There’s a famous legend that at a crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for his brilliant musical talent. It was this nefarious event that was said to inspire his famous, and aptly named, song ‘Crossroads’, which became one of the most iconic works in blues music.
As dusk wraps itself around the landscape that hugs Highway 61, we slow at every crossroads, pondering whether it seems a fitting place for a man to have relinquished his soul. Known as the Blues Highway, this stretch of blacktop meanders its way along the edge of the Mississippi River, fringed by an expanse of cotton fields and moody bayous. It’s this land that gave birth to blues music, to the lightning-fingered guitar riffs that have long crackled through vinyl, and to the lyrical laments that have brought comfort to so many for more than 100 years.
We stop at a traffic light on the outskirts of Clarksdale, wondering how we could have missed the crossroads given that we were driving along a reasonably quiet two-lane highway. Surely such an iconic place would deserve at least a marker? Just as the light switches to green, I spot a sign in the middle of what is an otherwise unremarkable traffic island. Turns out that we are stopped at that iconic location, but what was once an ominous meeting place between man and devil has since been absorbed by commercial real estate.
The heart of Clarksdale, however, has retained its historical charm, though it bears the weariness of hardship. Dilapidated shopfronts and sagging houses with peeling paint and crumbling roofs line its streets, showing no inclination to embrace modernisation. But they clearly remain beloved by locals, who gather on the porches, some swaying languidly in porch swings with their faithful hounds snoozing at their feet, others laughing together heartily. On Sunflower Avenue, we pass the rundown Riverside Hotel, where the likes of Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker and Sam Cooke all once rested their heads. Even the local Greyhound station seems caught in a different era, its vibrant Art Deco facade contrasting emphatically with the shadowy evening sky.
Music gently sails through our open car window, riding the summer breeze. It’s Friday night here, but the streets are relatively empty, save for the odd character ambling along the footpath. We stop for dinner at a local blues joint, opting for the locally recommended ‘Fried Green Tomato Sammich’ with a side of sweet potato fries and a Mississippi craft brew known as Southern Pecan. But just as the band finally starts up, launching into a blur of walking bass, it’s unfortunately time for us to get back on the road.
It’s the dead of night by the time we reach the tiny town of Benoit (which, after much debate, we later discover is pronounced to rhyme with ‘coit’ rather than the common French moniker). Our instructions are to drive to the very end of a dirt road and turn into a gate, but we soon find ourselves with no more road to follow and no sign of a gate. I flick the headlights to high beam to get a better bearing on where we’ve ended up, and a massive stone lights up in front of us. It’s ominously etched with the words ‘Burrus Cemetery,’ prefacing the cluster of headstones behind it.
Preferring not to continue along the lines of what could be a plot in a horror movie, I slowly reverse back up to the dirt road, eventually finding the farmgate we had been searching for about 100 metres behind us. An enormous white antebellum mansion stands at the centre of the sweeping plot of land, and in the corner of the expanse sits a tiny wooden shack – a ‘shotgun house’ – which is to be our lodging for the night. Given the late hour, our Airbnb hosts have kindly left the lights on for us, but it feels like we are the only (living) souls for miles.
The slats of the ageing porch groan as we walk across them. Inside the shack, it’s as if we’ve stumbled into someone’s hunting cabin, with blank-staring deer heads mounted on the walls and glossy bear skins draped over the couch. Thankfully the rest of the decor is far more welcoming – particularly the thoughtful inclusion of a turntable and wide selection of vinyl. Fittingly atop the pile is a well-loved copy of Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues. I ease the needle to its position and his distinctive wail crackles from the speakers. Leaving the door ajar, we settle into the old rocking chairs on the porch under an infinite blanket of stars, and ponder the marvellous handiwork of the devil.
This story was originally published on The Weekend Edition.