Sam Burnham, Curator
You can’t have an area as haunting as the Mississippi Delta without a few legends, myths, mysteries, and perhaps a meeting with the Devil at the Crossroads. When digging through these you’re gonna come across a few that stand above the rest.
Take the story of a young guitarist from southern Mississippi. He was known in the Blues community as a mediocre, perhaps even bad guitarist. He disappeared from the area for about a year and then when he returned he could do things with a guitar that no one else could. How did he learn to do that in that short amount of time?
”He went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the Devil.”
That’s exactly how legends are born. And a good performer can take something like that and run with it...and make it grow.
That’s the subject of a Netflix documentary titled Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads, A Robert Johnson Story.
The documentary is well made and includes accounts from people who have thoroughly researched Johnson’s life, musicians who have been heavily influenced by Johnson’s music, and even Johnson’s own grandson.
But what is it about this “walking” (itinerant) guitarist that has Netflix doing a documentary on him some 80 years after his death? The answer is that practically all popular music over those 80 years can be traced back to a man who had two recording sessions resulting in 27 distinct songs and only two surviving verified photographs. His long fingers worked the strings to create a sound that had not been heard before. He was doing something new.
The documentary shows how his innovative style influenced the early rock and blues recording artists. Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton - through the 50s, 60s, 70s musicians built on Johnson’s foundation. They picked his sound apart, analyzed it, tried to mimic it. It became a part of them and their work.
The Blues, Mississippi’s gift to the world, is a uniquely Southern institution. It grew in the same rows as the cotton plants. It was planted, tended , and harvested by the same hands as the cotton. The songs of sorrow, pain, cruelty, and loss were the cries of slaves and sharecroppers. The Blues is as indigenous, as organic, and as alive as those tufted bills of cotton. It’s hard to imagine where our music would have gone without the cotton or the sharecroppers. The Blues gives us a beauty that could only come from sorrow.
All that big city Blues music in places like New Orleans, Memphis, and St. Louis merely evolved from the Blues that came from the cotton fields around places like Greenwood, Robinsonville, and Cleveland, Mississippi. It grew up out of places like the Dockery Plantation and folks like Robert Johnson carried it to the juke joints, the city street corners, the recording studios. Robert Johnson even got his call to take his music to Carnegie Hall. But, typical of his life experience and the tales of the Blues in general, he’d been given poisoned whiskey in a Greenwood juke joint and had died at age 27, months before his call to Carnegie Hall. A phonograph player took his spot at that show.
I highly recommend the Netflix documentary as well as any of Johnson’s music. It’s grainy. It’s old and recorded in the low fidelity that was available to him at that time. But it’s good. And its a part of who we are as Southerners.
Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, May 8, 1911
Our good friend, Keith McClendon suggests the Vidalia Onion Upside Down Cornbread. For those of you not familiar with Keith, he roams the South eating delicious food. If he says something is good, it’s a safe bet, even at Churchill Downs. He suggested we google his suggestion, so we did. Here is the recipe:
Vidalia Onion Upside Down Cornbread
Author: Demetra Overton SweetSavant.com
Prep time: 15 mins
Cook time: 40 mins
Total time: 55 mins
Serves: 8 sservingss
You will need a 10 or 12 inch cast iron skillet for this dish. Please be careful flipping the cornbread out of the pan, do this at your own risk
Sam Burnham, Curator
This world is filled with all kinds of time saving contraptions. They supposedly make our life easier, help us save time, help us get around faster, help us have more time for rest or recreation. But it seems like every advancement brings not only increased efficiency and ease of labor but also the need to do more thereby cramming more effort into the same amount of time.
This used to be a big city phenomenon people would sit in traffic, cut each other off, and honk a lot. Because honking always makes gridlocked traffic move faster.
But it’s not just a big city issue any more. Even in mid-sized towns and suburbs people are in a hurry and impatient. We gotta hurry, gotta rush, can’t be late...even when there is no deadline. Time saving technology means more workload rather than more time. We’re even seeing food deserts form on arable land. People don’t have the time to grow their own food because they have to work more and more to get the money to pay taxes, utilities, and cover other expenses. We build even wider expressways only to have them full in a matter of days.
“They call it progress, but they don’t say where it is going.” - William Faulkner
The South has a history as a land that isn’t in a hurry. It is not uncommon to find stories of people who didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing until the 1950s or 60s. You can still find places with dirt roads in town. Real BBQ takes time, a lot of time. We are world renowned porch sitters, accomplishing nothing visible but yet much more than the eye can see. This is usually seen as a resistance to progress. But as William Faulkner said, “They call it progress, but they don’t say where it is going.”
What is the real goal of the rush, the race, the “progress?” As anxiety and stress related illnesses continue to become more common we keep adding fuel to the fire.
We have ave got to make time to contemplate. We’ve got to reflect. We’ve got to examine ourselves, our goals, and our motivations. Are we making real progress or are we just making changes?
Ponder these things.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire