After crossing the Mississippi River at Helena-West Helena, one enters the Mississippi side of the Delta. You immediately start seeing cotton fields, as sight that has become increasingly rare on the Arkansas side. A short trip through the flat land takes the traveler to U.S. Highway 61, now known as the “Blues Highway.”
This was part of Mississippi inundated by the great flood of 1927. Remembering that the extent of flooding reached almost halfway across the state creates a sobering remembrance of the vagaries, and cruelty, of nature.
Highway 61 brings us to the town of Clarksdale, one of the more interesting cities in the Delta. Once a thriving city supporting agriculture, leaders are actively attempting to reinvent the city in modern times. This effort places a great deal emphasis on the cultural heritage of the blues and southern life in general.
You see, Clarksdale claims the site where, we are told, the immortal blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson made one of the most colorful trades in music history. Born in Mississippi 102 years ago, Johnson was, according to some biographies (on which few documented facts are based) a piddling performer when he first started playing the juke joints and street corners in the Delta.
Then, legend has it, he disappeared for a while. When he returned, he possessed a talent that astounds guitarists and influences musicians to this day. When questions arose about how the transformation took place, Johnson apparently allowed the legend to emerge that he had met “the Devil” on a street corner and sold the Dark One his (Johnson’s) soul for mastery of the Blues.
You can tell what corner the legend has settled on as you drive into Clarksdale, for it is well marked and usually has some pilgrim standing before it to have a photo made or to check the market value of his immortal soul.
Johnson recorded more than 30 tracks during his brief career. Two of the better known are “Cross Road Blues,” immortalized by Eric Clapton, and “Sweet Home Chicago,” covered by nearly everyone.
Like most areas of his life, even Johnson’s Death is buried in mystery beneath the Delta soil. They say he was poisoned, maybe by a girlfriend, maybe by her jealous boyfriend. Sadly, most of the places where he played, including those across the river in Arkansas, have disappeared.
At any rate, you can still hear the blues played in the Delta, for how much longer nobody knows. It is not a popular form of music among African-American youth. The rock and roll forms that it spawned are giving way to new sounds that no longer reflect the heritage of the Blues.
So … you might better get down to the Delta and listen while you can.