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Byways to the Blues

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

A promotional poster for the old Cotton Belt route

The next time you merge onto I-530, take a moment to think about the miracle of modern transportation. Interstates. Expressways. Railroads. Air travel. They make it easy for us—and our way of life—to get around.

It was no different a century ago. Delta Lowlands entertainment benefited immensely from the presence of the Cotton Belt train route and US Highway 65. While a means of cargo transport, the Cotton Belt also provided passenger transportation for singers, musicians, circuses, and shows, especially from the 1880s to the 1930s. Lowlands communities in and around Pine Bluff, a major transportation and cotton export hub because of the confluence of trains, highways, and the Arkansas River, had prime exposure to this entertainment.

By the late 1930s, highways began displacing rail as the preferred node of passenger travel. The "chitlin' circuit," an informal network of performance venues for African American artists during segregation, particularly in the South, thrived in areas connected by highways. Of Arkansas's three main chitlin' circuit highways, two intersected in the Delta Lowlands, US Highway 79 and US Highway 65. These roads facilitated major travel for artists in subsequent decades, primarily between the Delta and the Southwest and through the Deep South. They also facilitated touring by national acts. Consequently, numerous major entertainers came through the Lowlands, performing at its small clubs, juke joints, and theaters. Places like Eudora, Dumas, Arkansas City, and others benefited from their proximity to Highway 65; acts headed to Pine Bluff and Little Rock often performed in these smaller towns. The constant exposure of Delta Lowlands residents to the best in music, film, and theater entertainment contributed to the development of keen homegrown talent.

The next time you get in a car, a bus, or a plane, take a moment to say a silent prayer of thanks to the miracle that is modern transportation. Who knows where this cross-pollination of music, ideas, politics, and fashion will lead us next?

Sources: City of Tyler, Texas; Delta Music and Film, Jefferson County and the Lowlands

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