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Blues trail

The fertile Mississippi Delta is home to a rich musical legacy

By LARRY WIDEN
Special to the Journal Sentinel

Blues singer Robert Johnson rests quietly in Greenwood, Miss., beneath an expansive pecan tree in the rear of Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church's graveyard.

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Nearly 70 years after his death, the singer, whose grave is decorated with coins, guitar picks and other offerings, still makes headlines, most recently in The Wall Street Journal as his relatives fight over the rights to the only existing photos of him.

While Johnson was alive, he raised more than a few eyebrows by allegedly going to a Mississippi crossroads at midnight and selling his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited musical talent. For decades, blues fans and musicologists alike have searched for the elusive crossroads in an attempt to identify the exact location in which the unholy bargain was struck.

Some say it's at the juncture of State Highways 61 and 49, just outside of Clarksdale. Others believe the crossroads is closer to Friars Point or Robinsonville, where Johnson spent a good deal of time. The most practical minded of those who seek the mythic ground maintain there is no actual crossroads. Instead, they say, it's those who believed in voodoo, the centuries-old superstitious hybrid of African and Catholic religions mentioned in so many blues songs, that kept Johnson's enduring legend alive.

Home of the blues

Mississippi has spawned more blues singers than all the other Southern states combined, primarily because the land is so fertile. Greenwood, in the heart of the Delta, still produces a staggering 20% of the world's cotton crop each year. For several hundred years, African-American laborers worked these fields, first as slaves, and then as sharecropping freedmen.

B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Howlin' Wolf and a number of other musicians born in the early part of the 20th century worked alongside family members on plantations for less than a dollar a day. To make the time in the sun a bit more palatable, workers sang songs or "field hollers," to each other.

The origins of these songs can be traced to the slave ships that first transported African workers to the New World. They quickly spread to the work fields and then the black churches that were founded in the decades following the Civil War. In the 1920s and 1930s, musicians used their voices and acoustic guitars to bring these primitive rhythms out of the fields and churches and onto Mississippi street corners. From there it was only a short time before the blues went to Memphis. And then Muddy Waters, as the saying goes, invented electricity.

History and new talent

The Mississippi blues trail actually extends north from the Louisiana border all the way to Memphis, just across the Tennessee border. With a bit of research and a good map, blues aficionados can find remnants of their favorite musicians from one end of the trail to the other.

Memphis is still an active music hub that celebrates blues history while nurturing new talent. As the largest city in the region in the 1930s, Memphis had the radio stations and nightclubs where the blues musicians found work. Highway 61 runs out of Mississippi and directly into Beale St. in downtown Memphis, so it's easy to see why businesses that catered to African-Americans were established there.

By 1950, 15-year-old Elvis Presley was one of the few whites who spent time on Beale. Presley loved the black music scene and defied his parents' orders not to wear the baggy suits and loud shirts, his homages to these musicians.

A sacred spot for blues fans that miraculously survives to this day is Sam Phillips' former Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records studio, at 706 Union Ave. Although only as large as an average living room, an astonishing number of musicians recorded at Sun, including Presley, Howlin' Wolf, Little Milton, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison.

There, on July 5, 1954, Presley, along with Bill Black and Scotty Moore, recorded "That's All Right, Mama," the groundbreaking single that combined blues, gospel and country. The building, still open for tours, is virtually intact with the original floors, ceilings and recording equipment used by these artists.

Memphis also is home to the Gibson guitar factory, where visitors can see a semi-hollowbody electric guitar being made by hand. In the plant at 145 George W. Lee Ave., the company produces between 35 and 40 of its ES-series guitars each day. Retailing for $4,000 each, the ES guitar is favored by performers like B.B. King.

Renowned musicologist Alan Lomax, working under the auspices of the Library of Congress, spent much of the 1940s in the Delta and surrounding areas recording African-American blues singers in an effort to preserve their sound for posterity. Many of the musicians that Lomax discovered began working in Memphis or Chicago and went on to have significant careers.

Back home for burial

And while some are interred in Northern cemeteries, many others were returned to the Delta to be buried. They now lay in quiet, hard-to-find churchyards several miles from the highway. Charley Patton is buried in Holly Ridge, Sonny Boy Williamson in Tutwiler and Elmore James in Ebenezer. Blues singer Memphis Minnie rests in the tiny town of Walls, where a visitor to her grave site can see nothing but cotton fields in all directions. Mississippi John Hurt is hidden in a long-lost cemetery within a forested area of Avalon.

