The Blues Ghosts of Mississippi

Robert Johnson's slow, crackly version of “Crossroads” is blaring at my friend Ken and me through the medium of a cheap, tinny-sounding Walkman as our rental car hurtles up Highway 61, past the same dusty Mississippi Delta farm country the renowned bluesman rambled some 70 years ago.

We are two days out of New Orleans, and we've come to explore the land where the blues began. The weather is hot and insufferably sticky in these parts, constantly reminding us that we're never too far from the Mississippi River.

No one knows for sure where Johnson is buried. There are at least two competing monuments in the Delta which claim to be his plot, though it's most likely that his final resting place remains unmarked, as it has been since he was poisoned and died in 1938, his punishment for putting the moves on another man's woman.

Instead, we're hell-bent on finding the grave of Aleck Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson, probably the greatest blues-harmonica blower ever. Unlike Johnson, Sonny has a tombstone —he was lucky enough to pass away during the height of the '60s blues revival, lucky enough to become famous in his lifetime. But finding his burial site still takes some work. The directions in the dog-eared copy of Christiane Bird's Jazz and Blues Lover's Guide to the U.S. are demandingly precise: “Just outside Tutwiler, heading south, take Highway 49 7/10 mile to a paved road on right. Go about 1/2 mile then turn left. Go another 11/2 miles, past fields, and watch for the abandoned church on the right.”

Precision is how we find him, hidden among several unremarkable tombstones in a tiny cemetery behind the once-proud Whitfield Baptist Church, which now slowly splinters to its doom beneath the baking Southern sun. Sonny's grave is immaculate: a slab of polished gray granite with a small black-and-white picture of him playing his harp. Previous pilgrims have left offerings: 12 harmonicas, each silently rusting; guitar picks; a couple of cans of Miller Beer; and a 40-ouncer of Olde English Malt Liquor (“He was a whiskey man, actually,” Ken informs me).

It's a tranquil, poignant scene. Ken takes his own harp out of a shirt pocket and starts blowing a gentle, freeform “Ode to Sonny Boy” for a few minutes, then stops.

“Sonny was over in England the last five years of his life, playing with the Yardbirds and the Animals,” he says. “He loved it over there, and they loved his music. He came back here six months before he died, and someone asked him why. Because he knew he was approaching his time, he said. Like old elephants, bluesmen know when it's their time to go.”

Ken decides he wants to explore the church, though I'm a bit leery. Ken, however, is fearless, and he bounds up the rickety, weed-shrouded wooden stairs. I head in after him, slightly on-edge. The endless, flat expanse of Delta farmland surrounding us confirms that we're the only people—living people, anyway—around.

The church's floorboards are cracked and rotting, and it's a wonder neither of us falls through as we walk around the room. There are a few paint chips strewn about, having flaked off the walls years or maybe decades earlier. Some wooden benches, which once served as pews, lay upended. I'm surprised to see a still-standing yet totally unusable piano next to where the altar once stood. Other than the creaking beneath our feet, it's eerily quiet, and if we listen long enough, we both swear we can hear gospel music echoing in the air from some long-ago Sunday-morning service.

Out of nowhere appear two cats—two black cats. “Demon cats!” Ken yelps, joking. Half-joking. “Guardian cats!” They're just looking for a meal and ignore us once they see we have no handouts.

Time to head on up the highway. We need to make Memphis by the next day and then Graceland, the final stop on our Dead Musical Legends Tour of July 1992. After bidding a last goodbye to Sonny, we're back in the rental, back on the road.

Ken pokes the PLAY button. Johnson again, wailing away as if he were riding along with us in the back seat. Maybe, just maybe, he was:

When I leave this town, I'm gonna bid you fair farewell

When I leave this town, I'm gonna bid you fair farewell

And when I return again

You'll have a great long story to tell.

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