We’re on our way to Cleveland, Mississippi a town on Highway 61 about 150 miles south of Memphis. For 8 miles outside of Cleveland is Dockery Farm and that farm is sometimes referred to a the birthplace of the Blues. The year is 1929 and Dockery like other farms is raising cotton on the share crop system. Mr. Dockery owns the land and the Black families that live there and labor in the fields to raise the cotton get to “share” the crop with him. But he does one thing different from the other farms. On Saturday night the tenant sharecroppers can use the barn for their own entertainment. Not only that they can invite the sharecroppers from other farms. Dockery Farm become a place where Black musicians can gather, perform, and exchange ideas.
One day a young man named Robert Johnson showed up. He could play harmonica but barely knew how to play guitar. He got a few lessons on guitar from Son House but left after a few weeks. A year later he returned and could outplay any man at Dockery. With techniques they’d never seen before. How did he do it in such a short time. The gossip was he had sold his soul to the devil down at the crossroads for the ability to play and sing. Robert Johnson never denied it and he hit the road with a reputation and talent. Making money on street corners and juke joints his reputation grew through the Delta and beyond. At the age of 27, while performing in Texas he was invited into a studio where he recorded 29 of his songs. Those recordings are the reason we know of him for in 1938 at the age of 27 he was dead, poisoned by his girlfriend’s jealous husband.
1937 recording of Robert Johnson playing the song Crossroads
Those recordings drew the interest of someone else far from the Delta. Alan Lomax had begun traveling the country recording local music with a recording studio he had built in the trunk of his car. After hearing the recordings Lomax, in 1941, made plans to visit the Mississippi Delta. But for that part of the story we’ll have to head north on Highway 61 to Clarksdale. It was the at crossroads outside of Clarksdale where legend says Robert Johnson made his pact with the devil.