The Delta: They call it birthplace of the blues Homage: In the towns and farms along the Mississippi, echoes remain of musicians whose work became the stuff of legends; Destination: Mississippi

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a big, plain, hand-painted sign on the side of an old barn. The words on the ramshackle building, on a country road a few miles east of U.S. Highway 61 outside Cleveland, Miss., say "DOCKERY FARMS, EST. 1895."

This was the source, the cotton plantation where, in the early part of the 20th century, Charlie Patton, the first great Delta bluesman, worked and lived -- and influenced generations of blues musicians. Robert Johnson, a key figure in early Delta blues, learned from him. His music also inspired Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and others who moved to Chicago in the 1940s, where their music became the "electric urban blues" that were the headwaters of rock and roll. Without them, Elvis would never have become the King, and Mick and Keith wouldn't be counting their money in villas on Mallorca today.

A gravel road not far from the Dockery barn cuts straight across empty fields for nearly a mile before ending at a tree line. The dark ground was newly plowed in the spring. Until the machinery that displaced them started coming along after World War II, this road had been lined with the wooden shacks of more than 2,500 black farm laborers and their families. Ghosts now. They lived here, working some of the richest earth on Earth left by eons of Aprils when the Mississippi River overflowed its banks, and its water spread for miles, leaving behind more topsoil each time it withdrew.

That's what the Mississippi Delta is. Not the fan of land that accumulates at the mouth of the river when it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. Rather, it is the vast flood plain that stretches nearly 200 miles from Memphis to Vicksburg and extends as much as 30 miles on each side of the river's course. Until the Civil War, it had been soggy ground covered with hardwoods. But in the years that followed, the trees were nearly all cut and levees built to control the river.

Driving toward ground zero

By the time Charlie Patton came to work at Dockery, the Delta was becoming as it is now, farmland as far as the eye can see. There is a stark beauty to the unrelentingly flat landscape, which has nurtured the blues as lovingly as it has cotton and other crops.

I began this road-trip pilgrimage in Memphis, Tenn. Soon I was out in the country, beginning the stretch of Highway 61 known as Blues Alley. Many of the fields were bright yellow seas of wildflowers. The utility poles were the skinny, slightly crooked, old-fashioned kind, the power lines drooping and drooping to the horizon. Everywhere were freshly plowed fields, furrows flooded with spring rain.

Probably the single thing I enjoyed most about the whole trip was taking these semi-lost excursions off Highway 61 into the countryside. On back roads so back some have no number, the nostalgic faded signs, abandoned farmhouses, outbuildings overgrown with kudzu vines, and the fresh clean air are peaceful and redolent of more tranquil times in ways that are incredibly soothing.

The next morning I explored Clarksdale, 40 miles south on U.S. 61. With 15,000 people, Clarksdale is one of the bigger cities in the Delta. And it's ground zero when it comes to Delta blues. Even former Led Zep rockers Jimmy Page and Robert Plant know it -- their most recent semi-reunion album is titled "Walkin' to Clarksdale." The roster of important blues artists that came from around here includes Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner and many others.

The sharecropper's cabin on the outskirts of town where Muddy spent his childhood is, after a fashion, still standing -- usually, that is. While I was there last spring, it was on tour, being taken around to various House of Blues clubs for display, though it's back home now.

She wasn't from Clarksdale, but Bessie Smith, one of the first ladies of the blues, died at the now-decrepit Riverside Hotel on Sunflower Street after a car accident on Route 61. Countless classic blues performers stayed here while playing local juke joints, a few of which, such as Smitty's Red Top and Sarah's Kitchen, are still in business.

A deal with the devil

The most notorious spot is the intersection of highways 61 and 49. Other places in the Delta make the claim, but this is generally accepted as the crossroads where Robert Johnson is said to have made his unholy deal with the devil. One dark midnight, the legend goes, he sold his soul here in exchange for playing guitar and singing the blues like a tormented angel. It's the one in his "Crossroads" that may well be the quintessential Delta blues of the '30s, updated with a vengeance by Cream into one of the most powerful rock songs of all time.

At the intersection

Today the intersection, for a nonfan of the blues, is unremarkable or worse. It's not a spooky rural meeting place of gravel tracks, but rather a face-off of a Fuel Mart, a Church's Chicken, the Delta Donut Shop and Abe's Barbecue. Still, for me at least, seeing it was kind of a thrill, after all these years of listening to the song.

So was the green, rusty, metal THREE FORKS STORE sign hanging on a wall of the Delta Blues Museum, housed in part of the Carnegie Public Library downtown. This is the actual sign from the juke joint where Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 27. He was poisoned -- according to most accounts -- by drinking from a bottle of whiskey laced with strychnine, generously offered him by the owner for flagrantly fooling around with his woman, the final payoff of Johnson's deal with the devil.

Even though it involved a small detour, I decided I couldn't miss Helena, Ark., about 25 miles northwest, just across the Mississippi River. The trip seemed worthwhile because Helena is a charming old river town that was known as "Little Chicago" during its pre-railroad heyday. Helena's connection to Delta blues is strong. It was here that the "King Biscuit Flour Hour" radio show began in 1941, broadcasting the blues to a large rural black audience. And the show's still on the air, as is "Sunshine" Sonny Payne, the disc jockey who started it.

Today he's a gnome-like senior citizen, his love of the music undiminished. Two years ago he won a Peabody Award. He does his show from the Delta Cultural Center, a former rail depot right by the levee, which has a striking, long mural of local music greats painted on it, starting with Payne himself, tipping a bowler hat. And the big field in front of the center is home every September to the King Biscuit Blues Festival, one of the best.

From Helena I headed back to Route 61, and south to Cleveland, 50 miles down the road.

Concert at the Grocery

The next day was Saturday, and it rained pitchforks the whole time. But I didn't mind because I'd lucked out. There was an all-day, into-the-night indoor blues festival going on at the Airport Grocery, out on the road toward Rosedale. The former grocery store near the airport is now a funky bar/restaurant with a stage at one end. The decor suggests a museum, with old metal Texaco Skychief, Drink Barque's and Dr Pepper signs on the walls, dangling lights with rusty, gray, tin buckets as shades, tables covered with green oilcloth.

I spent most of the day there. The Grocery has a good-time family atmosphere, and the food is as authentic as the music. A heaping platter of boiled crawfish (known as mudbugs in these parts) and an oyster po' boy was my choice for lunch. When I wasn't eating or just sitting back and soaking up the music, I struck up easy conversations with other blues fans and performers too.

The next morning -- bright and sunny, with soft, poofy clouds and a mild, gentle breeze -- I went in search of Johnson's grave in Morgan City, about 30 miles southeast of Cleveland.

Morgan City must have been named in a fit of optimism. It's just a blip on a blue highway, little more than a cotton gin, a grocery store and a small clump of houses. I had to ask directions at the grocery for the Mount Zion churchyard.

On a side lane a mile past town, it seemed nearly forgotten. The little white church, hardly bigger than a double garage, was closed tight on this Sunday morning, nothing but farm fields in every direction. But I found the gray, granite grave marker and stood looking at it for a while, the quote on it from one of his songs come true: "You may bury my body down by the highway side, so my evil old spirit can get a Greyhound bus and ride."

It seemed fitting that Johnson, so mysterious and elusive during his short life, had come to rest in this out-of-the-way place.

David Standish is the author of "Playboy's Illustrated History of Jazz & Rock."

BEFORE YOU GO

For information on travel in Mississippi, contact the Division of Tourism Development, P.O. Box 1705, Ocean Springs, Miss. 39566; 800-927-6378.

Pub Date: 7/05/98

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