All of these grave sites are less than a 30-minute drive from Clarksdale, the last Delta city before Memphis. Visitors inevitably have some difficulty finding these sites, but not to worry. The local residents will stop what they're doing to point someone in the right direction. It's a refreshing combination of Southern hospitality and regional pride that makes them want to share their heritage with travelers.

Clarksdale's blues legacy goes far beyond the fact that it might contain the crossroads where Robert Johnson met the Devil. John Lee Hooker was born just outside town and W.C. Handy, the "Father of the Blues," lived there.

If that isn't enough, a trip to the Riverside Hotel, on Sunflower Ave., is guaranteed to raise the hairs on the back of a blues lover's neck. The hotel was Clarksdale's African-American hospital until 1944. Singer Bessie Smith died there, and for $40, a visitor can sleep in the very room. Proprietor Frank "Rat" Ratliff will show anyone who asks where blues legends like Hooker, or Ike Turner, or Howlin' Wolf spent the night. Rat's even got an old tin suitcase that he says guitarist Robert Nighthawk left there in 1952.

Preserving the history

In addition to preserving its history, Clarksdale's also marketing itself as a current blues destination. Although the train no longer stops there, the Delta Blues Museum was established inside the town's railroad station. A new blues club is opening on the site of W.C. Handy's former home, and actor Morgan Freeman owns a restaurant near the museum. The Cat Head bookstore on Delta Ave. carries a huge selection of relevant publications, compact discs, souvenirs and authentic folk art. Roger Stolle and his wife, Jennifer, have become the region's unofficial ambassadors of the blues, and their store is a cozy communication outpost where fans can gather.

An hour's drive down Highway 49 is Greenwood, where Robert Johnson died. The handsome singer always had an eye for the ladies, and it caught up with him one August night in 1938. Johnson was performing at a roadhouse outside of town when a jealous husband slipped strychnine into his bottle of whiskey. Johnson fell ill and was taken to a house in Greenwood's Baptist Town, a poor African-American neighborhood across the railroad tracks. Johnson died an agonizing death several days later, but not before making a deathbed reconciliation with the Lord.

Whether the devil ever collected Johnson's soul still makes for lively discussion among fans. As for the house, it's been demolished, but a placard at the intersection of Young and Pelican streets marks the location.

Lynyrd Skynyrd crash

On the southern end of the blues trail, near the Louisiana border, is the tiny town of Gillsburg, Miss. On Oct. 20, 1977, the Lynyrd Skynyrd blues-rock band was flying from Greenville to Baton Rouge when their plane began experiencing mechanical difficulties. The plane crashed in the woods on land owned by farmer Johnny Mote, instantly killing singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, singer Cassie Gaines, band manager Dean Kilpatrick and both pilots.

Eyewitnesses said the aircraft was torn apart the second it hit the tall trees. The exact site of the crash, deep in a heavily forested area off P. P. Wilson Road, is virtually impossible to get to today without a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a knowledgeable guide. John Bond, a retired dairy farmer who lives nearby, was one of the first people to get to the scene of the crash. Bond and some of his neighbors pulled the injured passengers out of the wreckage and through the woods to the highway.

When ambulances failed to materialize, the men used their pickup trucks to transport crash victims to the hospital in McComb 10 miles away. By their own admission, Bond and his wife, Inez, prefer listening to church music and have never heard a Lynyrd Skynyrd record. But they're quick to invite a visitor into their home and talk about the events of that evening, even pulling out old newspapers with accounts of the crash. And Bond will drop everything to take a fan to the crash site, which is significant since Mote recently sold the land to an Asian businessman who seemingly has no interest in its history. Because there's no commemorative marker or sign to identify the significance of the site, the actual location will be lost to visitors once someone like Bond is unable to take them there.

The blues literally came out of the Mississippi dirt, and now the originators of this unique American art form are slowly going back into that ground. Their spirit is kept alive by the people who travel this trail and come to honor them. Their sound lives on in the music of Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and other modern musicians, many of them having gone down this trail themselves to pay homage to their heroes.

Blues lovers who journey from Memphis to Louisiana will delight in discovering for themselves the unpaved roads, untended graveyards and miles of cotton fields, all waiting for them under the unrelenting Delta sun. It's all there for a blues fan to breathe in. They just have to know where to look.








From the Aug. 14, 2005 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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