Writer’s Road Trip: Finding a Mississippi Muse

The crossroads, one of the landmarks where famous bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical ability (Submitted photo)
John W. Bateman
Special to Daily Times Leader

I didn’t expect an Englishman from Cambridge to draw this Mississippian into the Delta blues, but that’s exactly what happened this past January in Clarksdale.

Perhaps my citizenship should be revoked: I grew up and attended college in Mississippi, even returning after several years of unsweetened tea as an ex-pat Southerner. Oxford was my college home, where someone had once introduced me to the sound of Mose Allison. Maybe it was at Proud Larry’s or the Gin or Lafayette’s or none of the above. Maybe it was in Jackson at the old Subway Lounge, which may have held itself together only with the reverberations of a solid bassline and a harmony that dripped like honey.

My only previous trip to Clarksdale had been for a wedding. This trip took me to the Clarksdale Film & Music Festival, where I screened a film I’d written and directed. Perhaps a bit like Robert Johnson’s crossroads, the story took liberties with itself. The film was an embellished (fictionalized) account of something that had (mostly) happened in the Delta. At the Festival, I met Robin Phillips, an English jazz and blues musician, whose own documentary gave me a crash course on the acoustic waters of harmonics and drums and strings and legends. A mud as thick as peanut butter pulled off my shoes, so I stuck around for the weekend.

Robin and his friends had just finished a motorcycle trail from Chicago to New Orleans, singing, recording, interviewing, and filming along the way. He explained something I’d never fully understood: blues is the root of modern rock, R&B, pop, and more. The music is a gift from former slaves and descendants of slaves, right out of the Mississippi Delta. Interest in the blues has shifted, but, like a summer thunderstorm, not everyone agrees on whether it’s coming or going.

The first cut for his film was finished days before premiering at Hambone in downtown Clarksdale. Don’t be misled: something solid in this visualized, much calmer, blues version of Kerouac’s On The Road struck me. I’d stopped playing piano years ago, but suddenly hungered for a guitar and stories and a full tank of gas. My notebooks and camera were already there.

We buzzed over coffee and craft and artistry and the ever-looming question of how creatives make a living while creating.

“My day job can be all-consuming,” I shared. “Sometimes it’s work to draw strict boundaries. But I have to, because I need to tell stories.”

“I had £2000 and no plan,” Robin confessed. “I had no idea how it was going to work but I had to do it. So I quit. That was fifteen years ago.”

Clearly, “it” had worked. This road trip was just another page in his adventure diary.

One thing I knew for certain after watching Robin’s film: I wanted to find the crossroads where Robert Johnson made his infamous deal with the devil. Mississippi is full of ghosts and legends, so, why not pay one legend a visit?
Two towns lay claim to this notorious site: Clarksdale and Rosedale. Clarksdale claims the contract was made at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, which plants it squarely within their borders. Rosedale, on the other hand, claims the deal was struck at the intersection of Highways 8 and 1, which is in their jurisdiction.

A third location exists, favored by some historians and maintained by Robin’s quiet research. I had to go, and promised Robin that I would not tag the spot on social media or Google, lest a parking lot or a gift shop would eventually appear.

The Englishman and I parted ways in front of the Travelers Hotel, and I headed down the road (or, perhaps, up a piece) for a vague spot off the main highways, fueling up as a steady rain covered the Delta.
The unmarked turn caught me by surprise when it appeared. South (or west?) I headed. A defunct, partially flooded cemetery revealed the rippled ground of graves that had long lost any headstones. Giant trees fought against the downward pull of vines wrapped like pythons. “Private Property” signified another field road heading nowhere.

That’s when my cell phone service and Google maps stopped working. Of course.

Moments later, I reached a muddy intersection surrounded by ditches and freshly plowed rows. A hawk flew overhead. A sign warned of a washed out bridge. No cars. No people. Just me, the rain, and a ghost of a story.
Which version did I believe: did Johnson actually trade his soul? Or did the mysterious man simply tune Johnson’s guitar to give back: a misunderstood muse in the dark? Maybe Johnson simply spun a tale that would give him a sense of immortality. Maybe there isn’t even a “real” crossroads. None of those questions may matter. The music that Johnson left behind, decades later, had simply spun more stories. Whether daemon or muse or tall tale, Johnson’s strange visitor left behind imprints and threads. Words and syllables fell out of my head, one after the other onto the pages in my notebook.

A river of blues had pulled me in, and I knew I’d be back.