GREENWOOD—It’s late. There is no moon out tonight. We are driving across the barren Mississippi Delta. And it’s creepy.
We are on the sixth day of the book tour. So far we have covered—this is only a rough estimate—800 bazillion miles. My wife is road weary, maybe even a little delirious. To entertain herself she has taken to teasing me. For instance, when I fell asleep in the passenger seat she shouted, “FLAT TIRE! HELP! A FLAT TIRE!”
I woke up screaming. She laughed until she almost wrecked the vehicle. Medical professionals had to restart my heart with a defibrillator.
The Delta can be lonesome and scary at night. Our vehicle shoots across four million acres of empty, flat, loose dirt and floodplain, and it feels like being on the moon. There are no lights around. No stars. No trees. Only dark Delta.
We see a shape on the horizon. Maybe it’s a tree. Please God let it be a tree. Nope. False alarm. It’s only a tractor. Or it could be Satan.
Earlier this evening I did a book signing in the charming town of Greenwood. I played a few songs on my guitar, signed some books, hugged necks. Then we rushed out the door to the next town.
But before we left, I met Mary Carol, who is a mainstay in Greenwood. She’s a slight woman with a friendly smile and a gracious accent that reminds you of Greek Revival mansions. She offered to take me to visit Robert Johnson’s grave.
I got very excited. “THEE Robert Johnson?” I said.
“Who?” my wife asked. “The guy who owns the hotel chain?”
It’s amazing how many people don’t know who Robert Johnson is. But the truth is, everybody knows his music. Sort of. If you’ve ever sat in a beer joint and listened to a bar band play “Brown Sugar” loud enough to loosen your fillings, you’ve heard Robert Johnson. Guitar players steal their licks from him.
He was a juke-joint player in the ‘20s and ‘30s. A drifter who played a fifteen-dollar wooden guitar and claimed he sold his soul to the Devil to learn to play it. In his short life he recorded 29 songs before being killed at age twenty-seven for flirting with another guy’s wife.
In other words, Johnson wasn’t famous, he wasn’t rich, and his funeral was probably unattended. If it hadn’t been for the folk music revival of the 1960s, nobody would even know his name.
But people do know his name. You’ll find Johnson’s musical vocabulary within almost every popular song. Including music by the Stones, Clapton, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Burt Bacharach, and of course, the immortal Engelbert Humperdinck.
So here we are, following Mary Carol’s car on the scary desolate highway because this is history, dang it. It feels like we are supporting actors in a horror movie.
We pull into a parking lot. A church has appeared out of nowhere. This is getting freaky. I can barely see the white clapboard building in the distance. The sign reads: “Little Zion Missionary Baptist.”
“Watch out for demons,” says Mary Carol, flipping on a flashlight. “Remember, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil.” Then she chuckles.
Instantly, I feel cold female fingers crawling up my neck. I jump about ten feet into the air and yelp. My wife strikes again.
She doubles over, grabbing her belly with laughter. She is going to walk home tonight.
It’s ironic that Robert Johnson, who claimed kinship with the Devil, is buried in a Baptist cemetery. There’s a Baptist joke in this somewhere, but I’m too creeped out to tell jokes. Not even the joke about how you have to bury deceased Baptists at least fifteen feet below ground because deep down we’re good people.
“Here he is,” says Mary Carol. “Under this tree.”
There are three suspected Mississippi gravesites for Johnson. This is the only site with an eyewitness. An elderly Greenwood woman claimed her husband dug this grave in 1938. She saw the pinewood box lowered.
Beneath the oak is a simple marker. The memorial is peppered with beer bottles, guitar picks, a few handwritten notes, and unsmoked menthols. We stand in silence.
And I’m thinking about when I was a boy. I tried to teach myself to fingerpick guitar in the style of Robert Johnson. What a dork I was. I practiced hard, but I could never figure out how he did it.
One of my friends, Eddie, grew up along the Tallahatchie River—not far from this gravesite. He was a great guitarist. Eddie had a college band called Greens and Hambones. He once told me, “Man, you can’t LEARN the Delta blues, no more’n you can LEARN how to grow daisies from your [no-no word]. It’s either in you or it ain’t.”
I think Eddie was right because whenever he played, it sounded like the real stuff. Not the phony music played by pop-stars who collect gold guitars. Real historic Delta music sounds like crying.
Mary Carol says, “People come from all over the world to visit this grave. Famous musicians, folks from overseas, everyone.”
The night air swallows us. This is getting spooky, I’m not going to lie. Nobody is talking, we’re just sort of staring at a dark tombstone. Behind the desolate graveyard are miles of dirt. I hear the wind, it sounds like someone exhaling.
Cold female hands wrap around my neck. My wife screams, “THE DEVIL’S GONNA GETCHA!”
And now you know why I had to change my pants.