Finding the Blues in the Mississippi Delta

Ramblin' Ritt On the trail of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson

Photo By Erik Rittenberry
Photo By Erik Rittenberry


“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”

- William Faulkner

 

Mississippi is the poorest state in the country. A state that is, in many ways, still racially divided and segregated. A state with excess crops and rampant hunger. A place where the sins of yesterday loiter in the soil and white-portico mansions sit majestically behind cotton fields that whisper untold truths. As a big fan of real culture and the blues, I set out to discover this land. I wanted to understand the world as famed bluesman Robert Johnson knew it, to step inside the America of yesterday, a land unscathed by the heavy hand of modernity. So, with a backpack strapped to my back, I headed into the depths of the Mississippi Delta, the most southern place on earth. I was searching for something, a truth that can’t be found by reading about it at home. A realness that many people never see.

The Mississippi Delta is situated in the northwestern part of the state. As Mississippi’s beloved essayist, David Cohn, put it: “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” It’s an area charmed by country churches, run-down barbecue joints, and open landscape. Magnolias in full bloom line dirt roads and old farmers with straw hats sell fruit out of vintage trucks. Kids run barefoot through endless fields. While it’s beautiful, the Delta also has a nasty dark side.

Oppression, fearsome floods, extreme seclusion and grueling poverty have punished this land for centuries. With its substandard housing, meager healthcare, and lower life expectancy, parts of the Delta invite comparison to a third-world country.  The racially motivated murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till also happened here. The horrendous act help nudge the Civil Rights movement out from the shadows of American society and into the spotlight. But out of this dark history, out of the cruelty, suffering and despair, something magical flowered from these fields of brutality. It was here in the Mississippi Delta that the Blues--that unique art form that revolutionized American music--was conceived. Raw-edged and honest. An answer to years of oppression.

I wanted to breathe it in, feel its purity roll across my skin. I wanted to wander under the ruthless sun and drift down deserted dirt roads. I wanted to talk to the people and listen to the music. In the land of the Blues, under the endless sky, I wanted to be there, madly alive, living life like a poem. So, with windows down in my economy rental car and the speakers up, I headed south down legendary Highway 61—Blues Highway.

Highway 61 stretches 250 miles through the floodplains of the Delta region. It slices through small towns that have raised some of the most iconic bluesmen. These Delta troubadours voyaged up and down this old highway with a guitar in hand, spreading the most haunting sound known to man.

First stop: The Gateway to the Blues Visitors Center. Although the rustic train depot dates back to 1895, it has been turned into a museum and welcome center. I grabbed a beer from the cooler and admired the place for a while. Americana at its finest. A good start to a grand tour, but I was after something else.

The Hollywood Café, housed in an 83-year-old commissary, gave me a taste of what I was searching for, the realness of the Delta. The Blues. Pianist Muriel Wilkins performed here for many years, and it’s immortalized in Marc Cohn’s hit song "Walking in Memphis." I ate fried pickles, washed them down with beer, and then continued south to The Crossroads.

The Crossroads, of course, is where famed bluesman Robert Johnson is believed to have made his infamous pact with the devil in exchange for godlike guitar skills. The myth still persists. And because of its blues history and the mystery and legend that shrouds the area, Clarksdale has become quite revered, drawing tourists and blues fans from all over the world.

Born in 1911, Johnson grew up in the Mississippi Delta and was captivated by the sound of the guitar. According to accounts of other bluesmen of the day, like Son House, Johnson wasn’t any good. In fact, he was horrible. But after a 6-month hiatus, Johnson returned with his guitar from God knows where, and surprised everyone around with his incredible guitar picking. Legend has it that he sold his soul to the devil at the Crossroads in exchange for the ability to play guitar, unrivaled.

Johnson became a big shot around the Delta. He was charismatic, talented beyond measure, a loner, and liked to sip a little whiskey and holler at the women. These things would catch up to him.

One late summer night, as the moon hung high over the Delta, Robert was in an old Juke playing some tunes. Story has it, the owner of the place found out that his woman, apparently, had been messin’ around with the bluesman. Overcome with jealousy and rage, the bar owner placed a poison-laced pint of corn whiskey in Johnson’s hand while he was on break. Johnson took a few strong pulls. He shortly became sick and died a few days later. He was only 27 years old.

The Crossroads is marked by three big guitars raised on a pole right in the middle of a busy intersection in Clarksdale. It’s quite different from the Crossroads of Johnson’s era.  I got there midafternoon as the sun was reaching its peak. Sitting there I couldn’t help but go back a decade ago to when I first heard Robert Johnson. I was reading Bob Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles: Volume 1.  Dylan made mention of hearing Robert Johnson for the first time.  “From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard,” wrote Dylan.

