Blues Highway

Following the musical notes from the Deep South

Chicago Tribune

January 31, 1999

By Steve Knopper

We're looking for a tavern that doesn't exist. The people here, buying groceries at "the friendliest store in town," doing laundry at the Washeteria and chatting over Sprites at the Shell station, have no idea where it is. When we explain we're looking for Robert Johnson, a famous blues singer murdered 60 years ago at a particular tavern in Three Forks, they regard us with suspicion and turn away.

But a bearded Shell customer in a floppy hat remembers an old sign for Three Forks and agrees to lead us in his GMC truck. "If you blink," he says, late on a Friday night, "you're gonna miss it."

Itta Bena abruptly ends as the two-lane Mississippi Highway 7 begins its twisting path to the south. The moon hides behind a cloud, leaving only the light from farmhouses in the flat distance, the GMC's taillights fading into our headlights and a dull green glow from our rental-car dashboard. The oak trees on the side of the road become hulking shadows. Every curve brings a surprise. A power plant, large and metallic but totally silent, brightens the road and disappears behind us. Then a black cross on a yellow highway sign. A deserted gas station. A bridge. Another bridge. A well-lit cotton gin, where men drive tractors and carry bundles.

Suddenly, my wife sees Robert Johnson's ghost walking down the highway. He's wearing a white T-shirt and jeans and, she swears later, shoots her the meanest glare she ever saw. She shouts. The GMC leads us left onto a dirt road. Aside from a house 30 yards away, where the front porch is filled with quizzical staring Mississippians, there's nothing here in the dark. The ghost is gone.

This hallucination, or mistaken identity -- or something else -- shows how jumpy we are in dead-of-night Mississippi, listening to a tape of Johnson moan about falling on his knees. Sixty years ago, somewhere in Three Forks, the author of "Crossroad Blues," "Sweet Home, Chicago" and "Hellbound on My Trail" succumbed to strychnine poisoning. (A jealous club owner had slipped the stuff into his drink.) Johnson's violent death, shortly after he sold his soul to the devil for guitar-playing skills, is part of the blues' core mythology.

Whether these old stories are true or not, the only thing spookier than listening to Robert Johnson is listening to Robert Johnson in the dark in Mississippi.

It's the second day of an intense four-day road trip designed to follow the paths of bluesmen from their oppressive Southern homes to opportunity in Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago. While exploring voodoo history in New Orleans, driving up U.S. Highway 61 through Mississippi and wandering in and out of noisy Memphis nightclubs, we begin to think of the blues as a suitcase. When it first arrived from Africa with the slave trade, the suitcase contained pain and suffering. By the time people passed it north to Chicago in the 1940s, it had two other things -- electricity and hope.

Most visitors think of New Orleans, where this trip began in early October, as a party town, filled with jazz, Cajun and zydeco music and incredible southern food. That's true: Thursday night at Vaughan's, a barbecue shack and nightclub about 10 minutes from the French Quarter, clubgoers eat delicious red beans and rice served in paper cups while listening to Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers play funky, improvisational jazz. Outside the packed bar, Ruffins and three band members barbecue a gigantic sausage, coiled like a snake on an outside grill.

As any reader of Anne Rice vampire novels will tell you, though, a bleak side of New Orleans supplements the city's Mardi Gras party reputation. Graves are built above ground so coffins won't meander in the swamps. Even blatant tourist attractions like tarot-card readers in the French Quarter -- including a young, ratty-goateed guy named Sparrow, as in "Tarot by Sparrow," who predicts crossroads in his clients' futures -- have a yawning darkness about them.

Aficionados of Robert Johnson, and blues music in general, will find familiarity in the Voodoo Museum, a French Quarter display of decaying relics, including frogs and snakes preserved in jars of colored water. Gris-gris, a lucky charm, haunts an old Dr. John song called "I Walk on Guilded Splinters." John the Conqueror, a rootlike type of gris-gris, is a prominent character in Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" and Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man." Mojo hands and black cat bones are recurring images in blues lyrics. A museum map points out these things came here with slave ships from Senegal.

In the lobby, the museum sells mojo balls for $3 and promotional voodoo videos for $20. The young receptionist never tells us more about them, because she's busy complaining over the phone about a landlord who wouldn't allow her snake in the apartment.

Voodoo's path snakes through New Orleans before heading due north in a straight line. On the Ponchartrain Causeway the next morning, as Dr. John's voice drones "did I murder?" and makes jittery jungle noises on the tape deck, we follow it across a concrete bridge thick with dragonflies and fog. After the causeway, and an hour-long drive west through Baton Rouge, we turn north onto U.S. 61, which runs the entire length of Mississippi on the western side.

