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Mississippi : Quest to find Robert Johnson


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Clarksdale Mississippi & The Quest To Find Robert Johnson

I " got " the blues in the mid 80's. As a teenager obsessed with my rock & roll heroes of the day, The Beatles, The Stones, The Who and Hendrix, discovering the blues was inevitable. It wasn't so much an evolution as it was a musical devolution. I remember how exciting it was unearthing blues and tracing it's direct influence to rock. It overwhelmed my teen brain and I loved it. Twenty-plus years later, the blues hasn't only entertained me, it's vital. I like the power of Muddy Waters, the rawness of R. L. Burnside, the flash, class and style of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the storytelling of John Lee Hooker. Blues comes in many flavours, from country to folk, Chicago to Texas to New Orleans, but the Delta Blues will always be my favourite. It's the purest and oldest, but it is also the one that holds the most mysteries.

If the Delta Blues has a capital, Clarksdale Mississippi would be it. The list of residents is staggering: Son House, Earl Hooker, Pinetop Perkins, W.C. Handy, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner and John Lee Hooker have all called Clarksdale home. Bessie Smith even died there and Muddy Water took the train out of Clarksdale, bound for greater glory and never looked back. However, the Delta remained in his soul forever. Clarksdale is also the place where it's most famed resident gave birth to his legend: Robert Johnson, The King Of The Delta Blues, allegedly sold his soul to the Devil at the CROSSROADS - where HWY 49 & 61 meet. I had to go there.

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I decided Clarksdale would be the ideal place to find real Delta Blues and hopefully I'd get to see it performed in a real juke joint too. Note: Authentic Deep South juke joints are usually in black neighborhoods, where outsiders are a rarity - gambling isn't uncommon and business hours vary according to the owner's " mood ". Given it's importance and relative nearness to other historic Delta Blues centers like Tupelo and Greenwood Mississippi, Memphis Tennessee and Helena Arkansas, Clarksdale was the perfect place to make as a base.

Clarksdale is a 4.5 hour drive from Nashville ( where we spent 3 days ) and that's by making good time - you won't get stuck in Ontario-style traffic jams. Things are at a more relaxed pace down there. Driving an hour south on HWY 61 from Tennessee through northern Mississippi, it felt like I was going in a straight line the whole way. Northern Mississippi is extremely flat and agrarian-based and the river delta's waters feed cotton field after cotton field after cotton field after... well you get my drift. Roadside shacks and farming equipment dot the landscape. It's easy to picture the fields being worked and songs being sung.

Before even entering Clarksdale, our first scheduled stop was The Shack Up Inn, around a 1/2 mile outside of town. If you want to soak-up or kick-start the blues and Delta culture, staying at The Shack Up Inn is a must. Blues pilgrims from all over the world seek out the place out and it's easy to see why. The inn is a converted plantation ( The Hopson Plantation est. 1852 ), full of real combines and bins once used for cotton. We drove by it the first time because my fiancé Vicki said: " That's not it. That's a real plantation ". We clued-in after 10 minutes that the Shack Up is a REAL plantation! You have to see this place to believe it. The Shack Up Inn's " rooms " are a series of old share-cropper shacks with covered porches, each with a unique blues theme.

There are many cabins to choose from, from the Pinetop Perkins Shack to the Crossroads Shack - guitars, pictures, records and other memorabilia adorn each interior. Unfortunately all the shacks were booked, so instead we stayed in one of the newly converted cotton gin bins ( similar to a barn ). We were impressed!

After settling-in and marveling at our unique lodgings, Clarksdale and our quest to find Mississippi Delta Blues was next.

Residing in a modern, huge and fast paced city like Toronto... viewing a Mississippi town like Clarksdale... made me feel like I was stepping back in time. This small, sleepy community was founded in 1848. Signs of Colonial Revival architecture ( a movement to preserve American heritage buildings in the mid to late 1800's ) dominate the core. High-arching brick store-fronts, beautiful churches, the odd restaurant and BBQ diners, converted businesses and old wooden homes line the streets and surrounding neighborhoods. Even though there are vacant stores and businesses, the historical hub appears unchanged by progress - it's easy to romanticize that today's Clarksdale resembles the town it once was at the turn of the 19th century.

ole1.bmpThere's something else that remains unchanged in Clarksdale: the racial line. The poor black majority live in the south-side while the wealthier white minority reside in the north. That line is literally drawn by railroad tracks that slice through the heart of town.

