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Robert Johnson, the Devil, and Me

Robert Johnson, the Devil, and Me

Standing at the Crossroads of the Blues 

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.

From Clarksdale I drove down Route 61 to Cleveland, then cut east on Route 8 out to Dockery Farms, the original blues “think tank.” This plantation, built in 1895 by a Memphis farmer, was a civilization unto itself. At its peak in the 1930s this huge tract of land was home to 2,000 people, had its own railroad station, and printed currency for its commissary. Charley Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown all once lived there; Patton refers to Dockery by name in his “34 Blues.” You can see the last standing of Dockery’s three clapboard churches, the cotton gin, the commissary, and a seed house nestled among the weeds. The plantation is marked only by a blue plaque, one of the thousands you breeze by while traveling America’s highways. But you can’t miss the seed house that reads, in fading paint, dockery farms.

A short drive southeast is Greenwood, a charming town dominated by a gray, columned courthouse, the first thing I saw as I passed over the Yazoo River into town. This is where Robert Johnson died in the summer of 1938. He was playing at a club called the Three Forks, which was on the east side of Highway 7 just outside Itta Bena, or at the junction of Highways 49E and 82, or anywhere where three roads come together. There he drank whiskey poisoned by his lover’s jealous husband, or the jealous husband of a woman who was staring at him, or he drank bad moonshine. After his last song he fell to the floor in agony and was taken, or walked, to Bishop Town, where he was staying with a “widow woman.” From there he was probably moved to a plantation and died a few weeks later of pneumonia, or poison, or, as his death certificate says, syphilis. He was buried in an unmarked grave at a black church in the area. He was not yet 30.

Three different cemeteries claim to contain the elusive Robert Johnson's grave.

People have claimed to have located his grave, and three stone markers have been planted in three different cemeteries. I got out of my car at each and searched among the handmade graves, but the real pleasure was the drive on the back roads, where blooming cotton stretched for acres and my fellow drivers, models of Southern hospitality, honked and waved. The Morgan City site contains an impressive obelisk listing 27 of Johnson’s recorded songs and inscribed with a line from “Me and the Devil Blues”: “You may bury my body down by the highway side.” I preferred the more modest memorial near Quito, where someone had left a half-full whiskey bottle.

After all the traveling it was time for some live blues music, so I got on Route 82, to Greenville, the Delta’s largest city and home to the area’s most active live music scene. Willie Love and his Three Aces offered this advice to Greenville visitors in 1951: “Boy, if you ever go to Greenville, please go down on Nelson Street / Yeah, walk on the levee and have a lot of fun with most everybody you meet.”

You are unlikely to hear much live blues on Nelson Street anymore. Greenville’s fortunes changed with those of the rest of the Delta when the mechanized cotton picker made the sharecropper obsolete and sent hundreds of thousands of ex–farm hands streaming north. Riverboat gambling has helped revive the town, and the blues scene has moved to Walnut Street, closer to the casinos.

I stopped in at the Walnut Street Blues Bar, where Eden Brent, a petite woman with an astonishing voice, was playing her own songs as well as blues standards on the piano. The experience stood in contrast to the night before, when I had traveled down a dark country road to Po’ Monkey’s, one of the last rural “jook joints,” sharecropping shacks that the plantation owners let the residents use to throw parties. They used to be places for live blues, but now R&B is served up by a DJ. Despite being one of the only white people there and an obvious outsider, I chatted with a table full of women about the differences between North and South and even had a few dances.

The next morning I drove out to a large field six miles south of Highway 82 for the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival, where people had been camping out in elaborate tents since sunrise. The festival has two venues, a main stage and a “jook house.” The smaller stage is for local acts, and when I got there, a scrawny man in cowboy boots repaired with electrical tape was playing the guitar. A local pointed out King Edwards, who leads a blues band at a club in Jackson, and Edwards took the stage with an acoustic guitar, the only one I saw all day. The main stage was dominated by big bands and electrified music, resembling R&B more than traditional blues. I was happy to see Edwards, who was playing solo, perform old-school Delta music.

Throughout the day I wandered back and forth between the stages but found myself mostly at the “jook joint,” where a crowd of about 50 had gathered and people were dancing. A handwritten list of bands was tacked to one of the poles. As the day cooled, the headline act, Bobby Rush, took the stage in a wild purple shirt. Rush is known for his flashy performance style, and as I watched from the sidelines, he crooned, “That girl is fine, fine, fine,” while the dancers turned their backs to the audience, grinding their hips, and the lights flashed in time to the music.

Rush’s pyrotechnics reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a farmer in Robinsonville. He pointed out modules, large machines that are now used to harvest cotton. “Run by a computer,” he said. “Could be run by some guy in Argentina, for all I know.” In the hundred years since Handy was captivated by the music of a man in rags, we have plugged in our guitars, used the music of protest to sell overpriced coffee beverages, and turned the family farm into agribusiness. But I know better than to get nostalgic for the days of sharecropping. The music will change with the landscape, its relics encased in roadside museums, but also living on is Big T’s class, as a 13-year-old tries to break out of the basic riff into a solo—on his acoustic guitar.