The Crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The Blues Highways delivered the Delta blues and artists like Robert Johnson to a wider world in the first half of the 20th Century.
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
And the days keeps on worryin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail.”
The haunting lines are a blues refrain delivered with the acoustic slide guitar and distinctive wail of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. A Depression-era musician, Johnson lived fast, died young and, some say, the hellhound was literal, that the mysterious Mr. Johnson went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil for unearthly musical talent.
Droning down the darkened highways of the Mississippi Delta aboard a borrowed Harley-Davidson, Johnson and the devil cross my mind. Riding in the hellish August humidity of the Deep South, the notion of meeting Old Scratch at midnight doesn’t seem too out of the question. But I wasn’t there to strike any bargains, my objectives were less supernatural: Find good food, better music and, if I was lucky, the true fate of Robert Johnson.
Nearby Memphis may lay claim as the home of the blues, but the Mississippi Delta is the true birthplace of the distinctive American musical form. Covered by cotton fields and rural towns, the “Delta” is a fertile alluvial plain, 200 miles long and 60 miles wide, located in the northwest corner of Mississippi.
Entering the northern Delta’s largest city, Clarksdale, I approach the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49. A monument of two guitars mark the spot – one of the numerous crossroads linked to the Johnson legend. Known as the blues highways, 61 and 49 were the roads out of the Jim Crow South for Delta musicians like B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
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A stark city in a worn-down region, Clarksdale’s boarded up downtown is now stirring with a fledgling blues tourism industry. I head to Ground Zero Blues Club, a former cotton warehouse turned blues venue owned by famous local Morgan Freeman, located next to the Delta Blues Museum. While there I enjoy a barbeque dinner and live music from Bill “Howlin Mad” Perry, who celebrates his 61st birthday with long sips of whiskey and some inspired blues sets.
Firing up the Harley after the show, I roll to the eastern outskirts of town and my night’s rest at the Shack Up Inn. A rustic row of actual sharecropper shacks trucked in from across the region, the self-described B&B (bed and beer) caters to tourists looking for a memorable stay.
The irony for the blues-loving tenants is the squalor of a sharecropper’s life was what most Delta blues musicians sought to escape. A system where poor farmers leased plantation land for a share of the harvest, sharecropping was the hardscrabble existence Johnson was born into in 1911 – although no birth certificate has been found.
It is the beginning of a shady biography, filled with many holes. So for more info on Johnson’s life and some hot tips on the local music scene, I kick down the sidestand outside of Clarksdale’s preeminent music shop, the Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art (www.cathead.biz). Owner Roger Stolle walks me through the basics of the Johnson story.
After his birth, little is known of Johnson until age 18 when his teenage wife died in childbirth, losing the child as well. After that tragedy Johnson determined he’d pick a guitar rather than cotton and made it his ambition to be a traveling musician. The only problem was he wasn’t very good. Bluesmen of the day recall “little Robert” being a green amateur player, but then Johnson disappeared from the Delta and soon returned a guitar genius, earning the moniker “King of the Delta Blues.”
“The idea was you go to a deserted country crossroads in the Delta with your guitar a little before midnight,” explains Stolle, about how some say RJ obtained his skills. “You sit down and start playing. At some point a devil figure would come up from behind you, reach over and grab the guitar, retune it, hand it to you, and then you could play anything you wanted. But the implicit deal was you’d made a pact that this figure would come back later and take your soul.”
Many questions unanswered, I motor further south, ditching 61 for Highway 1, the Great River Road, a more scenic route shadowing the big levee that shields the Delta from Mississippi floodwaters. Rosedale, a small river town mentioned in one of RJ’s songs, is a quick stop at the White Front Cafe for a Delta culinary staple – hot tamales. Cruising beside endless rows of cotton and the occasional cypress swamp, other stops include Greenville, the largest river town in the state, and nearby Leland, home of the Highway 61 Blues Museum. From Leland I follow 61 on down to Vicksburg for majestic views of the Mississippi and another night’s rest.
In the morning, I point the Harley southeast, climbing out of the Delta into the more wooded interior to the small community of Crystal Springs, home of the Robert Johnson Blues Museum (www.robertjohnsonbluesfoundation.org).
I enter the simple white brick building adorned with blues artwork and memorabilia. A big man ambles out of a back office smiling as he sticks out his hand with an unexpected greeting, “Hello, I’m Steven Johnson, grandson of Robert Johnson.”
Robert Johnson’s legally recognized grandson, Steven, set us straight on the devlish legends surrounding his kin.
The tale of how Steven’s father, Claude, claimed his status as Robert Johnson’s legal heir is a colorful story in its own right. Claude always knew he was the biological son of Robert Johnson, but his paternal grandparents were church folk that believed the blues was the devil’s music and limited contact. Changing his surname as an adult, Claude’s lineage wasn’t much of an issue until his father’s music, relatively obscure after his 1938 death, was rediscovered and began generating sizable royalties. A fight to claim his status as legal heir went all the way to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Smiling next to the museum piano – an instrument which his grandfather also played, along with the harmonica – Steven recalls his own research into his forefather’s life and legacy.
