Rob McFarland visits the Delta Blues capital of Clarksdale, Mississippi, where myth and musical legacies meet.
The legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a deserted crossroads in Mississippi is perhaps the most famous in blues music folklore. The story goes that after several lacklustre performances, the guitarist disappeared on the Mississippi Delta. One night he found himself at a crossroads where he made a deal with the devil - he would give his soul in return for mastery of the blues. The devil agreed and when Johnson returned he could outplay anyone. Eventually, the devil came to collect and Johnson died in mysterious circumstances on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27.
Like many before me, I've been lured by this enduring tale to the small town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, which claims to be the location of this infamous crossroads. Perhaps unlike many before me, I've decided to try to find it at 3am.
After a long night of hopping between the town's music venues, my brother and I end up at the Hopson Commissary, a bar five kilometres out of town on a former cotton plantation. We're offered a lift home and, when I mention we couldn't find the crossroads earlier, our driver, Kirk, insists on taking us there, even though "it's in a pretty sketchy neighbourhood".
It's eerily quiet when we arrive at the intersection of highways 61 and 49. I can just make out a large guitar-shaped monument silhouetted in a street light. I'm about to jump out to take a photo when something ricochets off the truck. My brother and I stare at each other in disbelief. We've been shot at.
Instinctively, I adopt the airline brace position and start shrieking. Kirk, however, is unfazed. After a brief search for the culprit, he nonchalantly returns to the car and drives us back to our B&B in Clarksdale.
Much like the Johnson legend, this story is embellished with every telling. Eventually, it's the devil himself brandishing a double-barrelled shotgun - though in reality it was probably kids with a pellet gun.
Most experts agree that the Johnson tale is simply a fable, a Faustian metaphor for choice. The location of the crossroads today wouldn't even have existed in Johnson's time. And while you can't blame Clarksdale for cashing in on the legend, there are other equally compelling reasons to visit this dusty town, 122 kilometres south-west of Memphis.
For a start, there's the Delta Blues Museum, with its comprehensive collection of instruments, recordings, posters and photographs. Highlights include the remnants of Muddy Waters' rustic wood cabin and several guitars owned by John Lee Hooker and B.B. King.
That Clarksdale was chosen as the site for such an impressive collection says a lot about its significance. This is the birthplace of the blues. It was while toiling away in the surrounding cotton fields in the early 1900s that African Americans developed the field hollers that evolved into the Delta blues. During their time off they'd congregate in wooden shacks called juke joints to sing, dance, drink and gamble. It was music born from hardship, segregation and oppression. Or, as rock/blues guitarist Eric Clapton put it, "a mixture of hope and triumph over adversity".
Many claim that without cotton, the blues wouldn't exist. Most of the early bluesmen lived and worked on cotton plantations, including Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Other pioneers from the region include Howlin' Wolf, "Big" Jack Johnson, James "T-Model" Ford, Terry "Big T" Williams and "Big" George Brock. You get the feeling that if you were born "Little" Tarquin Fauntleroy, you wouldn't have made it as a bluesman in the Delta.
The state of Mississippi has developed a blues trail in recognition of the appeal of its most celebrated export. This is a network of markers that commemorates the people, venues and events that have influenced the genre. Clarksdale has eight markers, ranging from WROX, the town's first blues and gospel radio station, to the Riverside Hotel, which housed many famous musicians including Ike Turner and Robert Nighthawk.
For a contemporary take on the town's blues scene, it's worth dropping into the Cat Head Blues & Folk Art Store, run by blues aficionado Roger Stolle. He's the author of the excellent book Hidden History of Mississippi Blues and is one of the founders of Clarksdale's annual Juke Joint Festival, held each April.
While the town's museums, markers and myths provide some historical context for the genre, the reason most people make the pilgrimage to Clarksdale is to visit a juke joint. The most famous is Ground Zero Blues Club, not because it's the most authentic, but because it's co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman.
On the Saturday night we visit, the weatherbeaten hall is packed with tourists and locals. On stage is the Otis "TCB" Taylor Blues Band, whose exuberant trilby-wearing front man is belting out upbeat soul tunes with James Brown enthusiasm. The walls are covered with blues memorabilia and scribbled messages from fans; pictures of Freeman and of Robert Johnson hang behind the bar.
It's a fun, feel-good, tourist-friendly place - an homage to the juke joint, rather than the real deal. For a more authentic experience, you need to go to Red's Lounge.
From the outside, Red's looks like an abandoned storeroom. Only a hand-written sign that reads "Tonite (Blues)" hints at its real identity. When I open the door, a bouncer wordlessly takes our $US5 ($4.75) admission fee and gestures towards two empty chairs by a makeshift bar. From behind his trademark sunglasses owner "Big" Red Paden serves us, and we join about 20 others in reverential silence around veteran bluesman Robert "Wolfman" Belfour.
The 71-year-old sings in such a morose, gravel-voiced growl that I can't understand a word. The pained expression on his face is also an uncomfortable reminder of the hardship expressed in the blues. Sometimes, the real deal can be a little too authentic.
Belfour might be one of the last of the early bluesmen, but the genre is here to stay. Mississippi has more blues museums and festivals than ever, so the contribution of these pioneering musicians will never be forgotten. To paraphrase Mississippi blues legend Willie Dixon: "The blues is the roots; the rest is the fruits."
Rob McFarland travelled courtesy of Qantas and Coahoma County Tourism Commission.
Qantas has a fare to Memphis from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1870 low-season return, including tax. Fly from Sydney to Dallas (15hr) and then to Memphis (1hr 25min with American Airlines); see qantas.com.au. Melbourne passengers fly to Sydney to connect. This fare allows you to fly back from another US city and to fly via Los Angeles. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at esta.cbp.dhs.gov. Clarksdale is a 90-minute drive from Memphis.
The colonial revival-style Clark House has eight rooms, many of which feature high ceilings and beautiful period furnishings. Rooms cost from $US75 ($71.60); see clarkhouse.info.
Delta Blues Museum, open Monday-Saturday, 9am-5pm; entry $US7; see deltabluesmuseum.org.
Ground Zero Blues Club has live music Wednesday-Saturday; see groundzerobluesclub.com.
Red's Lounge has live blues Friday-Sunday; 395 Sunflower Avenue, Clarksdale.
Eating there Rust Restaurant serves unexpectedly upscale southern comfort food. Open Wednesday-Saturday; 218 Delta Avenue, Clarksdale.
See visitclarksdale.com; msbluestrail.org.