I can't be delicate: The black area of the downtown is destitute. I've been to many North American cities, yet I haven't seen anything that can compare to the poverty I saw in Clarksdale. South Clarksdale at first appears abandoned and lifeless, but it is not. If you look hard enough, small stores, shops and residences live amongst the discarded and deserted. Clarksdale's small population makes the racial divide appear even more pronounced - there isn't a buffer region between the town's two sections . You walk across the tracks and you enter a totally different world. Just a few glimpses of this harsh urban landscape along with the sparse rural life around Clarksdale give me a true and real connection with the people that created ( and still create ) Mississippi Delta Blues.

The last few years have seen Clarksdale revitalizing some important streets in the hub due to the town finally recognizing their status as a historic blues tourist Mecca. Not surprisingly, this occurs in the north section of town, specifically Sunflower Avenue and the aptly named main blues drag, Delta Avenue. Delta Ave. is home to The Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art store http://www.cathead.biz/index.html The Delta Blues Cafe ( big greasy breakfasts where Vicki ordered grits for the first time ever and tried to force me to finish them ); and two Morgan Freeman owned landmarks, the 5-star Madidi restaurant and the Ground Zero Blues Club ( which he regularly visits ).

You have to check-out Cat Head. It's the most THOROUGH-themed music genre store I've ever visited. I told Roger the owner that I wanted to buy everything in the shop... many people tell him the same thing. Local musicians, artists, authors and craftsmen all push their wares in the colorful aisles. Just leafing through the CD section had me drooling: T-Model Ford, Buddy Guy, CeDell Davis - basically every regional and national artist with delta influences can be found there. And at the end of Delta Avenue is the Delta Blues Museum. A place that initially enticed me to visit Clarksdale - I'll get to that shrine in a minute.

Amazingly " southern hospitality " really does exist and is alive and well in Clarksdale ( more so than in larger centers like Nashville and Memphis ). Perfect strangers look you in the eye when you are walking down the sidewalks and usually give you a friendly " Hello " - something rarely done in Toronto. Locals are chatty and it doesn't take long for most if not all to ask: " Where y'all from ?" We stopped in for a quick drink at the Ground Zero in the late afternoon on our first day and met one of the bar's locals - an elderly black man with a cool hat who I could barely understand due to his THICK Mississippi drawl. From what I gathered, he is a fixture in Ground Zero and he proudly pointed to his picture above the bar to prove his point. " Puttnin " was how he introduced himself.

The Ground Zero is supposed to be a juke joint, but Roger, the owner of Cat Head said it isn't: He said it is a juke joint for tourists. Since we may have been the only tourists in town at the time of our visit, it looked like a cool place to start.

Ground Zero ( above photo ) is adorned with pictures of local and national blues celebrities, with concert posters covering the walls along with graffiti. All patrons are encouraged to write on everything, so on the side of the bar itself, Vicki and I wrote: " Vicki Badham and David Ball from Toronto ", along with " JAMBANDS.CA " and " neroland.com ". You never know who's watching and a little promotion never hurt anyone right? We went back to the Ground Zero later that night looking for some real Delta Blues, but were slightly disappointed. Young musicians, mostly kids from the Delta Blues Museum's school were performing with their teacher - one drummer was just 5, but he impressed us. Things started to finally heat up when some of the kids' parents joined the jam, but it only resulted in leaving Vicki and I wanting more.

ole2.bmpThe next day would prove to be the most interesting and adventurous. Our itinerary started with a trip to the aforementioned Delta Blues Museum. The museum is a feast for blues enthusiasts. Everything from Tampa Red's National steel to guitars owned by Howlin Wolf ( Kay electric ), Muddy Waters to Otis Rush and Magic Sam. I had trouble walking away from harps used by legends Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter Jacobs. There is even a cabin built inside the museum made from planks from Muddy Waters' old home - and of course, inside sits a stunning life-like statue of Mr. Morganfield playing one of his Les Paul's. Many of the vintage blues albums hanging on the walls were actually part of Jimi Hendrix's personal collection. It was fascinating looking at the Muddy Waters album " Electric Mud " and John Lee Hooker's " Real Folk Blues " and imaging what Jimi took from these records to help him create " Are You Experienced? ". The Delta Blues Museum is very impressive and although only a fraction the size of Nashville's Country Music Hall Of Fame, it is just as rewarding and well-run.

