GREENVILLE, MISS. — BLUES musicians have always sung about Highway 61 as the road out of the Delta to the urban promised lands of the north. Now it's starting to be seen as the road back in. While the country is the midst of an unprecedented blues revival, this ``birthplace of the blues'' is increasingly being seen as having great tourist potential. One Thursday evening in a function room at a Ramada Inn here, James ``Son'' Thomas, one of the original blues masters, played and sang a song before an appreciative audience of Lilly Foundation executives, who were exploring the Delta.
Malcolm Walls, director of community and cultural affairs for the Mississippi Action Community Education (MACE), who hosted the gathering, thought they'd like to see this indigenous resource.
``You'd be amazed at how many people come looking for where Robert Johnson lived, or Sonny Boy Williamson,'' says Mr. Walls. MACE holds the Greenville Blues Festival every September.
Farther up 61, Clarksdale hosts six blues clubs, the Delta Blues Museum, a blues festival, a blues magazine, and a record label that produces the songs of blues artists.
Howard Stovall, who lives on the Stovall plantation near Clarksdale, Miss., where singer Muddy Waters was raised, sees a good mix of culture, education, and economic development. ``I think it's an incredible resource,'' says the high-powered Mr. Stovall, who has brought his experience as a Chicago commodity trader back to the family home and store. ``We're the only place in the world that can boast that many blues musicians.''
He wants to turn Muddy Waters' cabin into a small park and identify grave sites and home sites of famous musicians with markers and directional arrows for the highway.
Stovall's nonprofit group, the Sunflower River Blues Association, is working on promoting blues and tourism in the Delta. ``A local festival can be the equivalent of one or two new industries in the amount of money put into the local situation,'' Stovall says.
Some see another benefit to these festivals, which draw easy-going crowds of blacks and whites - that of bridging the gap between the races. Those who first broke that barrier were European and Japanese tourists, who, Stovall says, ``revere the blues.''
John Horhn, director of tourism development for the state is working on itineraries for tourists taking blues tours.
Developing the blues as an industry is a delicate task. ``You have to fight against the commercialization of the blues and maintain the purity of the music somehow,'' he says. ``It's hard to do.''