When I'm on the road I always try to listen to local radio stations. Quite often you can find out what's happening in the area and use it in your stage banter. As I drove by cotton fields on Highway 69 in Mississippi on a hot Sunday morning, I listened to a service being broadcast from Shilo Full Gospel Missionary Church. It was an amazing experience – being in the delta listening to a preacher trying to save my soul. The voices of the choir were joyous and uplifting. Eventually the signal faded out and it was replaced by a pastor from a Christian Evangelical Church who gave a sermon on how the children of America are being corrupted by television. But there was no need to worry as he had the answer to ensure that your offspring did not stray from the righteous path. And he would impart that information to you for a donation of $50. Those Lear jets aren't cheap, you know
Welcome to Mississippi
I was heading for Greenwood MS, one of three towns that claim to be the last resting place of blues legend Robert Johnson. Because of where his last gig was and the hospital which issued his death certificate, most historians have settled on Little Zion Baptist Church, Greenwood MS.
A website gave the church's address as Money Road. My sat nav wouldn't accept Money Road so instead I decided to put in Greenwood MS and ask for directions when I got there.
Segregation officially ended in the US in 1954 but in truth, many US cities have areas that are predominately white, black, Latino or Asian and I have found this is even more so in the south. To someone brought up in the UK this is very unsettling. Whilst these places are not exactly no-go areas, a degree of tribalism exists. This, naturally, creates a suspicion of outsiders.
According to FBI statistics: “Greenwood is not one of the safest communities in America.” ... "It has a crime rate that is higher than 77% of most towns and cities in the state." But I was not going to let that stop me on my mission to find Johnson's grave.
I pulled off of Highway 82 and stopped at the first petrol station I found. It wasn't until I got out of the car that I noticed that I was in a very run-down area. My shiny white Buick LaCrosse car stood out somewhat. As I walked towards the fortified concrete shop to ask the store owner for directions, I noticed a group of six young men, ranging in age from late teens to late twenties looking at me. One had a look on his face that reminded me of the hyenas in The Lion King when they corner Simba. It was too late to get back in the car. My natural inclination in situations like these is always to bluff.
The one on the far left called out to me. “You in the wrong part of town, man!” I decided to ignore him and instead focused on the big chap in the centre who was sporting more bling than the others. He was wearing a basketball vest that showed off his muscular physique and he wore his hair in cornrows. The other lads seemed to be deferring to him so I figured he was the big dog.
As I approached, they all stood up. In my finest clipped English accent I said that I was terribly sorry to bother him but did he know where Little Zion Baptist Church was? He took an age to answer. I couldn't see his eyes as they were hidden behind mirror sunglasses but I imagined that he was looking me up and down. Finally he said: “You Irish?” This took me by surprise - it was not a question I was expecting. This was also a quandary. The answer was 'yes'. I identify as Irish but clearly I don't sound Irish. It occurred to me that this was perhaps not the time to give this chap a lesson on accents and dialects. But it seemed such a strange thing to ask in rural Mississippi. What was the best answer to give? Did he like the Irish? Had he seen the movie The Commitments in which the main protagonist Dubliner, Jimmy Rabbit tries to convince his newly-formed band to play Soul music by saying: “The Irish are the blacks of Europe” thus forging (in his mind) a beautiful bond between our two cultures or perhaps his heart had been broken by a lovely red-headed colleen passing through on a gap year and so had vowed vengeance on anyone remotely connected to the Emerald Isle? It was a fifty-fifty choice.
Yes, I replied. Oi am. I could hear that in the space between the words 'yes' and 'I am' that my accent had made the 300 mile leap from London to Dublin.
His demeanor didn't change but he seemed pleased that he had called it right. He pointed at one of the other lads: “Go to the car and get me my phone,” he said. While we waited for the lackey to return we stood there in silence. I am a firm believer that people are basically good, that communication is the key to breaking down barriers so I thought it best to engage Big Dog in conversation. Except that my brain seemed to be devoid of any thought other than 'talk to him” and “say something.” I could see myself reflected in his sunglasses. I could see the sweat forming on my forehead. Big Dog spoke first. “Little Zion?” I answered yes. “Little Zion?” Er, yes. I believe the church is on Money Road, if that helps? He shook his head. “Ain't never heard of no Money Road,” he said.