Ingesting everything at the museum was fascinating and educational, but the next part of our day's itinerary topped it: Our quest for Robert Johnson's resting places.

Not only did Robert Johnson allegedly " sell his soul " in Clarksdale where HWY 61 & 49 meet, but an hour's drive south of that infamous crossroads are the places where he is said to rest. To this day, his actual burial plot is disputed by blues historians and fans. The fact is that no one really knows for sure where Robert Johnson lies. However, over the years it has been narrowed down to three places: Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City, a place favoured by many scholars as a possible burial place; Payne Chapel in Quito, the only place where there was an eye witness to his burial; and Little Zion Church north of Greenwood. All are in relative near proximity to one other, within a 15-20 minutes from Greenwood ( also a noted blues town ) Mississippi's HWY 49 & HWY 7 intersection. Unless you are provided with detailed directions and have really good Delta map, you'll have a tough time finding them. Even though both Roger from Cat Head and an employee at the museum couldn't give us specific verbal or drawn directions, we felt " fairly " confident and well prepared when we hopped into our rented Chevy Cobalt - thanks to our trusty Lonely Planet Road Trip Blues Guide. Note: NO signs exist for ROBERT JOHNSON on any highway or road/turn-off in Mississippi. Like the interest in the blues itself, the historical aspect of the genre is not a big tourist draw - blues will probably always remain small and eclectic.

ole3.bmpMuch like HWY 61 does to the north, HWY 49 cuts through the land south of Clarksdale. The two-lane road is impossibly straight and can easily hypnotize you while you drive - like it did to me.

For once, I welcomed a little out-of-body highway hypnosis: The trance-like spell allowed me to make an educated guess that the characteristics attributed to North Mississippi Delta Blues, with it's raw, repetitive, monotone guitar-based rhythms and haunting lyrics, must have evolved from the grueling monotony of migrant share-croppers working the cotton fields from dawn to dusk. They needed their songs just to endure their arduous existence. Note: Nowadays, few artists play true North Mississippi Delta Blues. Yet contemporary heroes like the late Junior Kimbrough, Lollapalooza darling R.L. Burnside and young upstarts The North Mississippi Allstars help keep the music alive. Even Chicago legend Buddy Guy had a take on North Mississippi blues with the Grammy Nominated/2002 W.C. Handy Award winning CD Sweet Tea and 2004 Grammy winner Blues Singer - both albums feature covers of regional Delta artists like Kimbrough, T-Model Ford and Son House.

Upon reaching the intersection of HWY 49 and HWY 7 near Greenwood, my fiancé and I veered west, then south on #7. We decided to go to Payne Chapel in Quito first because it was closest - then on to Mount Zion. Both cemeteries are located only 5 minutes apart and accessible off of HWY 7. [ We decided not to look for the Little Zion Church site because there isn't a headstone or marker there and scholars are vague about Zion's validity ] . I must admit that I felt a little nervous as we closed-in on Robert Johnson's acknowledged resting places. Driving through a strange, poor rural countryside, passing many shacks, plantations and cotton fields, listening to Johnson's " Hellhound On My Trail " on the car stereo and knowing that his murder is still unsolved... none of this was comforting... but it did put me in the appropriate mood .

ole4.bmpAccording to our Delta Blues guide, Payne Chapel was located off of the first dirt road on the right once you cross the only bridge in Quito. However, after ten minutes of driving down Hwy 7 looking for Quito, we INSTEAD noticed the turn-off to the Mount Zion church ( our scheduled second stop ). Somehow we had missed Quito completely! We decided to alter our agenda and explore our second stop first.

Mount Zion was only a 100 metres from HWY 7 and we couldn't miss the impressive Robert Johnson obelisk-like monument erected at the front edge of the cemetery. It was placed there by Columbia Records in 1991 after Johnson's best-selling boxed-set, " The Complete Recordings, " was released. My hands trembled a little when I pulled-up in front of the simple white wooden church. I came a long way for this moment and this place did not disappoint. With an acoustic Silvertone guitar in-hand, one that Bill the owner of the Shack Up loaned me, I fulfilled a fantasy: I sat down on the ground and played blues guitar on Robert Johnson's grave. The moment was truly thrilling.

