Hellhound

Hellhound

Hellhound
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Nov. 19 2002 6:33 PM

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Today's audio update: Bill Talbot on Coahoma County's deep blues tradition.

The crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale
The crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale
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CLARKSDALE, MISS.—The crossroads is where a man would go to sell his soul to the devil. The folk belief, as iterated at the Clarksdale, Miss., Delta Blues Museum, involves trimming the fingernails and arriving at an intersection before midnight. The crossroads of satanic negotiation are not the busy paved highways of today. In the 1930s, they were lonely gravel intersections out in the middle of an immense flat land that stretched on to an unseen horizon. The devil stalks these sinister, gloomy country roads as clouds scud across the moon and faint shadows race across the cotton fields.

So you sit at the crossroads. Out of the darkness, there comes a sound in the distance. A large black man appears, playing a guitar. He takes your instrument, gives you his, and for a moment you play together. Your fingers dance across the strings and begin to bleed. The man tunes your guitar and hands it back to you. He walks away into the darkness. You strum a chord, pick a note, and it occurs to you that you can play anything, absolutely anything you want. You also know that the devil will come back for your soul, and he will come back sooner rather than later.

"That's the way I learned to play anything I want," Tommy Johnson told his brother LeDell. Tommy may have sold his soul first, or said that he did, but Robert Johnson, who was not related to Tommy, is the more notorious soul-swapper. He is said to have made the deal at the place where Highway 61 crosses Highway 49.

Christian and I drove out to this legendary crossroads just outside Clarksdale. A pair of crossed guitars on a high pillar marks the spot. There is a Double Quick Gas station and convenience store on one corner, an unnamed business of the same type across the street, a carwash on the other corner, and, across from that Abe's Bar.B.Que: A Tradition Since 1924. Trucks barreled through the stoplights day and night, and you could sell your soul to the Double Quick for a six pack, but the devil who played guitars was nowhere in evidence.

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We looked around the surrounding flatland, taking gravel roads through the cotton fields until we came upon the intersection of two lonely rural roads. They were actually named Johnson and Kline-Johnson. It looked right. There were no cars on the roads, anywhere; we never saw even one during the hour we spent there. I played a tune or two on my harp and waited for the devil to show, but it was closer to noon than midnight, and in any case I hadn't trimmed my nails.

Robert Johnson, 1911-1938, the most influential Delta blues artist of them all
Robert Johnson, 1911-1938, the most influential Delta blues artist of them all

"Let's go see Robert Johnson's grave," I said.

"You're not going to play the harp in the car," Christian said. It wasn't a question. I waited until Christian had driven about 30 miles, then I took out my harp and blew a brief solo. Christian stared at me.

"The devil made me do it," I said.

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Robert Johnson's life was hell enough even before the devil may or may not have entered the picture. He was born May 8, 1911, and lived with three different fathers before he was 7. His mother moved from plantation to plantation. In 1929, at 18, he married 16-year-old Virginia Travis, who died in childbirth the next year. The child also died.

Johnson began hanging out in juke joints around Robinsonville, in the northern Delta. He was not well-regarded as a musician and was, in fact, ridiculed by such greats as Charlie Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown. After his wife died, Johnson left town. Some say he was gone for a few months, others say a year. In any case, when Johnson came back, his guitar work was sizzling hot, dazzling, almost supernatural in its capacity to elicit emotion. Men who'd played all their lives sat slack-jawed watching Robert Johnson pick melodies off the slide and meld them in with slashing bass runs. How had this kid learned to play so well so quickly? It was said, of course, that he had sold his soul to the devil. Johnson did not deny the rumor: Traveling blues men who were in league with the devil drew big crowds and earned good money.

Robert Johnson first recorded several of his songs in 1936, in San Antonio, Texas. "Dust My Broom," "Sweet Home Chicago," and "Cross Roads Blues" were some of those first cuts. Blues writer Bob Groom has said that in these recording sessions, Johnson was "truly standing at a crossroads in blues history, looking back to the country blues … and forward to the Chicago blues of the forties and fifties."

Johnson has been called the "most influential blues man" of all time, perhaps because of his dark and tortured nature that is most clearly heard in songs like "Me and the Devil Blues." In "Hellhound on My Trail," Johnson's voice seems constricted with genuine fear. Generally, when blues men of the time sang about the devil, they boasted of the acquaintance. Robert Johnson sang as if he deeply feared his impending fate. The devil was waiting, and death was nigh.

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It happened in August of 1938. Robert was playing at a private house in Greenwood, out behind a country store called Three Forks. Apparently, he drank too much and flirted with the wife of the man who owned the house. He was given whiskey laced with strychnine and died a few days later. This is the generally accepted story. Some blues scholars dispute the facts. Indeed, much of Johnson's life is a matter of dispute. Some of us, however, are just fans, and the disputes don't mean all that much to us. We'll travel across the country to see the store where Robert Johnson was poisoned or to visit his grave, which is no easy task. There is, for instance, a grave site in a churchyard down a gravel road near the settlement of Quito. It reads:

Robert Johnson
May 8, 1911
August 16, 1938
Resting in the blues

Just down the road, in Morgan City, there is another Robert Johnson grave site marked by an obelisk standing out in front of the road, not far off Highway 7. The memorial was erected in 1991. This site, unlike the Quito grave, has all the customary offerings: old coins, paper flowers, a quarter-full bottle of cheap whiskey, a CD by an artist who, I suppose, asks the blessing of Robert Johnson. On one side of the obelisk is a list of all 29 songs recorded by the artist, including "Love in Vain," "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," and "Come on Into My Kitchen." Written on yet another side are these affecting lines: "His music struck a chord that continues to resonate. His blues addressed generations he would never know and made poetry of his visions and fears."

One side quotes a Johnson song, "You may bury my body down by the highway side," which is just where the memorial stands. The line is from "Me and the Devil Blues" and continues, "So my evil old spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride." Someone wisely decided that the "evil old spirit" part was not appropriate for a grave stone.

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Since 2002, Robert Johnson has also been buried just outside Greenwood, at the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church. This seems a more likely resting place, if Johnson did indeed die in Greenwood. The church is close to town, and it is unlikely anyone would have toted an indigent blues man any distance for burial.

The grave at the church is engraved with the facsimile of a letter Johnson supposedly wrote while he was dying. It says: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem. I know that my redeemer liveth and that he will call me from my grave." I had a little trouble swallowing that one, but the back of the tombstone, placed there by Johnson scholar Stephen LaVere, tells how an eyewitness to the burial of Robert Johnson declared that the body was interred there and that she said as much to "historian Stephen C. LaVere." Personally, I'm not sure historians, or anyone else, should be in the business of putting their names on someone else's tombstone. The word "cheesy" springs to mind.

Christian and I drove the long straight road back to Clarksdale and had several beers at Ground Zero, the blues club partially owned by the actor Morgan Freeman. A band called Big Moody and the Fender Benders was playing. They weren't half bad. Clarksdale, after a lull, has been trying to bring back and encourage blues music. Local kids get a chance to learn from accomplished blues artists and sometimes play on stage at the club.

Christian and I agreed that we liked Ground Zero.

It was one of the very few places in the Mississippi Delta where Robert Johnson wasn't buried.

Tim Cahill, a founding editor of Outside magazine, is the author of eight books, including Jaguars Ripped My Flesh and his latest, Hold the Enlightenment.