At this moment, a big 1980s Plymouth Gran Fury pulled up at one of the fuel pumps. An elderly black gentleman exited the vehicle. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and pressed black trousers, he looked like he had just come from church. I wondered if he'd been at the service I'd heard earlier on the radio. He looked over, took in the scene and walked over. He addressed Big Dog, saying “What's happening brother? What's going down?” Big Dog turned to him and said: “Fella here looking for Little Zion Baptist Church. Says it's on Money Road. I ain't never heard of no Money Road” The man looked at me and said: “You want Robert Johnson!”
Little Zion Baptist Church
Yes, I said a little too eagerly. The man then turned to Big Dog and gave him very precise directions to the church in question. “Left at the lights. Head out of town. Over the river once, over the river agin, drive for a mile, bend in the road, just a'fore the town of Money, church is on the left.” Now we all knew where Little Zion Baptist Church was. Big Dog nodded and turned to me. He said: “You go left at the lights. Head out of town. Over the river once, over the river agin, drive for a mile, bend in the road, just a'fore the town of Money, church is on the left.” I listened intently as though I was hearing these directions for the first time. The old man winked at me, smiled and returned to his vehicle. I thanked Big Dog. I put out my hand for him to shake it and said it was very kind of him. He took my hand, pulled me in close. He looked over the top of his sunglasses to reveal startling brown eyes. “You know it,” he said, and strutted away.
I think often about this encounter. Was I worried unduly? Was I ever in any real danger? And what the hell was the Irish thing about? I have decided to chalk it up to an overactive imagination and the kindness of strangers. Because people are basically good.
I followed the explicit directions. On the way, I crossed the Tallahatchie Bridge made famous by Bobbie Gentry in her haunting song Ode to Billy Joe. I stopped to throw a stone into the Tallahatchie River and I wondered just what Billy Joe and the protagonist of the song threw in the river that day...
The Tallahatchie Bridge
The church was exactly where the old man via Big Dog had said it was. There were no cars in front of the wooden building. There was a board at the front of the drive that marked this place as an historic site. It was titled 'Robert Johnson' citing: 'he is thought to be buried in this graveyard'. There was no indication of exactly where the grave was. Somehow, I knew it would be in the far corner under the shade of some trees, so I wandered that way. And there he was. The man to whom blues musicians and fans the world over owe so much.
Robert Johnson's Grave
With the mythology that had been built up around Johnson and his supposed deal with the devil, selling his soul for his prodigious talent, I’d expected it to be a little creepy standing at his grave but it felt very peaceful. The sun was setting behind the trees, with just a few rays breaking through that made it look like there was a spotlight shining down on the grave. The deafening cacophony of the cicadas’ chorus had yet to start up and I stood there in a respectful silence. Then I got my guitar out, and sang and played my favourite Robert Johnson song – the beautiful and heartbreaking Love in Vain.
Me and Robert Johnson
I set my sat nav for Memphis. A few minutes later, I’m on a dirt road. Ten minutes later, I’m still winding my way down a dirt road. I thought that, any minute now, I’m going to come across a couple of good ol’ boys cooking up moonshine on an illegal still, and that’ll be me done for. I started to drive a little faster. All this did was make a huge plume of dust rise up behind me. It was like I was announcing my arrival. I drove a little bit faster. This made pebbles jump up and hit the car; the car rental people would make a meal of this and keep my deposit for damaging the car but I didn’t care. And at least the noise of the engine helped drown out the sound of banjos in my head.
After 20 minutes, I saw the lights of the highway up ahead. Before I hit the main road, I stopped to relieve myself in some bushes. The cicadas were in full swing. I looked around and noticed that I was in swamp land. Alligators live in swamps, I thought. No, I’m too far north in Mississippi for alligators. Comforted, I carried on with my business. But a thought struck me. What if an alligator was more lost than me? I hurried back to the car.
The journey to Memphis was uneventful.