On a warm October morning in the Mississippi Delta, more than a decade ago, my husband and I set out before dawn to search for the grave of the man who—according to legend—sold his soul at the crossroads so he could play great blues guitar.
No figure looms larger in American blues mythology than Robert Johnson. Whether by a deal with the devil or through his own hard work and practice, Johnson played wicked slide guitar during the 1930s. He died in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1938, ostensibly poisoned by a man who thought Johnson was eyeing his wife. Or at least that’s the story. The tale of the jealous husband, like that of Old Scratch at the crossroads, adds both danger and mystery to the King of the Delta Blues.
We are not, as a rule, early risers, and I’m not sure how we hatched the plan to look for his grave at sunrise. I think we may first have considered hunting for it at twilight, when the atmosphere in a rural graveyard might be especially spooky. Ultimately we decided on dawn as a still atmospheric—but smarter—choice when dealing with haints and the devil and erratically marked country roads.
The sun rose like a blood orange over the harvested cotton fields and corrugated-metal gins of the Delta. We got turned around a couple of times but eventually found the small Baptist church in Morgan City where some folks think Johnson is buried. We got out of the car and paid our respects at the big stone obelisk to his memory, where fans leave guitar picks and bottleneck slides and copies of their own CDs. Then, for good measure, we drove on to the tiny hamlet of Quito where other folks claim he’s buried, found the small stone marker there, and paid our respects again.
This is normal behavior for middle-aged white guys (my husband included) who came to love blues music through the rock-and-roll guitar gods of the 1960s and ‘70s. Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and a host of like-minded rockers borrowed freely from Johnson and other blues greats, thereby exposing a new audience—overwhelmingly male and white—to a form of American music that by then was long out of style.
It is one of many uncomfortable racial truths in this country that the present-day audience for traditionally black American blues is roughly 98 per cent white. On one hand, this seems disturbing. (Shouldn’t African-Americans know and appreciate the heritage of the blues?) On the other hand, how surprised should we be? Few young people, regardless of race, know or care what was popular in their great-grandparents’ generation. The white Boomers wouldn’t care, either, if not for Keith Richards and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Contemporary blues singer/songwriter Guy Davis addresses this topic brilliantly in his provocative track “Uncle Tom is Dead.” (You think rappin’ is new? It started with you? And Blues is just for White boys to listen to?) Davis, who recorded the slightly tongue-in-cheek performance with his son, isn’t prepared to surrender the African-American blues legacy just yet.
All of which makes a recent Associated Press story out of Tunica, Mississippi, such a delight. In this town off Highway 61—the famous Blues Highway through cotton country—fourth-grade teacher Chevonne Dixon is trying out the newly minted Mississippi Blues Trail Curriculum on a classroom of nine-year-old students. Kids who live in the Delta, where blues music took root a century ago, are now learning history, English, and math through lessons based on the blues.
It’s not about loving the music. And it’s not about selling your soul at the crossroads (a notion far more popular during the rock-and-roll era than it was in the 1930s). It’s about acquiring a sense of place, about understanding the story of the landscape you call “home.” If you live in the Delta you ought to know the long, proud, complex history that draws visitors from around the world to walk in the footsteps of Muddy Waters, Memphis Minnie, Son House, and B.B. King.
It’s not about the music per se, but the music is pretty darn good just the same. The blues is in your blood, boy, Guy Davis sings. The blues’ll be with you‘til your dying day.
So if some of Ms. Dixon’s students, inspired by what they hear in her class, should want to learn the harmonica or how to play a mean slide guitar . . .
Well, that would be very cool.
Heather Lockman’s The Indian Shirt Story, an irresistible novel from the Pacific Northwest, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers, and locally in Olympia from Orca Books.