Every year on May 8, a small group of people assemble inside a single-storey, white coloured building at the corner of the intersection of South Jackson Street and East Marion Avenue in the quaint town of Crystal Springs, Mississippi. There is nothing remarkable about the building with four large windows that shares one of its walls with a pizza takeout joint, except for the signboard above the entrance that reads: Robert Johnson Blues Museum. That small group of people, from the town with a population of little over 5,000, come together every year to celebrate the birth anniversary of the most enigmatic, and virtually mythical, blues musician.
Born in 1911, in Hazlehurst, Robert Johnson’s early life, his arrival on the music scene, his disappearance for almost one-and-a half years, , and his subsequent reappearance as a guitar player of mind-bending complexity, is shrouded in veils of mystery and myths, giving birth to the urban legend that he made a pact with the devil at the crossroads where he sold his soul to Satan to learn play the guitar. Though, the truth about Johnson’s evolution as the most influential blues musician in the ’30s might be rooted in more prosaic details. But that is a different story.
Yet, despite his relative obscurity outside the realm of hardcore blues fans, his influence and imprint can be felt even today in contemporary blues and rock music. His impact has been so profound that even after 83 years of his death in 1938, after consuming poisoned whiskey, the legends of blues and rock continue to bow their heads in reverence to the virtuoso. “Robert Johnson affected my guitar-playing via Muddy Waters. You can hear the Mississippi mud in there and some of Johnson’s phrasing,” says Keith Richards, the lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones in the Netflix documentary, Devil at the Crossroads, while ‘slow hand’ Eric Clapton says that Johnson was the reason he became a musician.
Tragically, Johnson was the first member of the infamous Club 27 — the long list of stunningly talented musicians who died at the age of 27.
In more ways than one, the musical microcosm that Johnson represents is the story of Delta Blues in the larger context. Perhaps, Mississippi is the only place where blues could have been born. The clash of history, culture, race relations, politics, and economy produced the spores that pollinated the rich black soil of the land of cotton and catfish to give birth to a form of music that was edgy and raw, purposed to take the mind off the harsh mundanity of plantation life of the black workers.
To start with, this music didn’t even have a formal name, nor was written on sheets. It was sung in the cotton fields, in homes, and at watering holes until the last dregs of moonshine was consumed. But it did have a structure and rhythm. In fact, the rhythm was so “weird” that it grabbed you by the throat; much like it grabbed me by my ear in the summer of 1983 during a Park Street jaunt on a family vacation to Kolkata (it was still called Calcutta then),when a strange-sounding song blasted out of one of the shops selling secondhand vinyl records.
It was the big, booming voice of Muddy Waters belting out Hoochie Coochie Man and the flamboyant start-stop guitar riff that left me mesmerised; it was unlike anything I had heard before in our house. At that time, I didn’t know what the lyrics meant or who the singer was, whether he was black or white, yet the strangeness of that sound was permanently stamped in my memory in a matter of minutes.
Thirty-six years later, on that pleasant afternoon on October 12, 2019, when I stood in front of the black, polished granite gravestone of BB King adjacent to the BB King Museum, almost 15,000 miles west of Kolkata, deep inside Mississippi in the small town of Indianola, the memory of my first brush with the “weird” sound on Park Street flashed through my mind like a high-speed film in slow motion. Blues has that kind of an effect on people.
In 1903, 80 years before my encounter with the “weird” music, William Christopher Hendy — musician, composer, bandleader, and writer— experienced something similar while he was waiting at the Tutwiler station to catch a train. To quote from Roger Stolle’s tour de force, Hidden History of Mississippi Blues, Hendy wrote in his autobiography, Father of the Blues:
“One night in Tutwiler, as I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train that had been delayed nine hours, life suddenly took me by the shoulder and wakened me with a start. A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced playing a guitar besides me while I slept. His clothes were rags, his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable: His song struck me instantly. “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog.” The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.”
The precise origin of blues is wrapped in fuzzy facts of history. But the general consensus is that the musical notes of Delta blues radiated far and wide from Dockery Farms, Cleveland, MS, just off the I-49W (interstate highway) after turning left at Ruleville about a mile on State Highway 8. At its peak, the 25,000-acre plantation employed thousands of black labours to work in the cotton fields. The size of the original steam-powered gin is a testimony to the amount of cotton that used to be processed at the Dockery Farms alone almost a century ago, when Mississippi cotton was hailed as the “King of Cotton” from Manchester to Mecca.
But the Mississippi Blues Trail marker has a question mark. It reads: “The precise origins of the blues are lost in time, but one of the primal centres for the music in Mississippi was Dockery Farms. For nearly three decades the plantation was intermittently the home of Charley Patton (c. 1891-1934), the most important early Delta blues musician. Patton himself learned from fellow Dockery resident Henry Sloan and influenced many other musicians who came in here, including Howlin Wolf, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson and Roebuck “Pops” Staples.”
The origin of the blues might be lost in the fog of time, but it’s undeniably steeped into the cultural fabric of Mississippi from where it travelled around the world. It doesn’t matter in which direction you go from the state’s capital, Jackson — east or west, north or south — you are never far from a piece of blues history.