Mississippi residents barely notice the trickle of wide-eyed tourists who regularly come to see where Johnson died or Son House was born. They have more important things to worry about, like making money and raising children. Like all blues-loving visitors, we see ghosts in every direction. A great Bob Dylan song, "Blind Willie McTell," comes on the tape deck with images of bootleg whiskey, fallen martyrs and chain gangs. What Dylan calls "slavery's shell" is the perfect term for the horrific tortures that went on here for 200 years. If you're in the right frame of mind, all sights -- cotton mills, plantations, even the run-down little two-tone houses with triangular roofs -- have slavery connotations.

The detour through Itta Bena takes us about an hour out of our way. From there, it's a quick drive to Clarksdale, a larger city that contains some of the most advertised blues landmarks in Mississippi. Despite Friday reservations at the Riverside Hotel, where singer Bessie Smith died after a car accident, we've had enough blues death for one night and stay instead at Clarksville's larger Hampton Inn. It's just south of the crossroads of U.S. 61 and U.S. Highway 49, where Johnson supposedly carried a black cat bone to Papa Legba, a voodoo vision of the devil.

Though nobody would mistake the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale for a fancy tourist attraction, it makes the most of a small budget with detailed exhibits on Johnson, Waters, Howlin' Wolf and the other great bluesmen born in Mississippi. Big names have left their calling cards: Southern harpist Charlie Musselwhite's signature is on a blues map, and Led Zeppelin rock stars Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (who titled their last album "Walking Into Clarksdale") grin from a newspaper clipping on the museum bulletin board.

I'm studying these things when a black man in a light blue suit and matching tall cowboy hat walks up and says, "I'm Buddy Guy."Knowing this guy isn't Guy, I hesitate, then decide to call him on it: "So, you live in Chicago?"

He thinks about it. I say, "Buddy Guy lives in Chicago."He mumbles and wanders off. "Oh, that's just Lawrence," a librarian tells me later. "He's not right in the head. Whoever's playing in the area, he introduces himself as that person." Guy is scheduled to headline a Clarksdale blues festival a few weeks later.

In Clarksdale, locals are more accustomed to wide-eyed blues tourists than the residents of Itta Bena. Downtown is filled with historical markers, including one to W.C. Handy, who led the Clarksdale-based Mahara Minstrels and, after supposedly "discovering" the blues, obtained song-writing credit for the classic "St. Louis Blues." Across town at the Riverside, after proudly showing off the Bessie Smith Room, which is small and plain with a poster of Smith draped over the green-and-gold bedspread, owner Frank Ratliff brings out his guest-registry book. The names are from Sweden. France. Japan. England. Tourists fascinated with blues history stay regularly at this worn brown building and mingle with the workers and college students who board there full-time.

Ratliff says Robert Johnson's contemporary, singer Robert Nighthawk -- himself a tormented figure once involved in a mysterious shooting -- once stayed at the Riverside and left a brown suitcase. It's still in the hotel. Growing up here in the '60s, Ratliff says, he once lost a finger picking cotton. Then he moved to Memphis, working an $11-an-hour job at Wonder Bread for 23 years, before the company moved out of town. But where many Mississippians turned toward Chicago and St. Louis, Ratliff returned to Clarksdale to run his mother's hotel.

Ninety miles north, as U.S. 61 spills into Memphis, the humidity becomes noticeably less oppressive, the streets widen and tall buildings come into view for the first time. On the city's South Side, people yell and scream in the streets, packing outdoor hamburger stands, honking horns and waving to passers-by.

The loudest street in Memphis, especially on a Saturday evening, is Beale. Many of the clubs are pure travelers' attractions, from Elvis Presley's Memphis to B.B. King's self-named slick restaurant- nightclub. Handy's Juke Joint and Rum Boogie's cater to the small-budget crowds, and bands play outside for tips in a cement square. But soaking up Beale Street's musical doppler effect is more entertaining than any of the individual blues acts. It's like any other big musical strip in the country -- 5th Street in Austin, Texas, comes to mind -- in that kids hawk roses for $3 each, drunks stumble in and out of clubs, and doormen foist fliers on passers-by.

Only on Beale Street, it's all blues. Electric guitar solos from one fancy club fade into harmonica licks from a street musician, which become boogie-woogie piano pounding from another doorway. In between, you can buy stuff -- mostly Elvis, but scavengers can find nice T-shirts of Sonny Boy Williamson, the great Mississippi harpist whose gravesite lies in northern Mississippi.

Even today, when anybody can buy the same Wendy's hamburger in every state of the union, the road north from Memphis leads to a different world. Five hours away, in St. Louis, the buildings are noticeably taller, and the Gateway Arch is a symbol of Midwestern industrialization and technology. Compared to New Orleans, Clarksdale and Memphis, there's very little blues or rock 'n' roll history in St. Louis.

