I don’t think it really hit any of us until we were about to sit down to a home-cooked meal made by the same woman who had prepared food for the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King when they played in Greenville, Miss. We played guitar outside Hirsberg’s, a neighborhood store where the legendary Robert Johnson played – on the same benches he sat on, no less. We visited various museums, admiring countless pieces of iconic blues history. We reverently laid coins on Charley Patton’s grave. But it became real when we were packed into a small Greenville dining room experiencing the most gracious Southern hospitality you can imagine.
While many students were soaking up the sun and lying on beaches in Acapulco, a group of five students led by Professor Bruce Conforth toured the Mississippi Delta in search of the seemingly forgotten world of early 20th-century blues.
Being in a region purportedly filled with legendary landmarks, you’d think it would be easy to find the town where Robert Johnson lived with his first wife or the family graveyard of famous musician “Mississippi” John Hurt. But, many of these sites aren’t just neglected but downright forgotten, overgrown with years of sprawling ivy or burned to the ground. It begs the question: How did these monumentally important sites, the homes and communities of America’s arguably most famous and original musicians, become so archaic and obscure?
In an attempt to escape the desolation and hopelessness of Southern sharecropping during the first third of the 1900s, artists began to spring up throughout the Mississippi Delta. Musicians like Muddy Waters, Charley Patton and Son House traveled through the area, playing various juke joints and street corners, often scarcely making enough money to live by. Many of them began to gain notoriety while countless others continued to play in relative anonymity. These bluesmen weren’t exactly the MTV crowd of today. There was no mass broadcasting of blues at the time and they weren’t celebrities. When they traveled to a town, there weren’t parades of adoring fans.
Living an unstable life to be sure, most of these musicians were constantly touring, settling down for only short periods of time. Even those who became legends, like Robert Johnson, led nomadic lives and died more or less unknown. This lifestyle is the primary cause of the forgotten world of the Mississippi blues. It’s thought that, after Johnson died in his house (folklore holds that he was poisoned at a bar days before his agonizing death), the few people who knew him took him to the closest church to bury him. Miles outside Greenville, his true grave lies in a small yard among random others, commemorated only by a slightly more impressive headstone than those surrounding it.
The church, Little Zion, isn’t impossible to find, but unquestionably lies off the beaten path. But most surprisingly, there are no markers or signs within the city that tell where one of America’s most legendary musicians is buried. You’d think there would be countless pilgrimages like our own to visit the man’s grave, but aside from a few tokens of gratitude and fandom, his grave is lonesome.
But this is the trend with a number of famous bluesmen, like “Mississippi” John Hurt, who is buried in a forest in Avalon. His family’s gravesite is two miles down a winding, one lane dirt road that takes a guide to find. Driving down one of the many identical highways, you’ll come across a sign that says he grew up in the area. From there, it’s a 15-minute drive through people’s backyards and a weaving forest until you find his headstone. Charley Patton’s grave quietly rests alongside a functioning plantation. Drivers of enormous machinery who used to work the fields pass the site daily, many of them unaware that one of the most important musicians of American music is buried only yards away.
Many residents of the Mississippi Delta echo this sentiment. The current caretaker of Stovall’s Plantation, Norma, where Muddy Waters grew up, offered her explanation: “We live with this everyday,” she said. “I always wonder what people come down here for. I truly question their intelligence. What out there is the blues?”
Maybe these sites have fallen by the wayside because the residents are so accustomed to seeing these graves that they’ve forgotten their importance. When there’s a gaudy Coca Cola-sponsored banner on the property where Robert Johnson lived that reads “The legendary bluesman Robert Johnson played music and died on this corner,” you might try to ignore it. And several of the other historic buildings have actually been converted into people’s homes, their significance most likely secondary to renovations.
Many of the plantations these artists grew up on are still standing. Some are still operational. For instance, Stovall’s Plantation is still working, although 2008 will be the first year it doesn’t harvest cotton. Meanwhile, others have been converted into historic sites or “resorts” – like the Hopson plantation, where we stayed in barely renovated slave shacks. But for the most part, these plantations are similarly forgotten.
And yet strangely, the blues seem relatively alive in Mississippi, and not just because of the countless museums. There’s something about the way people live that invokes the music. Everyone seems to do things on their own agenda, no one getting uppity if something doesn’t happen with urgency. Southern comfort is as strong as ever. Traces of the lives these men led, the way of life that presumably inspired the music, are everywhere from the age-old buildings to the beleaguered rail lines.
But unquestionably the most visible aspect of the early Delta blues is the juke joints. Places named Po’ Monkey and Ground Zero are dingy old buildings out of which the blues scream. Names like Big George Brock and Mr. Tater stand as local favorites, drawing crowds on casual Thursday nights. These jukes open when they want to and boast the most authentic blues still played today. You can go for a beer or just to listen to the tunes; no one will look at you twice either way.
So in a sense, the blues are still very much alive. The music is, anyway. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever have another Charley Patton or find Robert Johnson’s first wife’s grave, but the music will continue in the bars and in the fields where they worked. The music will never die.
As it’s written on Johnson’s grave, “Jesus of Nazareth. King of Jerusalem. I know that my Redeemer liveth and He will call me from the grave.”