“A lot of musicians such as Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Bonnie Raitt and several other well-known artists, they say they studied my grandfather’s music and it made a great influence and impact on their careers,” explains Steven.
Most Americans’ exposure to Johnson’s music came secondhand via covers by British rock bands, who hold a special reverence for the Delta blues in general and Johnson in particular. The Rolling Stones’ Love In Vain, Cream’s Crossroads and Led Zeppelin’s Traveling Riverside Blues, just to name a few, are all Johnson originals. Eric Clapton was so influenced by RJ, he issued a full album of covers dubbed Me and Mr. Johnson. For further proof of Johnson’s musical legacy, consider Rolling Stone rates him number 5 in The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time right next to Clapton.
As for his grandfather selling his soul to the devil, Steven just chuckles. No demonic pacts were made. Instead, when Johnson disappeared from the Delta he returned to his birthplace of Hazlehurst (just south of Crystal Springs). While there, Johnson practiced and studied under the tutelage of veteran bluesman Ike Zinnerman.
“He actually practiced, a lot of hard practice,” says Steven. “There were stories that him and Ike would go and practice in the cemetery. And Ike would tell my granddad, ‘If you can’t play a tune, it’s all right ’cause these people aren’t going to argue with you – they won’t say a word.'”
Jim, Jack and Johnny were previous tennants at our shack in Clarksdale. Some say bad whiskey was the end of Robert Johnson down the road in Greenwood.
Devil or not, Johnson’s guitar mastery made him a bona fide traveling bluesman, going on to cut a score of songs in two Texas recording sessions. RJ’s skills took him to big towns, like Detroit and Chicago, but his bread and butter was the Delta’s local circuit of juke joints.
Small clubs operating like a mom and pop speakeasy, juke joints were gathering spots for blacks to socialize in the segregated South. Music and dancing heated up the main room of these roadside clubs, which were often attached to the juke owner’s own home. Rougher entertainment like gambling and quaffing corn liquor moonshine were also on the docket and, so the story goes, it was some bad whiskey that spelled the end of Robert Johnson.
“The night that he was poisoned he performed at the Three Forks juke joint in Greenwood, Mississippi,” recounts Steven. A notorious womanizer, Johnson was flirting with the juke owner’s wife and the jealous husband decided to do away with the troublesome bluesman via poisoned whiskey. When an uneasy friend pushed the brew away from Johnson, the doomed musician is reputed to have said, “As long as you live, don’t you ever knock good whiskey out of my hand.”
When another bottle came his way, RJ drank. Steven maintains, however, that the poison did not directly kill his grandfather. Instead pneumonia fell on his forebear as he recovered and Johnson was unable to fight off the infection.
The Three Forks juke joint no longer exists, inexplicably burned down as an exercise by the local fire department. And arriving late at Greenwood, we had no time to scour the town in search of one of the three disputed gravesites – none of which conclusively house the remains of Johnson. Turns out no one knows for sure where Johnson’s body resides, much less his soul.
The juke joints have survived in the present day, however, sprinkled across the Delta and featuring local blues acts. The irregular, random scheduling of the joints makes a visit to the Cat Head mandatory and Stolle promises a visitor’s effort will be rewarded, saying: “If they like roots music, blues music at all, or musical culture, they owe it to themselves to spend a night in a real Mississippi juke.”
Opening up the Hog’s throttle in Greenwood I barrel past Highway 49 cotton and cornfields to Clarksdale. Stolle had told me earlier that music was scheduled that evening at Red’s, Clarksdale’s local juke, and I didn’t want to miss it.
“See, we play the heavy blues right here!” says Red himself, pounding his fist on the bar for emphasis. Red’s Blues Club could be mistaken as an abandoned brick building and is not the kind of place Martha Stewart would ever drop in to visit – which is what makes it so perfect. Liquor boxes stacked to the ceiling, Red staggers behind the bar breaking the bad news – there’d be no blues tonight, thanks to a last minute cancellation.
“But we still got the jukebox, and we still got beer!” he says and disappointment is soon shrugged away as Red makes good on his word. The “heavy blues” smack out of an invisible sound system as he cracks open 24-oz tallboys and shows me around the joint. Red points to a guitar hanging on the wall. I can’t make out the illegible signatures of the blues greats scrawled across its surface, but I do recognize the faces in a nearby photograph from the week prior – it’s Red and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant.
Enjoying Red’s hospitality for all 24 ounces and then some, I wander back over to Ground Zero without regrets. A competent trio backs up club regular Joshua “Razorblade” Stewart (because he dresses so sharp), who belts out blues standards ’til the early morning hours.
Packing up the Harley Ultra Classic’s bags at dawn for my return to Memphis, another night of food and fun was in the cards that evening. But the flash of Beale Street didn’t ring as true as the blues down in the Delta. Before skipping town I stop one last time at the crossroads and a nearby donut shop for coffee. Making small talk the shop’s owner and I look at the crossroads outside.
“You know,” he says, “they say the crossroads is where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.”
I nod my head and smile.
“That’s what I heard.”