MORGAN CITY, Miss. Legendary bluesman Robert Johnson's death has been linked to a jealous husband, the supernatural and pneumonia. So it's unsurprising that there are three separate graves bearing his name in the rural Mississippi Delta. I'm looking for one of those graves now during a drive through towns like Greenwood and Itta Benna.
I eventually find the monument at the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church on a desolate stretch of road. The text on one side of the grave, taken from a famous Johnson blues number, reads: "You may bury my body by the highway side." A photo of Johnson one of two known to exist shows the guitarist with pensive face cradling a guitar.
The attention would probably astound Johnson, a traveling musician who only recorded twice and didn't live to see his 30th birthday. Johnson's graves were among numerous sites I visited on a road trip through rural Mississippi to visit the birthplace of the blues.
I arrive in Clarksdale after a daylong drive through Oklahoma and Arkansas, passing the famed "Crossroads" of blues legend as I enter town. The Crossroads have a special place in blues mythology as the location where aspiring musicians sold their soul to the Devil in exchange for musical prowess. A bluesman could wait at a crossroads at dark for the Devil, who would take the musician's guitar, tune it, and hand it back. The musicians could then play any song they wanted.
When blues artists referred to the crossroads, they were likely talking about any number of backroads intersections, but the story has stuck to the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale.
The story is usually associated with Robert Johnson, who hints at the diabolical on songs like "Hellhound on My Trail." But the myth of a Crossroads deal would be better attached to guitarist Tommy Johnson, who boasted about a backroads pact with a shadowy apparition. The Crossroads don't seem as menacing now with a kitschy sign of interlocking guitars marking the spot. But they are a sign that what matters here is the music and your ability to play it well.
After a quick stop at my hotel, I drive to Hicks' Variety Foods, a famed Delta eatery where the clientele has included presidents and foreign leaders. Hicks serves scrumptious ribs and fried catfish but is perhaps best known for tamales. I order a half-dozen tamales and sides of baked beans and coleslaw.
I then head to Ground Zero, a blues club owned by actor Morgan Freeman and his business partners. The club, with beat-up sofas on the front porch and graffiti and old blues posters adorning the walls inside, is named "Ground Zero" because Clarksdale is "ground for the birthplace of blues music." It aims to re-create the feeling of an authentic juke joint, although it is probably a bit more upscale than traditional jukes. On this Saturday night, Little Howlin' Wolf belts blues classics like "Spoonful" and "Bright Lights Big City" in a gravely voice, backed by an ace harmonica player and band.
My room for the night is a renovated sharecropper's cabin at the Shack-Up Inn at the old Hopson Plantation. The inside of the "Cadillac Shack" is covered with old blues posters and memorabilia.
Sunday starts with an early lunch at Abe's Barbeque at the Crossroads, where I eat a pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw. Over lunch, I locate all three of Robert Johnson's graves with the help of "Blues Traveling," an excellent guidebook to blues sites by Steve Cheseborough. My stops include a memorial at the Little Zion church outside of Greenwood, which most experts now consider Johnson's most likely burial site.
In Tutwiler, a once-thriving town with numerous abandoned storefronts, I find a large mural near the old train depot that points visitors to the gravesite of Aleck "Sonny Boy" Williamson, one of the most influential harmonica players of all time. The site where composer W.C. Handy heard a musician playing "Goin' Where the Southern Crosses the Dog" a moment that inspired him to record the blues is also located in Tutwiler. Sonny Boy's grave is tucked back among miles of fields and in a burial site crammed with handmade grave markers. Two harmonicas and a half-bottle of gin sit on the gravestone a fitting tribute to the musician who recorded "Fattening Frogs for Snakes" and "Your Funeral My Trial."
I start off Monday at the Delta Blues museum in downtown Clarksdale. The collection includes one of B.B. King's "Lucille" guitars, a harmonica played by Charlie Musselwhite and Mississippi Fred McDowell's gravestone.
I then drive to Dockery Farms, outside of Cleveland, which once employed Charley Patton. Patton was a sharecropper, now known as "King of the Delta Blues singers," who influenced virtually every Mississippi bluesman after him and recorded standards like "High Water Everywhere." Legend has it that you can hear ghostly voices and guitars if strum your guitar near the Dockery site at night.
My final day in the Delta, I take another drive to Indianola, best known as B.B. King's birthplace, and then visit the Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland, crammed with blues artifacts like a pair of rare Charley Patton 78s in a glass display case. To close the day, I visit Patton's grave in nearby Holly Ridge.
I spend my final evening in Mississippi on the porch of my cabin, listening to a Son House CD and wondering what it was like here not even a century ago.