I was curious and had to hear this voice for myself. I went out and bought Robert Johnson’s ‘The Complete Recordings’ and slid it into my truck’s CD player. The sound I heard made the world throb around me.  I heard something beautiful but disturbing in these mournful wails, like hearing an uncomfortable truth for the first time. This man was singing tales of no-good women and the dread of falling into the clutches of evil. The clarity and honesty were ushered along with the punch of the guitar. My reality shifted at that point. I wanted to listen to more, I wanted to read about this voice and the place it came from, and try to understand the hardship that caused such desperate pleas.

 

It was that voice that brought me to this moment—standing at the Crossroads in the dead of summer, traffic flying by, unconcerned, as Johnson’s voice drifted in with the warm breeze:

 

I went to the crossroad

fell down on my knees

I went to the crossroad

fell down on my knees

Asked the Lord above "Have mercy, now

save poor Bob, if you please

 

 

That wasn’t the last I’d hear from Johnson…

On the outskirts of town, I came upon the Shack Up Inn. It’s a former plantation that hosts a number of shotgun style shacks, a blues bar, and countless rusted out antique trucks that are tire deep in weeds.  Unfortunately, all the shacks were booked for the night. Fate had other plans for me.

I left town and kept southbound, drifting through little map dot towns with cool names like Alligator, Midnight, and Sunflower. Then, something told me to head back up to Greenwood. It’s the area where Robert Johnson spent his final weeks playing gigs. I found a little spot called Tallahatchie Flats. It’s an open field with a row of old sharecropper shacks that you can rent out for the night. Being there felt right. 

I opened the weathered door to my rented shack and walked in. Beautiful art and old photographs plastered the wall. The rustic floors creaked under my boots. A vintage radio in the back spewed the blues. I threw my stuff inside, opened a cold beer, and sat on the porch that looked out over the fields.

There was still enough light left for exploring. I crunched my beer can, flung it into the trash, and headed out on foot.  There was a reason I was here, albeit, accidentally, and that reason was a few hundred yards down the road at the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church - the place where Robert Johnson's grave allegedly sits. Noted historian, Stephen C. LaVere, who has spent over 30 years researching the life of Robert Johnson, believes that out of the three places the bluesman is professed to be buried at, this little country church is most likely the real location. But nobody knows for sure.

A long gravel driveway led up to a wood church that sat in the shade of a massive pine. A small graveyard sat to the left. There was no one around. I was alone. And besides a subtle breeze that pushed through the trees, it was eerily silent. I walked past a few gravestones before I found the one that belonged to the slain bluesman. There was a beaded necklace draped from the corner. Cigarettes and bottles of whiskey decorated the base. Admiring fans had left harmonicas and guitar pics.

The breeze picked up and the sun dipped below the tree line. Alone, sitting at the stone I heard Robert Johnson’s cry once again echo inside my head:

I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving

Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail…

And the day keeps on remindin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail

Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail

 

From there it was on to Red’s, one of the last authentic juke joints still around. It sits bruised and battered right in the heart of Clarksdale. I rolled up into the joint to listen to an old bluesman by the name of Watermelon Slim. I imagined this was what it must’ve been like when Johnson was playing in the area, and it probably was.

The bar sat untidily to the right as I walked in. It had a few old coolers where the beer was placed. No liquor. No glam. Red lights draped the low ceiling; pictures of dead musicians were tacked to the walls. Red, the owner, sat like a boss behind the bar the whole night. I ordered a beer, he fetched it, unhurriedly. Things in these parts follow their own time.

Sitting in that old Juke I was reminded that every culture has its myths and legends. It’s how we tell our stories and rouse that sense of wonder in a dark world full of unanswered questions. There’s an underlying truth in these legends, a symbol to be realized. The legend of Robert Johnson and his midnight bargain with the devil is no different. The metaphor, the symbol of the story signifies a young man’s quest to escape the chains of desolation by becoming something remarkable.  At a cost of soul surrendering hard work and unyielding grit, Johnson achieved this noble feat and became the King of the Delta Blues. And though his life was tragically cut short, his music went on to influence a future generation of musicians that revolutionized American music as we know it today.

The night finally closed in on me and I headed back to my shack. The midnight stars danced in the sky as the melody of crickets mingled with an old blues song playing in the background. A great ending to an unforgettable road trip. 

Photo By Erik Rittenberry
Photo By Erik Rittenberry

Photo By Erik Rittenberry
Photo By Erik Rittenberry



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About Author

Erik Rittenberry

Erik Rittenberry is a Florida-based writer and photographer.