Robert Johnson, The Devil, And Me

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CELEBRATE THE BLUES AT STARBUCKS! proclaimed the sign at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. I was catching a plane to Memphis, then driving south to Greenville, Mississippi, for the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival, the second oldest of its kind in the country. I was going to explore the Delta, the wedge-shaped region in the north of the state between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. If I’d had a laptop with a wireless portal, I could have just stayed at the airport Starbucks, sipping a five-dollar cappuccino and singing along with Precious Bryant: “I’m broke and I ain’t got a dime.”

The blues, arguably the first truly American music, evolved from a Southern front-porch pastime into a global phenomenon. But for lovers of authentic blues, the Delta is still mecca. No one really knows when or where people started singing the blues, but it grew up in the Delta, where slaves sang work songs that were its ancestors. The Delta is still cotton country, with fields dotted with white bolls stretching over land enriched by repeated flooding. After the Civil War, sharecroppers kept singing their frustration, accompanying themselves on pianos, guitars, washboards, or whatever was at hand. In the early 1900s W. C. Handy, a black band-leader waiting for a train in the Delta town of Tutwiler, heard a man in rags slide a razor along the neck of a guitar, crooning he was “goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog.” Handy described it as “the weirdest music I ever heard.”

After witnessing its popularity at dances, he realized it could also be incredibly lucrative. In 1912 he published “The Memphis Blues,” the first song published with the word blues in the title, and the music spread. In the decades that followed, blues musicians jumped trains north, hoping to make it big, and white producers traveled south, looking for big acts.

Following their paths south from Memphis, you can stop at the still functional Abbay and Leatherman Plantation in Robinsonville, where the guitar legend Robert Johnson spent his early years getting laughed at by Son House, Charley Patton, and Willis Brown. Johnson married young and left the plantation; when he returned in the 1930s, he amazed Brown and House with his greatly improved skills. “When he finished, all our mouths were standing open,” remembered House. “I said, ‘Well ain’t that fast! He’s gone now!’”

From this transformation a legend was born: Johnson had sold his soul to the devil. He recorded only 29 songs, but his influence has been as long-lasting as it is far-flung. His meager stock of recordings was cherished by the likes of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and the White Stripes. In “Me and the Devil Blues,” Johnson sings, “Early this mornin’, when you knocked upon my door /I said, Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go.” You can visit crossroads all over the Delta, each supposedly the spot where Johnson struck the deal.

These musicians left myth in lieu of written record; detective work is needed to distill the facts. Offering help along the way are places like the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, in a handsome restored 1918 freight depot near the empty Clarksdale station, where Muddy Waters caught the train to Chicago in 1943 and changed the musical landscape by plugging in his guitar. The museum has an amateurish quality about it, with typed signs glued on foam board to accompany a small collection that includes Fred McDowell’s headstone and a guitar made by the band ZZ Top from a piece of cypress “salvaged” from Muddy Waters’s cabin. The cabin itself is also on display, with an eerie wax sculpture of Waters.

While browsing in the gift shop, I heard music coming from a back room. I sneaked in and found three teenage boys—a guitar player, a bassist, and a drummer—working on a basic riff, though with their spiked bracelets and baggy pants they looked more punk than blues. Standing in the corner was an older man who introduced himself as Big T. Big T, or Terry Williams, explained that his class, given by the Delta Blues Museum Arts and Education Program, is as much about history as about technique. “I want everyone in the class to be able to tell me who Muddy Waters is, who Sam Cooke is, who Howlin’ Wolf is and why they started playing,” he said.

In his 1949 song “Canary Bird,” Muddy Waters sang, “Well, canary bird, when you get to Clarksdale, please fly down on Second Street / Well, you know I don’t want you to stop flying until you take the letter out to Stovall for me.” And you can still walk down Second Street to a bridge that leads to Stovall Farms, the plantation where Waters grew up. Nearby you’ll find Wade Walton’s barbershop, a low, rectangular building of whitewashed cement blocks on Issaquena Avenue, which runs through the New World district, where live blues once thrived; now you can hear the music at Ground Zero, a club in an unassuming brick warehouse near the museum. Walton cut the hair of blues greats Sonny Boy Williamson II, Ike Turner, and Howlin’ Wolf and was a musician in his own right. He recorded an album, Shake ’Em Down , in the 1960s and can be heard on a cut in the 1990 compilation Clarksdale Mississippi: Coahoma the Blues , playing percussion with his razor and strop. Walton died in 2000 and the shop closed. His barber chair is in the Delta Blues Museum.