On October 11, 2019, a good friend of mine deigned to take a disorganised journalist from India— who forgot to get his international driving licence—on a tour of the blues trail. We decided to head northwest, along I-49 and then I-49W up to Cleveland to see the Mississippi Grammy Museum. During the course of the 194-km drive, we encountered all three seasons from the morning to sunset — balmy Jackson; torrential, monsoon-like rain between Yazoo City and Belzoni, and chilly Cleveland.
Heading out of Jackson, the first stop ought to be 48 km north in Bentonia — the home to the iconic Blue Front Café; one of few remaining links to a fast-disappearing world of rural juke joints, where the blues found its soul and soul-bearers. It’s one of the few functioning traditional juke joints in the area. The modest front porch has hosted hundreds of blues musicians since it was opened in 1948.
The setting for evening performances is spartan, but remains as honest as it can get to the age of plantations. Musicians sit on the front porch with just a guitar plugged into a basic amp to perform the purest form of blues. Recently it hosted the Grammy Day party that was broadcast live on Facebook around the world.
Few more kilometres up I-49, you will come across the marker of Gatemouth Moore, one of the most influential bluesmen in the ’40s. The marker is located right next to the Ubon’s Bar-B-Que (BBQ), where you can catch a hearty Southern meal.
A little ahead of Yazoo City, the I-49 splits into a Y-fork. If you stick to the western split, it will take you into the heart of the Delta, which still remains the spiritual home of the blues, and the land of cotton, catfish. By early October, most of the cotton picking was over even as mechanised cotton pickers were clearing out the remaining patches. As you drive on this route, the ubiquitous, blue-coloured markers are never far away. Each of these have a story to tell, a slice of history to offer. In Belzoni, a town with a population of 2,100, you learn the significant roles played by the Turner’s Drug Store and Easy Pay Store, in spreading the blues over the airwaves. In 1947-48, radio stations in Yazoo city and Greenville started broadcasting live performance by musicians like Sonny Boy Williamson No.2 and Elmore James, who performed on the street corner, next to the drug store.
On this road, you will find the marker of one of the most accomplished blues pianist, Pinetop Perkins, who played alongside the likes of Williamson and Waters. The tractor-driving and hard-drinking Perkins, perhaps, provided the most philosophical context to the music of the Delta. “Blues is just something that you’re worried about something or another, you can’t get it on your mind. When you were born ‘round the Mississippi Delta, you were born with the blues down in there. (Th)at’s where the blues come from. You can’t get what you want to, or what you want, and it seems like everything is going wrong. You got the blues even if you can’t sing them. Like when I was little coming up; I didn’t know nothing about no girls or nothing like that. But when I did get up big enough to get a girl and you like her and she goes o and leaves you, man you got the blues so bad then it’s terrible. No if you were to marry and your wife quits you, oh man, you got the blues even if you can’t sing ‘em.”
When you arrive at the junction of I-49W and I-82, stop at Indianola; the home of two blues colossus, the Kings—Riley B King, or BB King, and his half-brother, Albert King. The centrepiece of the town attraction is, of course, the BB King Museum and Club Ebony, where BB earned his reputation as the master of the bent cord.
The exhaustive display of memorabilia in the museum chronicles his life from writing and singing jingles for an alcohol-infused tonic called Pepticon to his evolution as a global blues icon. Despite achieving fame and wealth, BB remained connected to Indianola and Club Ebony. In early noughties, when the club fell on hard times, BB stepped in to buy it out. The crude etching on the cement pavement in front of the entrance puts the date as March 7, 2007, when BB became the owner of Club Ebony, where it all began. At his peak, the man who made his guitar, Lucille, talk to the audience used to be on the road for more than 350 days a year. From singing gospel songs on street corners to winning 15 Grammys measures the giant musical arc of the greatest bluesman from Indianola and Mississippi.
My short dash on the Mississippi Blues Trail culminated at the Grammy Museum in Cleveland. The surprising choice of a small, rural American town in deep South to set up the second Grammy Museum in the world is explained succinctly by Bob Santelli, executive director, Grammy Museum, Los Angeles: “Because without Mississippi…there would be no American music.” The statement carries significance because other genres of music like rock, R&B and country have roots in the blues. After all, many years ago, Muddy Waters in his booming voice made it clear: “Well you know the blues got pregnant, and they named the baby Rock & Roll.” In Cleveland, another cliché that “music has no language" got further clichéd in a good way.
The proof lay is seeing Ravi Shankar’s sitar finding a place alongside Miles Davis’ trumpet and BB’s Lucille on the Wall of Iconic Instruments.
Acknowledgement: I would like to express my profound thanks to my friend, Tracey Dickerson, for making the Blues Trail journey possible and bearing up with me for stating the obvious at times that was met with some serious eye-rolls. And yes, for teaching me how to eat corn dogs.
Juke joints are going silent
Rural juke joints have played a pivotal role in the evolution of the Delta blues. In the informal settings of these modest shacks and buildings; camaraderie, liquor, good vibes, and the blues flowed in generous quantities to become the natural home of the music of Mississippi. But in a fast-changing world that is rapidly getting dominated by neo-liberal ideas and technological utopia, juke joints are increasingly becoming an endangered heritage of American music. Though, some of the old-world juke joints continue to survive, one can’t be certain for how long.
Roger Stolle in his book, Hidden History of Mississippi Blues, sums it up best: “Today, you can count the number of authentic Mississippi juke joints that book traditional blues on a regular basis on just two hands. Fifty years ago, I doubt you could keep a count. Fifteen years ago, there were easily double the number we find today.”