Little Zion M.B. Church
5 mi. north of Greenville, MS
There is arguably no better known legend in rock history than the tale the Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil so he could play the blues. It’s marketing gold! What better backstory could be invented for a bluesman? To top it all off he is the first member of the famous 27 club, musicians who died tragically and mysteriously at 27. When he died he had only recorded 29 songs, but those song would go on to be known as some of the “greatest,” “best,” “most influential,” and most covered songs in pop music history. Name dropping Johnson has become shorthand to paint a certain picture of the type of music fan that you are. Serious. A scholar.
In spite of knowing enough to be profoundly cynical of the whole thing, including his importance to rock history, I can get profoundly romantic and precious about art and music and influence, and I’ll stop before I go on a tangent.
The Robert Johnson legend is one that I’ve known for so long that I honestly don’t remember the first time that I heard it. It was always one of those things that I knew. I’ve read stacks of book on music history since middle school and this story came up frequently. In college we even studied it further in college.
Over time this has all swirled into quite the romantic idea of running away on a road trip to find the crossroads and Johnson’s grave. It would be the ultimate in music geek merit badges to really and truly prove my nerdom. Of course, this was all just an idea. I didn’t really even research it for a long time. It was a “one day I’m going to do this” idea.
A couple years ago I picked up the habit of sitting in my favorite coffee shop (where I’m writing this now) researching rock and roll landmarks and planning imaginary road trips all over the country. This is when I discovered that there are three disputed locations of his grave, due in part to the suspicious circumstances of his death. The most credible of the three, which was believable enough for a record label to add a marker, is in Greenwood, Mississippi. This happens to only be about 6 hours away from Atlanta.
I decided it was time to plan a real trip.
Johnson’s grave was the first stop of the trip, well after stopping off at the visitors center since the GPS was having a hard time finding the cemetery. The woman working in the visitors center were amazingly helpful and gave us loads of brochures and pamphlets. The best advice gave us was definitely to listen to AM 690, the local blues station that we would pass on our drive out Money Road. This station would become the soundtrack for our entire stay in the delta. Apparently Poe, who runs the station welcomes visitors, tells stories, and even puts them on the air if you drop by when he’s there. He wasn’t there when we drove by.
I drove out Money Road, a windy and worn two lane road between fields of row crop, to the Little Zion Baptist Church listening to blues on that staticy AM station and seeing for what felt like miles in either direction. It was the picture perfect fairy tale of what I wanted from this trip. I felt accomplished and I wasn’t even to my first stop yet. When we arrived at the church, it had been raining and was muddy. To be honest, I think that having to pull on boots to tromp through the muddy grave yard added to the experience.
Johnson’s grave sits towards the back of the cemetery, where you can hear the Little Tallahatchee River (Bobbie Gentry’s “Tallahatchee Bridge is nearby). Fans leave nicknacks, offerings and offerings at the grave, like cigarettes, guitar picks, music, and whiskey (Johnson supposedly died from poisoned whiskey after an affair with a married woman).
I’ve never really thought about having a “bucket list,” but driving down that road, with BB King on the radio to see the final resting place of one of the (arguable) god fathers of American popular music felt like I’d accomplished a bucket list item.
Anyone who wants to hear more about the Robert Johnson legend, I emphatically recommend the podcast Radio Lab did a few years back on the subject. The first time I heard it I was so excited by it that I listened to it three days in a row. They covered details that despite the legend’s ubiquitous status in my life, I had never heard, such as the possible source of the story and the suggestion that Johnson’s legend status might all have been invented by the legendary John Hammond.