Here the great blues guitarist Robert Johnson made his bargain with the Devil.
Here the great blues guitarist Robert Johnson made his bargain with the Devil.
At 9 a.m., we stepped out of the air-conditioned Clarksdale Comfort Inn and directly onto the barbecue grill of our 80 degree Mississippi morning. It was just a short drive to the Delta Blues Museum, but we had one brief but important stop to make. Just a quarter-mile down the road from the motel we pulled over at one of the more significant rotaries in the country. Time for a Kodak moment. Here was the famous (infamous?) “Crossroads,” the junction of Highways 61 and 49, where legend had it that the incomparable Delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson made his bargain with the Devil: “If you make me the greatest guitarist ever, I will serve you, Satan.” The deal was struck and sealed. Reader, you will have to decide for yourself if you have made your own midnight visit to the Crossroads.
The Delta Blues Museum is another one of those small, heartfelt museums that expresses a passionate sense of mission which, in Clarksdale, can only mean celebrating the blues and all the artists who, despite poverty and racism, helped to shape American culture in a profound and enduring way. The museum lacked the scale and hoopla of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, but the size and serenity of this museum made it a little easier to focus, reflect, and “hear” the music. We had a great visit.
Just yards away was Ground Zero, a restaurant and music club that recreated the feel of an old “Juke Joints” where sharecroppers would relax, drink, and dance. Supposedly actor Morgan Freeman, a son of the Delta, helped to finance the club as a way of boosting the area, sustaining the culture, and creating more venues for live music. Unfortunately, we were there during the daytime when only food but no music was beings served. At least we were able to partake in the tradition of signing our names on the wall (or wherever we could find space).
Even a blues song, with all its verses, must end and so too our stay in Clarksdale. We programmed the Dylan-mobile to transport us 60-miles to the northeast to Oxford, Mississippi, the home of Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi), once an impregnable bastion of racism and segregation. We had an appointment to meet with Dick Waterman and his wife Cinda. We found out about Dick through Larry’s son Josh whose college class had gone down to Mississippi to study southern musical traditions. Dick has worn many hats, as a photographer of rock folk, and blues legends and as the manager of performers. (He was Bobbie Raitt’s first manager when she dropped out of Radcliffe). In fact, he is the only non-performer who has been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis. (We were also fortunate to catch an exhibit of Dick’s photographs at the Delta Blues Museum).
Cinda and Dick were very generous to allow us to visit with them for almost two hours. During that time, they showed us a lifetime collection of memorabilia and artwork, as well as the wonderful photos from Dick’s extensive archive. Actually Dick himself is a human archive. He has traveled and lived with many of the musical legends of our time, and has been an eyewitness and participant in various musical scenes including the early 60s folk revival centered in Cambridge’s Club 47. If you want to see Mississippi John Hurt, BB King, Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, and the Rolling Stones up close, then Dick’s house is the place to go. And oh, yeah, did we mention his photos of one…Bob Dylan?
Beyond the photographing, Dick has conversed with Dylan on numerous occasions, so you can imagine how anxious we were to hear his impressions. We will try to post the video we made of part of that he had to say, but here is a brief summary. Dick talked about how Dylan was someone who is generally hard to engage in a serious way. If you call for a fastball, he will probably throw you a slider. (Dick told the story of trying to elicit a deep philosophical reaction from Dylan by showing the much older Dylan a photo he had taken of him when very young, and asking him what thoughts came to mind as he looked at the image. Dylan’s response: “Looks like his pants are falling down.”) He doesn’t respond well to questions that attempt to dissect his art or him. You’d have better luck by engaging him in more prosaic matters that might interest him, such as–and this is an example Dick gave –– “What’s your favorite Bruce Dern movie?” (Bill thinks he might ask him about how he came to be a NY Yankee fan and what he thinks of Robinson Cano’s sweet swing). Once again, we heard about Dylan being the quiet listener or someone who might ask you more questions than you get to ask him. Dick thought that this style was essential to Dylan’s need to stay undefined, to not put in a box, so he can feel always free to go wherever his muse inspires him to go. Dick also said that while Dylan might respond to a historical question, e.g., Did he every play with BB King?– he was not someone who was hugely interested in the past. This is a man and artist who lives firmly in the present. We thanked Dick and Cinda for their generosity and the incredible tour through their art, memorabilia, and Dick’s photographic archive.
After we left the Waterman’s, we headed up to Ole Miss to see the campus, passing a sign for the home of William Faulkner’s parents along the way. At Ole Miss we stopped to read a marker about the 1962 riots that started when a black student, James Meredith, attempted to enroll and de-segregate the university. Two people died in that riot and President Kennedy was forced to intervene with federal marshals and troops. Meredith did graduate from Ole Miss though very few fellow students would even talk to him during his time there. (He would later be shot and wounded during his March Against Fear on a Mississippi highway.). We drove around “the Circle,” Ole Miss’s equivalent of a college quadrangle, and looked at the beautiful buildings as we listened to Dylan’s “Oxford Town, Oxford Town,” a song that tells the story of that violent episode. The campus is green, serene, and multi-ethnic now, with little overt sign of the tensions of fifty years ago. The present tranquil reality may seem unremarkable to current students, but those who remember those time know differently. A student of color (perhaps Indian) told us she “loved it here” and we stopped a student, from Africa as it turned out, for directions to the highway. Bill asked a white student if students knew about the events of 1962. She seemed puzzled at first, probably because the date meant nothing to her, but she did recall somewhat fuzzily that there had been “some displays” set up in the library.
We played songs from Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” album and headed north to Nashville to explore the country music roots of our favorite guy and to meet some new friends. The Intrepid travelers have had many interesting encounters with people on their 3700 mile trip, Dylan-related or otherwise. In this case, Larry’s daughter Sarah has a friend, Carolyn, whose parents, Diane and Buddy, live in Nashville. They were interested in meeting us and hearing what our quixotic journey was all about. We arrived a little too late to go downtown to the famed Tootsies bar with them, but we had dinner and shared a couple of hours of great conversation. Much to our surprise and delight we learned that Diane and Buddy had met at Vanderbilt and have played in a band together for a half-century. Diane had also participated in the late 50s/early 60s folk revival when she was lead singer with a group of college students. It was Buddy who got her into rock, and they have been rocking ever since. We really enjoyed meeting them and truly appreciated their warm hospitality.
Dylan singing “Only A Pawn In Their Game.”at a civil rights rally on Silas McGee’s farm in Greenwood, MS, July 6, 1963.
Interviewer: When you think back to the Civil War, one thing you forget is that no battles except Gettysburg were fought in the North.
Dylan: Yeah. That’s what probably makes the Southern part of the country so different.
Interviewer: There is a certain sensibility, but I’m not sure how that connects.
Dylan: It must be the Southern air. It’s filled with rambling ghosts and disturbed spirits. They’re all screaming and forlorning. It’s like they are caught in some weird web–some purgatory between heaven and hell and they can’t rest. They can’t live, and they can’t die. It’s like they were cut off in their prime, wanting to tell somebody something. It’s all over the place. There are war fields everywhere … a lot of times even in people’s backyards.
Did our McGee get here before us?
This was the poorest town we had ever seen.
Larry screamed out when he saw this as we left Greenwood for Clarksdale. Was he killed around here?
But the synagogue appeared abandoned.