Monday, May 02, 2005

Crossroads

You don’t have to be a diehard blues fan to know about the legendary crossroads. For those that don’t the intersection of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi is Robert Johnson, blues legend, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the blues guitar better than anyone else on earth. Whether or not Johnson actually stood at the crossroads at midnight and jammed with a large pitch-black man in a black suit is debatable, but the fact that Johnson became a blues legend is a fact.

Robert Birdsong is a man who has been marinating in Clarksdales’ rich social and cultural history his entire life, and gives customized tours of the town rich on both factual and personal anecdotal evidence. He took us by the actual crossroads in old Clarksdale, pictured below:

crossroads

Here’s an aerial view, courtesy of GoogleMaps:
clarksdalecrossroads

The roads changed sometime in the 50’s—the above picture is the legendary crossroads, although the current junction of 61 and 49 has a great big monument lit up by massive lights. Locals told us that one can occasionally see Japanese and Scandinavian tourists furtively playing their guitars by that brightly lit monument some midnights, hoping for a dance with the devil of blues legend.

Birdsong himself downplays Johnson’s legendary status…he feels that while Johnson is certainly a musician of merit, he happened to be in the right place at the right time, while there were other, much better musicians than he performing in town that didn’t make it onto record. He might be right, he may not—it’s a sort of Delta-blues ko-an: if a bluesman could out-play Robert Johnson but went unrecorded, did he ever really exist?

We learned from Birdsong that whether or not Clarksdale’s crossroads were the home of a nefarious satanic pact, Clarksdale was a metaphorical crossroads in a similar sense to a lot of musicians. Audiences at Clarksdale’s juke joints are said to have been the toughest in America, and if a bluesman could rock a Clarksdale juke joint, he could succeed in Chicago, Saint Louis, and the world at large.

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