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Published: February 4th 2012
The original crossroads of highways 61 and 49, where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in return for a decade as the best bluesman alive.
My main goal for today was to drive back to Louisville, Kentucky.
This required going through part of the area hit by the storms a day earlier.
I was not looking forward to it.
Ironically, the day itself was perfect weather wise.
The temperature was in the high seventies, without a cloud in the sky.
It started with a little treat.
While clearing my car top this morning, I discovered a little cotton boll
stuck to the roof.
It had clearly blown there overnight from a nearby farm.
It was the perfect symbol of the Delta.
On the way into town, I passed the original crossroads of highways 61 and 49
Ironically, the modern roads have been rerouted and meet somewhere else.
This is the intersection many claim as the spot where bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for his playing talent, as recorded in the famous (and often covered) song “Crossroads Blues
The site is marked by a sculpture of four blue guitars.
Most locals believe the entire thing is a myth.
Delta Blues Museum
Cotton Boll on my car this morning
I went to the Delta Blues Museum
It tells the story of the music, and Clarksdale’s role in it in particular.
Like most music museums, this one is heavy on artifacts and memorabilia.
Some is from artists that everyone has heard of, while others come from key players so obscure most locals don’t know who they were.
The displays are very focused on individuals, which wore me out for some reason. Blues music
grew out of the unique cultural situation in the Delta.
African American communities here were very isolated.
Before World War II, contact with the outside world was very difficult, and local whites ignored them outside working hours.
One of the main forms of entertainment was playing music.
The music was based on traditional African music and slave spirituals sung in the fields.
These coalesced into a unique music form now called the blues.
The first man to succeed commercially with blues music was W.C. Handy
He is often called the “Father of the Blues”.
He started his career as a big band leader in Memphis.
In the early 1920s, he took
Delta Blues Museum
The Delta Blues Museum, in downtown Clarksdale. It is located in the old Illinois Central train depot, where so many musicians boarded trains to spread the blues.
a tour of the Delta region.
While there, he heard locals play a strange music that nobody outside the region knew about.
In one often told story, he was waiting for a train with a young man, who played his guitar by scratching a knife across it, singing “I’m going where the Southern crosses the Dog” (it refers to a local railroad crossing).
W.C. Handy started incorporating these musical ideas in his own compositions, and became a big success.
His career inspired Delta artists to become professional musicians.
The most important of the early bluesmen after Hardy was the aforementioned Robert Johnson
He had a short career, dying of poisoning in 1938 after only a decade of performing, but inspired many people.
He played the guitar like no man alive, creating squeals, shrieks, and bangs with the instrument.
His songs were about drinking, heartbreak, and running wild across the countryside.
He created the story about his deal with the devil himself.
To add to his larger than life legend, he has at least three separate gravestones in different towns.
The largest part of the
Flooded Mississippi forest.
Flooded forest, thanks to huge storms in Mississippi.
museum is dedicated to local resident Muddy Waters
He was born in a sharecropper cabin
in Rolling Fork MS in 1915, which is now located in the museum.
He influenced a huge number of blues and rock and roll musicians, ranging from Howling Wolf
to the Rolling Stones
(who named themselves after one of his songs) and Led Zepplin
The cabin contains a video where many of them talk about their interactions with Muddy Waters, and the inspiration they drew from him.
The cabin also has several of his guitars.
The display was paid for by the band ZZ Top
as a tribute.
After the museum, I had the long drive across northern Mississippi, western Tennessee, and Kentucky.
It wasn’t long before I encountered storm damage.
The fields were wet before, but now they were really flooded, to the point of being muddy lakes.
Trees were standing in water filled yards.
The road was clear due to some clever engineering.
It was built about two inches above the surrounding land, which was enough to ensure it drained quickly.
Soon afterward, I encountered my first tornado aftermath
Torn trees were on the
Brown lake that should be a stream in the Mississippi delta
side of the road, along with telephone poles snapped like twigs and downed power lines.
The impact of a tornado hit was very apparent here, a zone of violence for an eighth of a mile surrounded by places where things were perfectly intact.
I hit the interstate soon enough, and the scenery continued.
Bridges passed over muddy water that the signs claimed were rivers.
In reality, they were large brown lakes with trees poking out.
Broken trees were piled on the side of the roadway, and bulldozers were fetching more.
The situation continued until I got near Nashville and turned north.
I can only imagine what it will feel like to visit Alabama.
I may end up having to go somewhere else.
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