Saturday, June 15, 2013

BBQ at the gates of Hell!

Here at last! The intersection of Highways 61 and 49,
the site where Robert Johnson purportedly sold his soul to the devil. Yesterday we visited his presumed grave site
just down the road from our living shack for the evening, Tallahatchie Flats. Most stories seem to confirm this grave site as genuine, as well as reports of the wife of his grave digger, but Robert was a very complex man in life and death. There are four grave markers here in the area. It seems that it is a great way to draw an audience, and next to each grave site is a church.
Ruth and I were talking about throwing up a Johnson marker in front of our carport and see what cash we could gin up. More on Robert in a bit.

During our research into local area Greenwood, Mississippi, lodging, we discovered a plantation just a quarter mile up the road from Robert's grave that had restored sharecropper shacks, much like they would have lived in back in the day...(by the way, in case you don't already know it, you can click on the picture to view it in larger format.)
These had air-conditioning, and believe me, with temperatures in the 90s and humidity close to this, it was welcome. It didn't escape us though, what it must have been like in the early 20s and 30s for the people who lived here. If you've ever driven in the south and witnessed folks sitting out on their front porches, this was their air-conditioning. The interior of our shack was simply appointed
and being in it reminded us of being in a funny house with sloping floors, offset doors, and optical-illusion doorways that began in one part of the house at a height of five and a half feet and then opened up to six and a half elsewhere. There was a lot of "echos" of the past in that place. The skeptic that Ruth is, she woke up in the middle of the night creeped out and needed an escort to the "room." Something about shoes being rearranged in the night?!

Down the road from Tallahatchie (why does it always seem to work this way!?) we passed a small building on our way out to a fun meal in downtown Greenwood,
with huge radio antenna towers beside it. I told Ruth that when we returned we had to stop there and see if anyone was around.
We pulled up the gravel driveway to the radio station just as the light in the sky was fading into a muted pumpkin orange, and knocked on the door. I looked in the front window around the American Flag and saw a man getting up from the console. My heart was in my throat as memories of Wolfman Jack, who worked in a building similar to this, just over the border in Mexico from Del Rio, Texas, and was depicted in American Graffiti, blasted out 50,000 watts of "Boss Soul Power." It was said that the station was so powerful that birds dropped dead when they flew near the broadcasting towers and the signal could be heard at night from New York to LA. When I was a kid, I tuned my old tube set radio to this station to hear his mysterious growl and mind-expanding musical epiphanies. I didn't learn until much later that he wasn't a black man. 

The door to the station opened and we were greeted with a smile by an African American gentleman in a freshly-starched white shirt, tie, and dress slacks and highly-polished shoes.
He called himself Poe (after Edgar Allen Poe, he was a fan). We began a trip down our mutual memory lanes discussing how he got into the business, eventually migrating to Greenwood to put his life and money on the line to buy a small radio station that plays the blues and news to the community. Granted it was only 1000 watts and reached out to about 100,000 listeners over a range of about 100 miles, but it is the real deal in a time of corporate ownership and multiple stations sequestered in one office building in New York or LA, faking a local broadcast.

We told Poe our story about seeking the roots of the blues and he asked us if we would submit to an interview on air and then a taped one to follow for editing. We looked at each other and I said partially under my breath, "Hell yes!" I looked over at Ruth and her eyes were as big as saucers thinking about speaking in front of people, which she hates like a New Orleans cockroach hates the light. Needless to say, she let me take the lead.

Much of our conversation spun around what the crossroads really means, symbolically. It's a powerful concept. The crossroads live in us all. It is the intersection of heart and mind, the place where we find our solitude, where life decisions are met and decided. It is the beginning, the end, the place where things intersect but don't stop, a place of choices. If Robert Johnson ever extracted himself from his agreement with the "devil," we will never know, and if he tried renegotiating, we can only conjecture. The blues, however is all about coming to these crossroads expressed through such emotions such as "Needing," "Leaving," "Toasting and Boasting," and it has caught the cultural waves rolling in from many "tribes" and locations as we have been exploring in previous blogs. We all move into and through crossroads, small and large, and the blues reminds us that these times are nodes of power in growth and opportunity.

So, what about the BBQ in the title? you ask. Can you think of a more appropriate place to have awesome beef and pork BBQ with those you love than "At the Crossroads?" Devil be damned!

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