What would it take for you to sell your soul to the Devil? For musician Robert Johnson,
it was the opportunity to become a blues icon.
“As the story goes, Robert Johnson was an aspiring guitar player — but not a very
good guitar player,” said Delta historian, author and filmmaker Willy Bearden. “The
other guys kind of made fun of him. He went off and no one saw him for weeks. When
he showed back up, he could miraculously play guitar — he had become a spellbinding
performer. Word got around that he had gone to the crossroads and sold his soul to
the Devil to be able to play the guitar.”
Whether the account is truth or legend, Johnson played the blues for tips in smoky
juke joints and on street corners throughout the Mississippi Delta until his death
in 1938 at age 27. His landmark recordings in 1936-37 never became well known until
after a reissue of his work in 1961. Rolling Stone magazine ranks him fifth on its list of “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Eric
Clapton calls the shadowy musician the greatest blues singer ever. The U.S. Post Office
issued a commemorative stamp in his honor in 1994.
Johnson will be one of the focal points of a “magical” tour of the Mississippi Delta
that is being presented in conjunction with the wildly popular “The Delta — Everything
Southern!” conference June 3 in the Rose Theatre on the U of M campus. Bearden, one
of many distinguished presenters at the symposium, will lead the new two-day Delta
tour June 4-5. A “Memphis Music” pre-conference tour is set for June 2. (Details for
both tours are available at www.sweetmagnoliatours.com)
“The Delta holds a lot of fascination,” Bearden said. “It is made up of these two
tectonic plates that are white and black culture that are constantly rubbing against
each other. That kind of action, something dynamic is going to come from that. That
is what you see in the Delta.
“It was the ‘last frontier’ in this part of the world,” Bearden added. “The Delta
wasn’t really settled until the turn of the 20th century. Most other places had been
settled for 50 years — Memphis had been here for 80 years. Until they got a railroad
into the Delta and roads and the levee system to stop the flooding, it was a wilderness.
There were people there, but they were mainly in little outposts on creeks and rivers.”
Blues music such as Johnson’s adds to the mystique of the Delta.
“What gets lost in the whole blues saga is that there was a lot of voodoo or black
magic attached to it,” Bearden said. “Today you don’t hear a whole lot about that,
but back in the ‘30s, that was certainly a part of that. Muddy Waters was singing,
‘I got my mojo working ... I have a charm that is going to help me get you.’ There
was always a lot of talk about spells and potions and mojos and things like that.”
Last year’s conference sold out and is expected to do so again this year, with several
big name speakers including Al Bell, this year’s recipient of the Grammy Trustee Award
for lifetime contributions to the recording industry. Tony Russell, a British music
historian; Ron Nurnberg, director of Teach for America’s Mississippi Delta region;
Minor Buchanan, author of Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt Hunts and the Origin of the Teddy Bear; U of M English professor Reginald Martin; noted food expert/chef Elizabeth Heiskell;
and archaeologist Sam Brookes, who will discuss prehistoric art in Mississippi, are
among other guest speakers. Musical entertainment will be provided by blues and Beale
Street veteran Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms.
Bearden said the conference is looking to draw more Europeans to the event.
The tour is a fund-raiser for Friends of the University Libraries. It will travel
from Memphis through Indianola and Clarksdale to Greenwood, Miss., where Johnson died.
Stops include Johnson’s gravesite, the Hopson Plantation, Mound Bayou and the Dockery
Plantation, considered by many to be the birthplace of the blues.
“A lot of people haven’t gone to those little towns and haven’t felt that little
magic that is there,” Bearden said. “That is why we are offering it. It will give
you a good look at the Delta by people who know the Delta. It is going to be a lot
— by Greg Russell