Down at the Crossroads

   Posted by: Brent Toderash   in Uncategorized


Leaving the Mississippi Delta, I determined to find the marker on the Blues Trail that honoured Son House. It was supposed to be near Tunica — in town, I thought, probably along Highway 61 somewhere, or in the old downtown area. Couldn’t find it. Someone must know… I pulled in at the angle-parking along the main drag in front of an antiques shop. Antique dealers should know something of a place’s heritage, and probably won’t be too busy to give directions. Seemed like a good bet.

The front door was wide open, and when I stepped inside I heard a light snoring sound from behind the front counter — the proprietor, I presume. I made a noise on the glass counter as I looked around the store. She roused her from her sleep as I picked up a few tourist brochures from the counter. She didn’t know anything about a marker for Son House. I daresay she didn’t know much about the Blues, either. Too bad.

On the way out of town to the North of Tunica, there’s a museum on the West side of the highway, so I pulled in. One last try. The woman at the counter didn’t really know, but they had a Blues section in the museum — I was welcome to take a look there, and if I didn’t find what I was after, her boss, she told me, was sure to know. She walked me past a few exhibits to the Blues section. Admission is free. I took a couple of photos and she left me to browse, so I make a quick tour of the museum. Nice displays, worth a visit and the price is certainly right… too bad I was in a hurry. We had time to make on the highway.

Back out in the reception area, she showed me through a door to where her boss was sitting in a large open room at his desk. There was a good-ol’-boy-type fellow sitting on a stool nearby, and we interrupted their chat. “I was told you could help me,” I began, and explained that I was looking for the “Blues Highway” marker for Son House. Dick Taylor was Executive Director of the Tunica Museum, and it turns out I’d come to the right place.

“I”m going to give you a little some-extra,” he began. To told me to go on down Highway 61 about 8 miles south, where I’d find Bonny Blue Road. There are some granaries standing at the corner, and that’s where the marker is. Just dedicated about three months ago, he told me. “Now, if you are a Blues aficionado,” he continued, “Do you know the story of Robert Johnson? Well, about two miles East of the marker, there’s a cemetery…”

The cemetery?” I interrupted.

“Yes, that’s the place,” he said. Crosstown Cemetery, on your left — North side of the road. “Folks down around Clarksdale like to tell you that’s where the crossroads is.”

“That’s just the commercial crossroads,” I interrupted again.

“That’s right. Now, Robert Johnson grew up around here, and In my experience with dealing with the Devil you don’t have to go far to meet him… you just think about it and he’ll appear. He wouldn’t have had to go all the way down to Clarksdale.”

Legend has it that Robert Johnson met the Devil at the corner of Highways 61&49, and in exchange for his soul, the Devil gave him the ability to play the Blues like nobody had heard before. What really happened was that a young Robert Johnson used to follow Son House and a couple of other Bluesmen around, trying to play like they did. He wasn’t getting the hang of it, and the elder Bluesmen mocked him. Johnson disappeard for about five months, and when he reappeared, he could play the Blues like anyone. Son House heard him and said he must have sold his soul to the Devil to play like that. Some of Johnson’s songs were Hellhound on my Tail and Crossroad Blues, and the legend sprang up from that. Nobody knows where the real crossroads are, so eventually some commercial interests decided to stick up a marker at the corner of two important Blues highways — 61&49. There is however a dissenting version of the story… someone who claims that Johnson told them he’d met the Devil while spending the night in an old graveyard. Selling one’s soul to the Devil was a recurring concept in folklore of the time, as was the image of the crossroads. It’s only natural that someone should weave them all into a story. The legend said that you could go down to the crossroads, and you’d meet a man there. You would give him your guitar and he’d tune it for you — and that’d be that.

Johnson liked his whiskey and his women, and while playing in a Juke one night down near Greenville, he was handed an open bottle of whiskey. Another Bluesman playing there knocked the bottle out of his hand, telling him never to accept an open bottle. Johnson was indignant, and told the fellow musician never to knock a whiskey from his hand again. Somewhere over the course of events, Johnson seduced the wife of the man who owned the juke, and later that evening Johnson was handed another open bottle of whiskey, which he drank. The bottle contained strychnine, which the juke owner had added to the whiskey for revenge. Johnson became ill, and died a few days later in a shack nearby. He was 27. Three potential gravesites are claimed for Johnson, but the most probable one is under an old pecan tree outside a church just North of Greenwood.

The museum director explained to me that those who live by the sword, die by the sword. “They must have given him rat poison or something strong like that, because Johnson died howling like a dog.” You go down to the Crosstown Cemetery, he told me. There’s no marker, but it’s at the side of the road 2 miles East of Highway 61, you can’t miss it. The land belongs to Mike Boyd, and if he sees you poking around there, he won’t mind. “Stop and listen,” he told me. The spirits are there, and see if they don’t show up. Whenever he sends people down there, they often come back and tell him what happened. A radio stops working, something like that. “Some folks I sent down there just this morning called back from Clarksdale, which was unusual because it’s a long distance call, but they wanted to tell me ‘You were right,'” he says. “The spirits there are not malevolent, they won’t strand you there for hours or anything. They just want to make their presence known. You and listen. But if you see him, don’t make a deal.”

We headed South. I didn’t see the marker on the corner, but we turned East on Bonny Blue Road, and two miles down, there it was on the North side of the road. I pulled in and got out to poke around a little. I tramped around and took a few photos, but the ground was wet. I didn’t hear or see anything, but maybe it’s just because I didn’t stop and wait. The highway was calling, and I needed to be in St. Louis that night. No matter — I didn’t really want to make a deal. Then again, sometimes it’s just a whole lot safer not to be presented with a tempting offer.

Back at Highway 61, I saw the post for Son House’s marker. It turns out someone had removed the sign and left the post, probably retaining a nice souvenir of the Delta Blues for himself. (I had to read it online.)

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