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Back from the crossroads

Published 10:44 am Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Music is perhaps the best remedy for the mind and eyes when driving through areas where rows upon rows of cash crops stretch from roadside to horizon.

I learned this bit of truth years ago when driving the winding, two-lane roads that cut through sugar cane fields on the way to class at Nicholls State University in south Louisiana. It can focus my daydreams in such a way that makes a trip seem shorter.

My emcee of choice for a recent trip through the ruffled-ridges look of the corn and soybean fields of U.S. 61 through the Mississippi Delta? Why, the King of the Delta Blues Singers himself — Robert Johnson.

Folks, there’s no music in the world that matches the scene of farmland as far as your eyes can see like the primitive strum of the man popular legend said sold his soul to the devil “at the crossroads.” Ostensibly, this was the intersection of 61 and U.S. 49 near Clarksdale. Today, you’ll see three guitars crossed north, south and east, respectively, to mark the spot. There’s two fairly large shrub-like trees growing almost too tall to see it until you’ve passed the intersection, so look closely and quickly if you venture up there.

The mythic proportions Johnson’s life took after his death in 1938 blurred fact and fiction on the details of his life. Oral tradition storytelling has the “crossroads” being both literal and figurative — everywhere from the 61/49 junction to Dockery Plantation, about 50 miles south of that. Truth is, Johnson and most other bluesmen of the day learned acoustics the same way, by stretching bailing wire along a wall and placing blocks underneath it to adjust height and tension. Ingenuity and elbow grease helped him escape a life of drudgery working the farm, not some gargoyle wearing a pair of horns and a red tail.

I utter that bit of skepticism knowing full well I have something of a confession to make here. A dual-disc set of Johnson tunes that tell simple, haunting tales of life and love with chords muffled only by the recording equipment of the day does me no good in the jewel case. It must be played, preferably with the TV off. Technology and old blues don’t mix, I think. And so I did. “Dust My Broom”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Terraplane Blues,” “They’re Red Hot” are rock particles in the rosetta stone used to craft every form of music that evolved from the blues. I listened while reading the liner notes, which is what I often do regardless of the stuff I’m jamming.

Then it happened. I’m seconds removed from reading about a note found on his deathbed as he succumbed to what most experts these days agree was a case of poisoned whiskey, courtesy of the husband of a woman with which he had had uh, relations. In the middle of an alternate version of “Phonograph Blues”, my ‘90s-era Sony disc player suddenly stopped. I’m not talking a laser problem, not talking power outage. The lights stayed on, the radio went off as if some ghost had walked up to it and simply hit the power button. Used a little old-school technology to turn it back on — I unplugged it for a few seconds.

What did the note say? “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem, I know that my redeemer liveth and that he will call me from the Grave.”

Enough to make your old evil spirit take a Greyhound bus and ride, as Johnson once crooned? I don’t know, but Japanese technology was no match for the Mississippi Delta blues that day.

Danny Barrett is a reporter and can be reached by email at danny.barrett@vicksburgpost.com or by phone at 601-636-4545.