Chasing the Tortured Soul of Mississippi Blues in America's Sports Car

Ramblin' along in search of the Devil. And Robert Johnson.

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ANDREW TRAHAN

IT’S CLOSE TO MIDNIGHT in the Mississippi Delta, and I’m barrel-housing down an abandoned two-lane in a demon-scarlet Corvette Stingray convertible. My destination: the crossroads of Highway 8 and Highway 1, just south of Rosedale. I’m looking for the devil.

Legend holds that Robert Johnson, “King of the Delta Blues,” met Lucifer at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, about a half hour north, and sold his soul in exchange for the ability to play guitar like no man ever had. Except I was just there, a brand-new Taylor six-string in hand, and the devil didn’t show.

I wasn’t surprised. That crossroads is now a downtown intersection between a fried-chicken place and a furniture store. You might get the blues looking at it, but you won’t learn the blues. So I’m heading down to Rosedale, where some folks say Johnson’s meeting really took place. The man—whose recordings would inspire Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page to create a new kind of rock and roll— rose to brief and brilliant fame in the Thirties, before he was poisoned by a lover’s jealous husband and buried in an unmarked grave before his 28th birthday.

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Mind you, I’m not trying to sell my soul. My goal is to take the pulse of two great American institutions: the Delta blues, now entering its second century, and the Chevrolet Corvette, which has been around since 1953. I don’t really think the devil will be waiting at the crossroads. I’m a modern and sophisticated fellow.

So sophisticated, in fact, that I have blind faith in my phone, which tells me that I’m about a half mile from my next turn. When that sharp bend appears well ahead of schedule in the Corvette’s commendably bright headlights, it takes me a long moment to believe my eyes instead of the screen. Eighty years ago, I’d have sailed off into a cornfield—but the Stingray swallows the turn whole and spits it out through four burnished-megaphone tailpipes. And that’s right about where the asphalt ends.

What follows is a combination of nightmare dustup and car-control exercise, assisted considerably by the Corvette’s stability control. Call it a minor miracle: I can hit an unimproved and unlit road at freeway speed and find myself at a dead and dirty halt just a few seconds later. Alive, uninjured, and nervously laughing. The problem with looking for the devil is you never know when he might show up.

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ANDREW TRAHAN

Did Robert Johnson really strike that bargain? Was it just another superstitious story? This much we know for sure: In his teens, Johnson had a burning desire to master the blues, which led him to travel with Son House and Willie Brown, two seasoned performers who played the one-room “juke joints” around Robinsonville, Mississippi. A competent harmonica player, Johnson couldn’t play guitar to save his life. “So . . . he run away,” House told interviewers years later. “Went somewhere over in Arkansas somewhere.” When Johnson returned six months later, he had become a virtuoso with a distinctive style. He could play both the low and high parts of a song at the same time, using a thumb pick on the bass strings and his bare fingers or a finger pick on the treble. His newfound technique, and the speed with which he’d acquired it, raised eyebrows. It wasn’t uncommon for people to mention the devil in situations like that, particularly since the blues was already considered the devil’s music.

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ANDREW TRAHAN

Truth is, Johnson had spent the time “woodshedding” with fellow guitar player Ike Zimmerman, learning to copy the styles of various barrelhouse pianists in Arkansas. The hard work paid off; Johnson soon found minor fame and steady work at the Missouri jukes. In 1936 and 1937, he made trips to Texas and cut a few dozen tracks for the American Record Company label. Delta blues was already perceived as old-time music by most city folks, so although his “sides” sold well, Johnson did not return to the studio before his death.

When postwar hipsters in search of musical novelties started taking an interest in that old-time stuff, Columbia reissued the ARC tunes as the 1961 album Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers. Those tracks were then discovered and covered by the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, and others, leading a new generation of mostly white listeners to fall in love with the blues and support revival efforts from Chicago to Memphis.

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ANDREW TRAHAN

Johnson is more famous now than he was in life. However, judging solely by the music pumping out of cars at Mississippi intersections, the great-grandchildren of the Delta-blues scene are more interested in rap-heavy R&B. They’re willing to play the blues if the money is right, but the result is something between a renaissance fair and the Epcot World Showcase.

The Corvette, too, has a bit of a conflict between its authentic mission and what the people really want. Track rats, internet tastemakers, and magazine writers praise the Grand Sport, drool over the ZR1, and nod approvingly at Chevrolet’s commitment to the manual transmission. Then they buy a used Miata. The real customers, on the other hand, want automatic-transmission convertibles for cruise-ins and stoplight drag racing. The challenge facing GM is to develop a platform that can do both, the same way that modern blues rocker Gary Clark Jr. can cover both Robert Johnson and the Beatles in his shows.

