In Search of Robert Johnson’s Soul
Editor’s Note: Andy Cook, a photographer living in New Orleans, recently went on a long road trip to explore life along the Mississippi River and how the mighty waterway has shaped the lives of residents dwelling near it.
Here is one of his dispatches from the road – the tale of his adventure seeking the crossroads where Robert Johnson, the famed grandfather of the blues, was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his ability to play the guitar.
Clarksdale, Mississippi: American Music's Satanic Origin
Before the construction of the massive levee system that now lines the river, eons of annual river flooding produced the fertile land of the Mississippi Delta. It was here that a great concentration of black slaves, and later itinerant workers, were brought to work the rich land for white farmers, and it is here where blues music was born. Mississippi Delta blues emerged gradually all over the region, but there was something special about Clarksdale. In addition to being the hometown of Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Son House, John Lee Hooker, and maybe Muddy Waters, Clarksdale is where the original blues master Robert Johnson is reputed to have gone to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil to learn how to play guitar.
I'd known about this myth for years, but had never given it much thought until I read Greil Marcus' Mystery Train, in which he delves into the legend extensively. I did a little more research and discovered that for an event which clearly never happened, there is a huge amount of scholarly effort that has gone into figuring out how and where it took place.
The town of Clarksdale has a giant double-guitar monument right downtown where Highways 61 and 49 intersect, supposedly commemorating the location of Johnson's satanic pact. But if you were going out at night to meet the devil, would you go right downtown where you're likely to run into acquaintances and maybe even law enforcement? I don't think I would. And anyway, I'd read a contradictory account that sounded to me like the most likely origin of the myth. People who knew Johnson said that he had gotten guitar lessons from a man named Ike Zimmerman. Zimmerman, it is said, was fond of practicing his instrument at night in cemeteries where he was unlikely to be disturbed. It's theorized that the devil myth may come from Johnson and Zimmerman having practiced together under these suspiciously creepy circumstances.
Highways 61 and 49 actually run along the same path for about 15 miles heading north from Clarksdale towards Memphis, where they eventually diverge at another crossroads. Not a quarter mile from this intersection lies the Barbee Cemetery, a small collection of graves established in 1850 on an ancient Indian mound. There's not a building in sight for miles here. The location could be described as desolate. I stopped here and took these three photographs. First I shot the crossroads as it looks today, freshly paved, roped with traffic lights. Then I turned around and shot the tire tracks in the mud leading out to a fallow field. I guessed this was more likely what the scene looked like in the 1930's. Finally, I walked down the road to find Barbee Cemetery, an island of high ground in a sea of flat delta farmland.
Very little is truly known about Robert Johnson's life. He spent most of his days on the road, received little attention for his music at the time, and died when he was 27. The details of his life are essentially a mystery, and a conclusive explanation of his crossroads myth will likely never emerge. Nonetheless, this story's place at the origin of the American music tradition ensures that theories around it will persist. This one is mine.
The intersection of Highways 61 and 49, roughly 15 miles north of Clarksdale, Mississippi
Taken directly behind the Highway 61 and 49 intersection
The Barbee Cemetary, where Robert Johnson likely learned to play the blues
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