It is, however, the hometown of rock star Chuck Berry, who sped up blues and added teen lyrics about school, cars and girls. Within one block of his alma mater, Sumner High School, six churches of different denominations hold services on Sunday morning. People spill out of the old buildings just before noon in bright green dresses and impeccable blue and brown suits.Switching from U.S. 61 to Interstate Highway 55, we can almost smell the wind blowing from Chicago. Exhausted after 18 hours of driving in three days, we notice the ghostly feeling of Southern poverty disappear. The small towns and farmland of Downstate Illinois are somehow different from the small towns and farmland of Mississippi. It's like heading to someplace instead of heading away from someplace. By this point, during their real-life pilgrimage more than 40 years ago, Buddy Guy (from Lettsworth, La.), Muddy Waters (from Rolling Fork, Miss.) and the other Southern transplants were undoubtedly staring at these farms and imagining the real promised land just ahead.

Everybody who follows blues knows about Buddy Guy. He arrived in Chicago a few years after Waters, Willie Dixon and the others had stocked the blues with electric guitars, standup basses and the chance to make real money with real records. Since then, Guy has become a successful musician and entrepreneur, running several clubs and making his South Loop club, Buddy Guy's Legends, a major stop on the international blues circuit. Guy, who learned from Waters and teaches younger stars like Jonny Lang, continues to carry the blues suitcase like passing a torch.

On a Sunday evening, before the night's show with Carl Weathersby, Legends is almost empty. Bears fans have cleared out, although some pool players linger. On the stage are three bluesmen, including Dave Myers, a well-known bassist who once played in a band with the late Junior Wells, and a Chicago journeyman named Harmonica Hinds. A manager explains they're playing for tips and exposure -- without electricity or a salary from the club.On guitar, Myers seems nervous about the acoustic, shout-to-be- heard situation. Between songs his eyes roam quickly around the audience. The few groups dining at the main tables clap vigorously and shout encouragement. Then he relaxes, closes his eyes and plays. He doesn't even need the devil to do it.



The blues followed many different paths, whether it was Buddy Guy traveling from Lettsworth, La., to Chicago, or B.B. King staying closer to home, from Indianola, Miss., to Memphis. The Delta Blues Map Kit (available through Stackhouse/Rooster Records, 816-931-0383) lists many of the historical sites, from Sonny Boy Williamson's grave to the plantation where Muddy Waters grew up. Few monuments are marked, and it takes longer to cruise around Mississippi than most tourists would think, so plan carefully in advance. Francis Davis' excellent 1995 critical book, "The History of the Blues" (Hyperion, $16.95), serves as a travelogue of blues history; less literary, but still practical, is A.M. Nolan's 1992 "Rock 'n' Roll Road Trip" (Pharos, $14.95), which has a chapter on the South to complement the Madonna, Beatles and Elvis Presley landmarks.


Some top stops for Robert Johnson fanatics, from New Orleans to Chicago, by way of Mississippi:

About a 10-minute drive from the French Quarter in New Orleans, Vaughan's (800 Lesseps St.; 504-947-5562) hops the highest on Thursday nights, when the house band Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers jams until 2 a.m., and red beans and rice flow for college students, locals and jazz buffs alike.

The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum (724 Rue Dumaine; 504-523- 7685), which opened in 1972, has lots of pictures of Marie Laveau, the "Popess of Voodoo," and various lucky and unlucky charms. Blues fans will recognize gris-gris, mojos and black cat bones from familiar lyrics. Admission is $6.30.

Memphis' Sun Studios (706 Union Ave.; 800-441-6249) is where Elvis Presley first began blending blues (from Mississippi, just to the south) and country (from Kentucky, to the north) into rock 'n' roll. Presley is the most famous figure to come out of Sun -- which offers tours of the lovingly preserved and still functioning studio -- but others include Junior Parker, Rufus Thomas, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. Hourly tours run every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; $7.85 per adult.

The Delta Blues Museum (601-627-6820), in downtown Clarksdale, Miss., isn't nearly as flashy as a House of Blues, but its exhibits on the Mississippi Delta and natives Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson are thorough and fascinating. Located in the Clarksdale Public Library, the room contains one of B.B. King's famous "Lucille" guitars, plus comprehensive racks of blues books and CDs. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; admission is free.

Buddy Guy's Legends (754 S. Wabash Ave.; 312-427-0333), the popular South Loop nightclub owned by the man from Louisiana, is a key stop on the national blues concert circuit. Mostly it's loud, electric, Chicago-style blues, but Sunday nights are low-key -- dinner is affordable (try the gumbo).


The Coahoma County Tourism Commission, located in Clarksdale, Miss., emphasizes the area's rich blues history -- along with the Tennessee Williams Festival every October. Call 800-626-3764.