I had a route marked on a map but Daniel threw it aside and got us on a state highway as soon as he could. He was really digging this whole road trip thing. Wearing a porkpie hat that would have looked absurd on just about anyone else, he sang along with his sixties and seventies country music at sometimes headache inducing volume. The third time he played Tight Fittin’ Jeans, I dug my cheap little MP3 player out of my messenger bag and slipped in the headphones.
“Hey, now, what is that?” He pulled the earbud out of my ear. “Where’s your love for Conway?”
“About forty miles back by the side of the road,” I said. “Seriously, you’ve got to stop that, or I’m gonna have to give that lawyer his money back. Which would be awkward, seeing as how I’ve done spent some of it.”
He pushed stop on the CD player. “Fine. See if you can do better.”
I replaced Conway with King of the Delta Blues Singers, a collection of Robert Johnson’s blues released in the sixties. All it took was the slightest encouraging look from Daniel to get me started.
“This is it, right here,” I said, pointing at the stereo. Crossroad Blues filled the vehicle. “This is the album that put Robert on the map. Decades after he died, even.”
“This is what all those English kids that grew up to be rock gods listened to, right?”
I nodded. “They went to school on it. On the way he played guitar, the themes he wrote about. What little could be learned about the way he lived his life. He was a blueprint for both a journeyman blues player, and those rock gods that came later. Walking away from a normal life. Reaching out for something you’re told is a pipedream. Taking the scorn, the ridicule, the suspicion, all the other crap that people throw at you for wanting something that falls outside the norm … and throwing it right back. With a nice big middle finger.”
“People say they love a rebel,” I continued. “But really, they don’t. They say they love music and art and other creative abilities, but the truth is, if it’s anything beyond scrapbooking they’re suspicious of it. They don’t want to get too close to it, and they sure don’t want their kid dating someone who doesn’t have an office job with full benefits.”
“We still talking about music here?”
I laughed. It came out sounding harsher than I really felt. “I’m just saying, people don’t like what they don’t understand, and they don’t understand anything that’s too far outside whatever passes for normal with them.”
“What made him different?”
I smiled, about to delve into my favorite part of the Robert Johnson legend. “When he first started out trying to play in jukes, he’d pick up Son House’s guitar when Son would take a break. And he was awful! I mean, really terrible. He’d get run off the stage. This was up around Robinsonville. He went further south, to try to find his real father. He was born in Hazelhurst, illegitimate. Nobody knows if he ever found his father – if he did he never talked about it to anyone – but he did meet a man named Ike Zinnerman. According to the stories, this guy Ike taught him to play better, and had him go out to graveyards at night to practice.”
“That’s all kinds of creepy,” said Daniel with relish. “Why graveyards at night? Some kind of weird hoodoo thing?”
I shrugged. “Probably for the privacy. Robert stayed down there about a year, maybe two. When he went back up to the Delta, his guitar playing had completely transformed. Son House said Robert must have sold his soul to the devil to play that good.”
“This is where we get to the part about a crossroads at midnight, right?” Daniel was eager for the juicy parts of the story.
“There’s a sign marking where Highway 61 crosses Highway 49 in Clarksdale,” I said, speaking of the town that would be our first stop in Mississippi.
“Is that where it happened?”
|Pic by me, taken in 2005.|
I snorted. “That’s just there for the tourists.”
Daniel gave me a questioning look. I continued, “His playing had already improved by the time he came back up to the Delta. Which tells me that if this mythical crossroads existed – or at least the one Robert Johnson used – it’s somewhere down around Hazelhurst. That big sign in Clarksdale is for the tourists who don’t read their history close.”
“Has anybody ever tried to find the real crossroads?”
“I think a few have, maybe. I read once one of those English rockers found it and actually has a bottle of dirt from it.” That made me wonder again about the identity of Mr. Craig’s client.
“Why three different graves? How’d he die?”
“A jealous husband, most likely. Robert went through women like you go through shirts. A musicologist tracked down the man that poisoned him but nobody cared. Even the law. For a long time there wasn’t much more than rumor and innuendo known about Robert. I guess that’s how no one was sure exactly where he was buried.”
“And we have to go to all three?”
I looked out at the sharp car lights cutting through the dark highway. “He’s most likely buried in the latest place to make the claim, but yeah, we’re going to all three. That’s what the client’s paying for.”
Daniel drove in silence, letting the music play on. I drifted off to sleep and didn’t wake up until we pulled into a motel in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
<- Part 2
Sweet Baby Elvis, I freaking hate it - hate. it! - when people get it wrong about the location of the crossroads. Reading just a little bit of Robert's story should make it clear that any alleged crossroads would have been located in south Mississippi, not smack in the middle of Clarksdale. While the guitars hanging over the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 are a great photo-op for tourists, that's all they indicate. Okay, now I'm done being *that* music nerd. How about a couple songs...