Ive always heard that in the Delta there is a crossroads where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. (Johnsons songs influenced such musicians as Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton who called Johnson the most important blues musician that ever lived.) I inquire about the legend and ask if we are near. Its just up the road, says Freeland, tongue in cheek. It would have been hard to miss. At the juncture of highways 49 and 61, a wrought iron guitar sculpture prominently advertises this as the site of the devils crossroads despite the fact that these two highways did not intersect here in Johnsons day. Freeland explains that Johnsons crossroads was actually more of a mythical one; to blues singers, every intersection represented a choice between good and evil. One could go straight or sell his soul for fame and fortune. Still, Freeland adds with a grin, if a guitar player were to wait at a crossroads at midnight, Satan may come and tune his guitar for him.
Our final stop is the Delta Blues Museum, housed in Clarksdales old railroad depot. It was here that, in 1943, Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) caught the train to Chicago and changed the face of blues forever. Among his disciples were the Rolling Stones, who took their name from one of his songs. The museum features a Muddy Waters cabin exhibit; the original barber chair used by barbershop bluesman Wade Walton; guitars belonging to Son Thomas and Big Joe Williams; the piano, shoes, and harmonica of Charlie Musselwhite; and the Three Forks sign from a juke joint where Robert Johnson was allegedly poisoned at what would be his final gig.
A popular live exhibit is the Johnny Billington Blues Academy, a rehearsal hall where local teens play the blues during summer vacation or after school. The best of them have joined or formed groups like Super Chikan, the Deep Cuts, and Blues Prodigy. These future R&B artists are serious about music; they make it sound easy but, as we have been learning all day, the road up to this point was anything but.
As our bus crosses Highway 61 and heads east, the spirits of Emmett Till, Fannie Lou Hamer, W.C. Handy, and Robert Johnson are very much with us. We leave the Delta with a newfound appreciation for its tragedies and triumphs, its music and legends. At some point during Tom Freelands blues and civil rights tour, each of us came to a crossroads, and each of us made the personal choice to let the Delta become a part of us. We couldnt leave it behind now if we tried, as the great Fred McDowell knew so well.