long ago, carried North on the rails by the City of New Orleans.
Where You Could Meet the City of New Orleans
When you run from coast to coast, you’ll roll through some of the towns that the City of New Orleans comes to and across her tracks.
Homewood, Ill. (cross tracks, of course, on I-80 )
Champaign, Ill. (cross tracks on
I-74 where I-72 ends into it)
Effingham, Ill. (cross tracks on I-70 where I-57 crosses)
Memphis, Tenn. (cross tracks, of course, on I-40)
Yazoo City, Miss.
Jackson, Miss. (cross tracks on I-20)
Hammond, La. (cross tracks on I-12, the northern loop around lake Pontchartrain off I-10)
New Orleans, La. (cross tracks here, of course, on I-10)
If you get the chance to do a run between Chicago and New Orleans, you can reach a lot more of the legendary train’s stops. I-57 will run you past all the Illinois stops. I-55 will run you through Memphis. Greenwood and Yazoo City, Miss., are on state highway 49, but Jackson is back on the big road, I-55, as are Hazlehurst, Brookhaven and McComb. Hammond, La., is also on I-55, and if you want to find the beginning of this famous road, you’ll find it in downtown New Orleans.