Clarksdale, Mississippi is a hub of blues history; many of the greatest names in blues have lived, worked, or played in this small Mississippi town. I’d had a long day’s drive and was pulling into Clarksdale, about 60 miles south of Memphis, right at twilight. I was planning a night’s stay at the Shack Up Inn, an old cotton plantation that had been converted into a tourist hotel. My room was going to be a bin where the cotton was stored in the old days.
As I drove down the main street of Clarksdale, my GPS led me outside the town limits, across the railroad tracks into the rural outskirts. I was tired and couldn’t see very well away from the city lights. As I turned a corner I noticed that all along the berm of the railroad tracks were bonfires. Several of them, placed maybe 30 feet apart. People were there, and it looked as though they were burning up old railroad ties. It was very odd, but the thick smoke from the fires had drifted across the rural dirt road and now visibility was very low. The acrid smoke added a heavy smell. I finally decided my GPS must have a glitch and turned back towards town. I did not have a good feeling. I decided to stay at a motel on the main street and try to find the Shack Up Inn the following day when the sun was back up.
The next morning I had no difficulty finding the Inn at all, and realized I had driven right past it the night before. How do you miss an entire plantation? While I was checking in at the desk, I casually mentioned what I had seen the night before to the clerk, hoping she could explain what had been going on. She was completely surprised, even appalled. She said the Inn is of course just a bunch of old wooden shacks and corrugated tin storage bins; if people were having massive bonfires in the vicinity they could well burn the whole Inn down. Neither she nor anyone else who had spoken to her the night before had witnessed this, or even smelled smoke.
I had lunch later that day at the Ground Zero Blues Club (so-called because the blues started here), and struck up a conversation with the manager. I told him my story again, thinking that, someone who was born and raised in this small town surely would know what I had witnessed. He had no response at all, which made me think he was either hiding something or too polite to tell me I was crazy. After that I decided not to talk about it anymore. Either I had had a really bad case of fatigue and highway hypnosis, or, something inexplicable had occurred. Perhaps I’d caught a glimpse of the demons at play in Clarksdale.
Home of the Delta Blues
I enjoyed staying at the Shack Up Inn, although I would have slept better without this montage picture of Robert Johnson hanging next to my bed.
Mississippi by reputation is a very spiritual place. You don’t have to be a fan of Southern Gothic to get the feeling that something is a little different in the Delta region. It is in this area that the Mississippi River floods the lowlands and enriches the soil, making agriculture a very profitable enterprise, although the flooding has also led to tremendous disaster and social upheaval several times in Mississippi history.
The music we know as the blues originated here, and the Mississippi river was a shaping force. The river has a a frequent tendency to change course, even overnight. African Americans worked in the fields of the plantations in this area for generations, living in ramshackle shacks. The rich soil provided a sharecropper with an abundant crop, which could mean security and good living. But at any time, the old river might change its course, and wipe out both the fields and the homes people lived in, so swiftly you never saw it coming. Because it meandered so much, a precarious relationship existed between the mighty river and the people: it was both boon and bane, and you never knew what you were going to get. If that doesn’t describe the overarching sentiment of the blues, nothing can.
The Legend of Robert Johnson
The most influential bluesman known, Robert Johnson was born and raised in Mississippi and spent time playing the blues in Clarksdale. He had a complicated and obscure life. One of the main reasons we know so little about him is that his music was only re-discovered in the 1960’s during a resurgence of interest in blues and folk music, and it was only by then that he became famous. He died young, back in the 1930’s, and only recorded 29 songs.
An itinerant musician, he wandered constantly throughout the delta region (rather like the Mississippi river itself), playing blues on street corners and bars. He used dozens of aliases. In fact, the nature of his identity is so hard to pin down that one reviewer opined that Robert Johnson “only exists in his music.” That sort of mysteriousness lends itself to legend.
The most persistent story told of Johnson is that his remarkable, masterful blues guitar-playing was gained by supernatural means. He went to a local crossroads one night, it is said, and sold his soul to the devil in return for exceptional musical ability. Commentators on this story have noted that in the hoodoo tradition, it is commonly believed that a tutelary spirit can confer some special skill or ability to a person who goes to a crossroads at midnight. (Most often the supplicant asks for musical or dancing ability, or to be good at cards or dice). This spirit is not the Christian devil, and no one is selling their soul.
Clarksdale is one of a few places that claims to have the crossroads where this happened, at the intersection of Highway 49 and 61, where I had to make a turn to leave the city limits that first night, and had that odd experience. (By the way, if you’re planning on going to a crossroads to gain any supernatural talent, this is a busy traffic intersection in the heart of town. Not your best bet.)
Of course, no one can prove that Robert Johnson ever did this, but the lyrics of his songs do make it very clear he was familiar with hoodoo traditions and spells. It’s very likely that Johnson would also have identified with the “selling your soul” idea since blues music was considered immoral back in the 1930’s, with lyrics full of references to hardship, whiskey and women. Perhaps there is also a metaphorical relationship between the Mississippi river and the devil; the river gives fortune and in an instant can take it away. The devil may have given Robert Johnson his talent, but Johnson died mysteriously shortly thereafter, at the age of 27. Some say the devil took him away. Johnson had made a choice, after many tragedies in his young life, to reject home and family ways and wander around playing blues guitar. Such a choice changes a person, changes their destiny.
The crossroads of the legend is not a four-way crossroads like we usually think of, but a three-way, “Y” shaped crossroads, (like the one in Clarksdale, hence the three guitars). This is important because if you come to a three-way crossroads, you are required to make a choice that will change your direction of travel (and by association, your life and destiny). At a four-way crossroads you can just keep going straight, and nothing changes. So the legend is implying that if you want to be good at something, you have to choose it. You have to dedicate yourself to it, wholeheartedly. You have to be willing to change your path.
The idea of a crossroads spirit or crossroads god is known all over the world. In ancient Roman mythology, the goddess of the crossroads was named Trivia, which literally means “three roads.” We don’t know much about this goddess now, because she was very ancient even in Roman times and her identity later became absorbed into the more popular goddess Diana. But I imagine that she was also a teaching spirit. Perhaps Romans also went to a crossroads at midnight, hoping that Trivia would teach them something, perhaps something not so important as what they learned at school, but maybe something they enjoyed and wanted to master. Others would call such knowledge “trivial.”
Note – these videos claim the town to be “Rosedale” not “Clarksdale.” Like any legend, place is never set in stone.