By Greg Russell
What would it take for you to sell your soul to the Devil? For Robert Johnson, it
was the opportunity to become a blues icon.
“As the story goes, Robert Johnson was an aspiring guitar player — but not a very
good guitar player,” said Delta historian, author and filmmaker Willy Bearden. “The
other guys kind of made fun of him. He went off and no one saw him for weeks. When
he showed back up, he could miraculously play guitar — he had become a spellbinding
performer. Word got around that he had gone to the crossroads and sold his soul to
the Devil to be able to play the guitar.”
Whether the account is truth or legend, Johnson played the blues for tips in smoky
juke joints and on street corners throughout the Mississippi Delta until his early
death in 1938 at age 27. His landmark recordings in 1936-37 never became well known
until 1961 after a reissue of his work. Rolling Stone magazine ranks him fifth on its list of “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Eric
Clapton calls the shadowy musician the greatest blues singer ever. The U.S. Post Office
issued a commemorative stamp in his honor in 1994.
Johnson will be one of the focal points of a “magical” tour of the Mississippi Delta
that is being presented in conjunction with the wildly popular “The Delta — Everything
Southern” symposium June 3 in the Rose Theatre on the U of M campus. Bearden, one
of many distinguished presenters at the conference, will lead the new two-day Delta
tour June 4-5.
“The Delta holds a lot of fascination,” Bearden said. “It is made up of these two
tectonic plates that are white and black culture that are constantly rubbing against
each other. That kind of action, something dynamic is going to come from that. That
is what you see in the Delta.
“The Delta was the ‘last frontier’ in this part of the world,” Bearden said. “The
Delta wasn’t really settled until the turn of the 20th century. Most other places had been settled for 50 years — Memphis had been here
for 80 years. Until they got a railroad into the Delta and roads and the levee system
to stop the flooding, it was a wilderness. There were people there, but mainly in
little outposts on creeks and rivers.”
Blues music such as Johnson’s adds to the mystique of the Delta.
“What gets lost in the whole blues saga is that there was a lot of voodoo or black
magic attached to it. Today you don’t hear a whole lot about that, but back in the
’30s, that was certainly a part of that. Muddy Waters was singing, ‘I got my mojo
working … I have a charm that is going to help me get you.’ There was always a lot
of talk about spells and potions and mojos and things like that.”
Last year’s symposium drew about 350 with more than 400 expected this year. Bearden
said the symposium is looking to draw more Europeans to the annual event.
“We felt like there are so many people who come to the event who say, ‘I love this whole day about the Delta, you have music, photography, food,
civil rights, literature, but I’d love to go to the Delta and see the Delta. A lot
of people haven’t gone to those little towns and haven’t felt that little magic that
is there. That is why we are offering it. It will give you a good look at the Delta
by people who know the Delta. It is going to be a lot of fun.”
The tour, presented by Sweet Magnolia tours, is a fund-raiser for Friends of the University
Libraries. It will travel from Memphis through Indianola and Clarksdale to Greenwood,
Miss., where Johnson died. Stops include Johnson’s gravesite, the Hopson Plantation,
Mound Bayou and the Dockery Plantation, considered by many to be the birthplace of
the blues. (A complete itinerary, including details of a pre-conference tour of Memphis
June 2, is available at www.sweetmagnoliatours.com)
The symposium June 3 has sold out the past several years. “It is a very entertaining
day — very image rich,” Bearden said.
Presenters will include Al Bell, this year’s recipient of the Grammy Trustee Award
for lifetime contributions to the recording industry. Bell is chair of the Memphis
Music Foundation and a former chair of Stax Records and president of Motown Records.
Tony Russell, a British music historian; Ron Nurnberg, director of Teach for America’s
Mississippi Delta region; Minor Buchanan, author of Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt Hunts and the Origin of the Teddy Bear; U of M English professor Reginald Martin; noted food expert/chef Elizabeth Heiskell;
and archaeologist Sam Brookes, who will discuss prehistoric art in Mississippi, are
among other guest speakers.
More information about the tour and annual symposium is available on the Delta Symposium website.