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Delta symposium to offer magical ride; presenters include Grammy honoree Bell

By Greg Russell

Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson

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.

Willy Bearden
Willy Bearden

“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.

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