Mississippi Delta by Midnight

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.


  1. Eddy - March 5, 2020 7:32 am

    My sister Lori and I are so glad we got to meet Y’all on your book tour stop in Greenwood. We thoroughly enjoyed the music, stories, and hugs! God Bless and safe travels to you and Jamie!

  2. Lita - March 5, 2020 9:55 am

    Your sweet wife managed to freak me out here, 800 bazillion miles away from where the three of you were lurking around that gravesite. She also made me laugh, on this miserable wet day. Thank you, Sean and Jamie 🙂 safe journey to your next destination.

  3. Cathi Russell - March 5, 2020 11:38 am

    Sean, thanks for the laughs! During these days of relentless rain, I’ve been shut up with a Basset Hound & his sister. I’m on my last nerve & they’re trying to shred it. That belly laugh truly saved two canine lives & my sanity!

  4. Lisa Martin - March 5, 2020 12:18 pm

    You should really explore the Delta someday. There is no where else like it. Not only is it where Robert Johnson sold his soul at the Crossroads to master the Blues, it’s also where Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge! See you tonight in Oxford. You will love it here!

  5. Connie Havard Ryland - March 5, 2020 2:00 pm

    And there’s another reason I love your wife. I needed that laugh this morning. It’s been a long hard week. To top it off, I just realized you are going to be within 45 minutes of me tomorrow and I broke my foot so I’m not able to come. I’m so disappointed.

  6. Jayne Ellison Harbour - March 5, 2020 2:29 pm

    He was featured on an NBC show about 2 years ago called Timeless. It was a time travel show where the actors landed in different places each week. Check it out, but not with your wife, she’ll scare you when it gets spooky!

  7. Becca from Columbians - March 5, 2020 2:57 pm

    I have laughed so hard….you have the writer’s gift for storytelling….and if stories about your wife’s sense of humor is true then you have a perfect marriage! Laughter has saved lots of marriages when you learn to look and laugh with and at yourself! God bless!

  8. Shelton A. - March 5, 2020 3:14 pm

    Your wife loves you, even when she’s scaring your pants off ( pun intended). I am a huge blues fan and I have Johnson’s recordings. No one quite like him and none his equal.

  9. Charles Mathers - March 5, 2020 3:32 pm

    I think Robert Johnson would have hit on your wife! 😊

  10. that is jack - March 5, 2020 4:22 pm

    Not sure If I heard of Johnson, but I did like Mississippi. With this story I a glad I didn’t learn to pick. LOL Good read, thanks.
    From North Carolina
    Sherry & jack

  11. Linda Moon - March 5, 2020 5:34 pm

    Too bad the Mississippi Delta wasn’t shining like a National Guitar when you and Jamie were driving across it. It wouldn’t have been creepy. I’ll be looking for Robert Johnson’s musical vocabulary today. I LOVE music and words. Thanks for sharing these today…..with the Baptist joke squeezed in!

  12. Phil S. - March 5, 2020 5:38 pm

    Kudos to Jamie. You deserved every one of those pranks. You are so right about the Delta. It is vast and flat. I traveled it on business one year. On one trip that spring I could see no less than five crop duster planes in the air at one time. I’m sure you passed trough Indianola between Greenwood and Greenville. Its claim to fame is being the home of B. B. King, another musical great. Looking forward to seeing y’all in Montgomery on March 15.

  13. John Robinette - March 5, 2020 6:26 pm

    A friend who lives in Grayton Beach sent me this
    because it reminded her of my paintings and I can see why . I can relate to everything you are saying
    and if you get chance to look at my work you will see why . Check it out if you get a chance ! Great
    article !
    johnrobinette88 on Instagram

  14. Martha Black - March 5, 2020 6:28 pm

    Well so much for your fancy new undies you referenced a few days ago!

    It’s true about trying to learn how to play the blues.

    There are a lot of things like that. I believe music in general is one of them. I’ve loved music all my life and had a good voice. I could sing just about anything, pitched in the right key. I could memorize lyrics and even compose my own arrangement but it was always in my heart & head & mouth but I could never get my hands to make music in any manner except to clap along or applaud. My sense of timing & rhythm is great, but what my hands do with strings or piano keys is awful. My family credentials are impeccable. My daddy and mammal were excellent guitar players & my great grandfather was a state fiddler’s champion. They had the music in them & it came out of every pore & crevice. Oh i wish my hands had been blessed. Well I CAN dance. That’s a great consolation.

    And one last thing……. A lover of words, a wordsmith, a writer, an author, a tale teller, knows how to weave them together, in such a way, that makes us all feel the measured meter, rhythm & rhymn they cause our hearts to embrace; and you my friend, have it in you, it fairly flows out to us. We are glad you let it.

  15. Mike Bone - March 5, 2020 8:08 pm

    IF you are ever in LA on a Sunday night, you should come on my radio show….The Wildwood Flower Radio Hour Sunday nights 10PM – 12 midnight on KXLU 88.9 and KXLU.com Two hours of country comfort, bluegrass, Delta blues and Appalachia based music and story telling. Come to see us!
    Uncle Mike Bone

  16. Berryman Mary M - March 5, 2020 8:13 pm

    Safe travel Sean and Jamie. I’ve visited the Delta twice and enjoyed it immensely both time.

  17. H J Patterson - March 5, 2020 9:06 pm

    Robert Johnson did sell his soul to the devil, then headed down to Tishomingo where he heard that a man pays people money if they sing into a can.

  18. H J Patterson - March 5, 2020 9:12 pm

    Robert Johnson did sell his soul to the devil, then he headed down to Tishomingo because he heard that man pays people money if they sing into a can.

  19. Rebecca Souders - March 5, 2020 9:13 pm

    Sean Dietrich, I love your wife. You take good care of her, hear?!

  20. Nancy M - March 6, 2020 12:13 am

    I wait til evening to read your column so I can read more of the comments from other readers. I’m so glad I saw John Robinette’s website with his painting gallery, and I’ll look up Mike Nine’s radio station!

  21. Nancy M - March 6, 2020 12:14 am

    Mike Bone’s radio station

  22. Allyson - March 6, 2020 12:24 am

    Your wife is hilarious!

  23. Melanie - March 6, 2020 1:47 am

    Robert Johnson inspired so many. Good stuff.

  24. Mary Barnhill - March 7, 2020 3:14 am

    Enjoyed meeting you tonight. I loved listening to you talk and sing. We all enjoyed the sing along.
    FYI – I’m a Methodist.

  25. Beth Callahan - March 7, 2020 6:03 pm

    Ah, dear friend, there is NO PLACE on earth as special as the MS Delta. We Delta people KNOW it’s specialness. We know that when God was forming the Earth out of dirt and such, He pushed his thumb down just a little harder in one area and made the MS DELTA. He knew it would be filled the most creative people He ever made. We are some kind of wonderful. So glad you got to visit God’s little secret place and enjoy the hospitality. Come back anytime and be sure to visit the Crossroads…you never know when Robert Johnson might be walking that road again.

  26. Robert Chiles - March 10, 2020 1:43 pm

    It’s all in picking the right one.


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