Highway 61, the Blues Highway, runs from New Orleans all the way to Minnesota, and is one of the most fabled stretches of road in the land. I’d driven through it a few times before, but wanted to see it again. Although it was only two hours to Vicksburg, I’d already been driving since three in the morning. I figured I’d probably look for a campground and start driving up Highway 61 in the morning.
When I got to Vicksburg, it was hot and still too early to stop, however, so after visiting a Civil War Memorial with a view of the Mississippi River, now a sprawling old granddaddy of a river, lazily putzing on a few more miles before giving it up in the Gulf of Mexico, I backtracked five miles and got on the 61 heading north.
The day was clear and bright, with a few scattered clouds in the sky. The trees on both sides of the road were wreathed in Spanish Moss, interesting by day, potentially spooky by night. A few of the homes and trailers I passed were decorated for Halloween. Around one tree someone had placed a circle of black witches. I didn’t believe it to be related to any hoodoo rituals, but still pulled over to take a look.
My first stop was in Rolling Fork, the home of the great bluesman, Muddy Waters. Blues is a vital ingredient in my song mix, and that is largely from the shuffle rhythm I learned playing Good Morning Little Schoolgirl off Muddy’s Folk Singer album, at least ten thousand times in my early twenties. I stood by rivers, waded out into fields and oceans, rode on buses and trains, climbed to the top of the world, playing that rhythm. I played the same rhythm for over thirty years and in all that time have never written a single straight-up twelve-bar blues. I rely on the blues for propulsion and feeling, rather than form. The greats did it their way. I try to do it mine.
When it comes to American music, Muddy Waters is one of the kings. When I reached the town of Rolling Fork, it was curious to see that Teddy Roosevelt’s Bear Hunt of 1902, seemed to be as important to the town as Muddy himself. Apparently, Teddy was in Mississippi to hunt black bears, and refused to shoot a bear that had been clubbed and was unable to defend itself. A toy shop owner got wind of the story and began producing Teddy Bears. That’s how those got started.
As far as Muddy, he was a tractor driver who ran a juke joint and was first recorded playing and singing by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. Later, he migrated to Chicago and helped to invent the electric blues. From that the seeds of early rock and roll were formed. Muddy, along with other blues heroes, like Howling Wolf and Sonny Boy Williams, were revered by the musicians who made up the British Invasion of the 60s, acts like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Even Pink Floyd, the living definition of prog rock, got their start as a blues cover band.
In the town square I came across a shrine to Muddy, made up of photos, records, art work inspired by him, and tributes. Across the street was the City Barber Shop and Aces Lounge. Outside the Sharkey County Library there was a mural featuring, Muddy Waters, Roosevelt, an American Indian, a few black bears, an ear of corn, deer, a mallard duck, a catfish, and a sign for Highway 61.
In Leland, the home of Kermit the Frog, I came up the Highway 61 Blues Museum, which was temporarily closed. I read about James “Son” Thomas, a famous musician and sculptor who’d once worked at the hotel that was now the museum. There was a painting of two men on a farm playing guitars. A nearby mural depicted local musicians who’d gone on attain some renown. On one corner there was a sign commemorating Johnny Winter. I drove further and found one celebrating Bobbie Gentry.
From Leland, it was an hour east to get to the grave of Robert Johnson outside of Greenwood. I took the 82 to get there. Although he recorded just twenty-nine songs in his brief career, Johnson is a seminal character in blues mythology, being the one who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in order to be able to play the blues. He achieved such proficiency in such a short span of time, the story seemed almost plausible to some.
Johnson is believed to be buried in the cemetery of the Little Zion Church. Rather he resides there or not, his headstone has certainly been turned into a shrine. It says he was born in 1911 and passed away in 1938, allegedly poisoned by a rival for the affections of a woman. The grave is covered with flowers, candles, bottles of alcohol, and smaller stones. The back of the headstone quotes the lyrics to one of his songs, something about going away and coming back with a great story.
On a whim, I Googled Robert Johnson’s Crossroads, and was given a location, about fifty miles away. Karen, the voice of Google Maps, had been the trustiest guide an explorer could wish for, outside of the times when my phone signal had dropped out. Now she directed me to the Crossroads, the Mountain Bluebird obeying every turn of the wheel. I took the 518 north to the 8 west, then the 49 to Johnson-Claremont Road. The sun was low in the sky, illuminating a veil of clouds and the fields of cotton I was passing by.
How can Google know where Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil? I didn’t care. The place I got taken to was perfect, two trees growing beside some train tracks, near the intersection of two country roads. It was where the red road meets the black road. I knew I was standing on holy ground. I got out and took a picture of the Mountain Bluebird parked right at the intersection, the lights of it glowing as orange as the sun that was setting down behind it.