Welcome to New Orleans
The long, low strip of used car lots, motels, transmission shops, second-hand stores, bars, pawn shops, and diners that line the four lanes of Airline Highway from the Louis Armstrong Airport to where the highway becomes Tulane Avenue is the first glimpse many visitors to New Orleans have of the metropolitan area. From the back seat of a cab the view of this down-at-the-heels stretch of road looks more like the setting for a Tom Waits song than anything you'd find in a New Orleans tour brochure. And yet this is an important strip of blacktop in the culture of New Orleans, and of the country. This is the downriver end of U. S. Highway 61, a mythic road that has been immortalized in blues songs and in Bob Dylan's classic Highway 61 Revisited.
Bob Dylan's sixth studio album was released in 1965, the same year that saw him plugging in an electric guitar and jolting the Newport Folk Festival. The recording, which marked his shift from folk music to rock, still sounds rough and tumble after all these years. On the title track, Highway 61 is depicted as a surreal landscape of unrepentant capitalism, illicit sex, gambling, and violence a place where seemingly anything could happen, up to and including "the next world war" ("We'll just put some bleachers out in the sun. And have it on Highway 61."). Highway 61 Revisited was ranked #4 on Rolling Stone's the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time; the title song ranked #1 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs.
Before the interstate system was built, U. S. 61 was a key north-south connection for the country, running almost 1,700 miles from the Canadian border in northern Minnesota to its southern terminus in New Orleans at the intersection of Tulane Avenue and Broad Street in front of the Orleans Parish Criminal Court building. The southernmost stretch of the highway linking Baton Rouge and New Orleans, was built in the 1930s under the Huey Long administration, and was the first modern highway into New Orleans. This section of Highway 61 was named Airline Highway, not because it passes the New Orleans airport and the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport (which had not yet been built), but because of the highway's unusually straight route. Governor Long advocated the building of the airline highway according to some sources in order to facilitate his travel between the capital in Baton Rouge and the bars and restaurants in New Orleans that he enjoyed frequenting.
The seven-mile section between Kenner and New Orleans was dominated by restaurants, bars, motels, bowling alleys, and drive-in theaters. The first fast food franchise in the New Orleans area was on Airline Highway, as was the headquarters of reputed local mob boss, Carlo Marcello. In the early years, the new motels and travel courts offered clean, safe and affordable accommodations for middle-class travelers, outside New Orleans but still convenient to it. Over the years Airline Highway declined and eventually developed a reputation as a strip of cheap motels and bars where gambling and prostitution flourished. This seedy reputation has persisted, in part thanks to such national news stories as in 1987 when Baton Rouge televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was caught leaving an Airline Highway motel with a prostitute.
In an attempt to improve the image, Jefferson Parish officials renamed the highway between New Orleans and Kenner "Airline Drive." Today Airline Drive is home to the New Orleans Saints facility, Zephyr Stadium (home of New Orleans AAA professional baseball club), and LaSalle Park, which boasts a walking path and lighted softball fields, as well as many of the remaining motels which have been repainted and renewed.
Highway 61 from the beginning has served as a conduit of American art and culture through the heart of the country. From New Orleans, the highway runs north through the Mississippi Delta where it is also known as the Blues Highway. It figures prominently in songs (Mississippi Fred McDowell's "61 Highway" and James "Son" Thomas' "Highway 61") and in the mythology of the region. Legend has it that in exchange for a mastery of the blues, seminal bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Elvis Presley grew up not far from Highway 61. Bessie Smith was killed in an automobile accident on Highway 61 between Clarksdale and Memphis in 1937. After her death, Bessie Smith became the subject of the subject of "Blue Melody," a short story by J. D. Salinger in 1948, a play by Edward Albee ("The Death of Bessie Smith"), and a song by The Band, recorded with Bob Dylan on The Basement Tapes in 1975). She is also frequently referenced in Minneapolis poet John Berryman's Dream Songs. Highway 61 also passes through Mark Twain's Hannibal, Missouri, birthplace of American literary icons Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.
At the northern end of Highway 61 in the 1940s and 50s in Hibbing, Minnesota, boy named Bobby Zimmerman immersed himself in the folk and blues music that came in on the radio airwaves from St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans. In 1959 he moved to Minneapolis where he reinvented himself as Bob Dylan. And as it has since the beginning, Highway 61 continues to be revisited by American musicians and artists and writers.
American Beauty, South is a mural project inspired by historic Highway 61 that makes use of the facades of eight Airline Highway motels to showcase eight original paintings created specifically for this setting. Artists were provided with full sheets of primed plywood; the finished paintings were all installed in late October without publicity so that the entire project simply appeared as if overnight. The project coincides, but is not a part of, the Prospect One Biennial in New Orleans in November and December 2008. American Beauty, South suggests that beauty can be found where you least expect it, and that even the least likely stretch of highway may be a site and a source for art. The next time you find yourself in the back of a cab or behind the wheel on Airline Drive, keep your eyes open you're out on Highway 61.
Christopher Chambers is an author and Associate Professor of English at Loyola University. He received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for creative writing in 2008 and is editor of New Orleans Review. Currently, he is working on a novel.
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