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There was peaceful air about Mount Zion and the immediate countryside. I couldn't help thinking that the cemetery would even be a desirable place for a person to rest for eternity. But somehow it didn't seem fitting that Robert Johnson MAY BE buried here, considering his dark legacy. He should be entombed in a gloomy, desperate and scary place. Fortunately... or unfortunately, that scary place turned out to be our next stop, Payne Chapel in Quito.

The Mount Zion visit filled us with a renewed determination to find Quito and the dirt road leading to Payne Chapel. It was only when Vicki noticed the name " Quito " on the side of a mill 5 minutes north on HWY 7 from Mount Zion that we knew we weren't lost - no Quito road sign exists ( no wonder we missed this place the first time ). Quito consists of a mill, a couple of abandoned buildings, a few run-down shacks and nothing more. This time we spotted the road leading to Payne Chapel. As we turned down the road, I had to swerve suddenly to avoid running over a rotting dead dog. Still, the dog seemed to embody the spirit of the place - the area was populated only with dilapidated shacks and the Payne Chapel, which has seen better days.

A wave of paranoia crept over me when we got out of the car in front of the chapel. The nearness of the woods at the back of the cemetery and a creepy abandoned trailer tucked next to the chapel gave me the feeling that we were being watched.

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Wandering aimlessly around the graveyard didn't help dispel my unease. Yet, the run-down state of the graveyard distressed me the most: Scattered around the cemetery were more than a few fresh shallow graves and what really got to me was seeing that some of these graves did not have headstones or markers.

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Instead, the deceased's personal effects like photos, clothing and trophies were placed or thrown on top of each mound, the most heartbreaking item being a child's broken pink plastic phone. Also troubling was seeing that some graves were " protected " by flimsy chain-link fences with padlocked gates - it made me wonder if grave-robbing was common here. Vicki's shout jarred me back to reality: " I found it !" I hurried over to her, excitement mounting. This shrine was humble compared to the Columbia Records obelisk. Here, Robert Johnson's name, a small inscription and two treble clefs adorned the simple marker.

ole8.bmpOnly one eye-witness ( an old girlfriend ) ever claimed to see Robert Johnson buried at the Payne Chapel cemetery back in 1938. From the dark aura of the place, I bet that Johnson is buried there too. And one thing that I didn't repeat was to play blues guitar on this grave - the vibe was just too bloody unsettling.

Leaving Robert Johnson's remains and spirit behind, we headed back to Clarksdale. Our pilgrimage to Mount Zion and Payne Chapel made me thirst for some real " live " Delta Blues. We were assured by Bill at the Shack Up, Roger from Cat Head and Joanie, the employee from the museum, that Sarah's Kitchen would quench our thirst. It was 8:30pm by the time we arrived at what we thought was Sarah's Kitchen - but the place looked closed. However, the bar connected to Sarah's, The Delta Blues Room, was hopping thanks to a DJ playing loud R&B. So we went in there and asked if there was any blues going on at Sarah's. The bartender said " Not tonight. It's closed ". We found-out first-hand that real juke joints hours ARE erratic and do indeed shut down whenever they want. As disappointed as we were, it wasn't all bad. We ended up staying at The Delta Blues Room for some beers and had quite a few interesting conversations with some of the locals - a friendly middle-aged woman named Monte was fascinated by my Canadian 5-dollar bill. She asked me twice: " How much is it worth ? " One thing that we couldn't miss was the gambling going on behind a curtain at the back of the bar. With blues being shut down and illegal gambling going on behind a curtain, we essentially HAD a real juke joint experience. I just wish live Delta Blues had been included.

Our trip to North Mississippi and the Robert Johnson burial sites was rewarding and unforgettable. I can still feel the Mississippi Delta flowing through my veins and I don't think it will ever go away. Though I got a taste of blues culture on the road to Mississippi, finding real Delta Blues remains as elusive as finding Robert Johnson's true resting place.

By David Ball

February/March 2005

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