On that basis, the automatic-transmission, plain-decklid, 300-treadwear Stingray drop-top I’m driving is almost beyond criticism. You can operate the folding top from the remote, and once it’s been dropped, two people can hold a conversation in the cabin, even at high speed. The A/C raises goosebumps on a hundred-degree Mississippi day, and the stereo competes with the boomin’ systems circling the Clarksdale crossroads. It’s Cadillac quiet, until you twist the mode knob on the console, after which you’re presented with a C7.R’s worth of snap-crackle-pop from the exhaust.

When I allow myself to throw the red Vette into a curve at irresponsible speed, the experience is Grand Sport–lite: the same benign, throttle-steerable behavior, at about 15 percent less velocity and with 20 percent more body roll. Good stuff. And the fact that this “AARP special” cruiser will offhandedly smoke most of the supercars ever made, down a drag strip or around a road course? That’s just a little extra sugar in the bowl.

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ANDREW TRAHAN

Yet my joy in driving the Corvette is more than slightly reduced by the sorry state of Clarksdale’s boarded-up main street. Children wave and point at the car as if it were a Lamborghini; adults offer a sad smile or the flat expression given to celebrities on Sunset Boulevard. Red Paden, operator of Red’s lounge in Clarksdale, starts with the latter before transitioning to the former.

“I’m the last place teaching the blues to these youngsters,” he tells me. “Then they go across the street to Ground Zero. Then we lose ’em to Los Angeles. Or Memphis. And you know there ain’t no real blues in Memphis.”

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ANDREW TRAHAN

Ground Zero, the flashy club owned in part by Morgan Freeman and which opened to national publicity 17 years ago, has neon signs, where Red’s just has black mold and plywood in the windows. After three minutes looking through Ground Zero’s lists of merchandise for sale and handcrafted cocktails, I hit the road. Robert Johnson is purported to be buried in one of three graves, but he’s definitely not here.

Come Sunday morning, I’m up and on the road to visit those tombstones. Although the details of Johnson’s death are well-known, nobody truly knows where he’s buried. There’s a death certificate, the authenticity of which is not universally acknowledged, and which could refer to either of two “Zion M.B.” (Missionary Baptist) churches. The Payne Chapel in Quito, Mississippi, also features a marker where one of Johnson’s ex-girlfriends is said to have pointed out his grave.

All three sites are small-scale, white-boarded affairs, set back on gravel paths and bordered by cornfields or wild growth. At the Mount Zion church, off County Road 511, a one-ton obelisk placed by Columbia Records sits between the front door and the road. There is a single red rose at its base, but just like at Ground Zero, the feeling is more like Disney than the grave of a man who died chasing married women from Vicksburg to Tennessee.

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Andrew Trahan

Payne Chapel is ending its Sunday service when I arrive, dispatching a group of dignified men and women in formal clothing into a succession of old Lincolns and Chryslers. Afterward, I find the grave marker between two broken tombstones, again with a single red rose laid on the words. It is remarkable only for being completely ordinary.

When I reach the Little Zion M.B. church, however, I have a strong sense that I’ve come to the right place. This is the most sprawling and ragged of the three buildings, tucked under the shade of ancient trees and in desperate need of repair; it’s the kind of place you would find a fellow who was disreputable in both life and death. The elaborate tombstone sits where the wife of Little Zion’s longtime grave digger claims her husband buried Johnson before he, in turn, died and was interred close by. It is littered with the deliberate detritus of Delta poverty: stubbed-out cigatettes, dime-store jewelry, curved flask bottles emptied of their rotgut off-brand liquor. The elders of Little Zion have seen fit to leave it all in peace.

Finally, something that feels real. Even if it’s just the marble embodiment of someone’s story.

Here’s the thing about the blues, though: There’s the story, and there’s what’s real, and it’s impossible to know where one ends and the other begins. Did Johnson make a deal with the devil, or did he just practice longer and harder than everyone else? Did he really feel that there was a “hellhound on his trail,” as he sang to that microphone in Texas, or was it just a metaphor for his own desire to escape the juke joints of the Delta and find fame under the bright lights of Chicago or New York? Is the blues an embalmed corpse picked over every weekend by doddering tourists at Ground Zero in Clarksdale and on Beale Street in Memphis? Will it come alive again someday in the voice and hands of some young head-cutter playing Red’s on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday night?

And where is Johnson really buried, anyway?

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ANDREW TRAHAN

I’m not sure. This is what I know: After skipping that appointment with the devil in Rosedale, I pointed the nose of that bright-red Corvette north toward Memphis, Nashville, and home. I put the old Johnson album on repeat. And I listened to the music. In the lyrics of “Terraplane Blues,” I can feel the kindred spirit of a restless, rambling man. One who was never satisfied unless he was pointed at the next destination.

I know the feeling. You might know it, too. “Mr. Highway Man,” Johnson wails as the V-8 roars and the transmission thunders into fifth, “please don’t block the road. . . . I’m booked, and I got to go.”

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