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Chasing the Blues

Taking a devilish Lexus GS 350 into the heart of the Delta

Author Michael Kaplan


When I reach the turnoff for Indianola, a town that teemed with blues performers back in the early 1900s, I take it and follow the car’s GPS guidance to the B.B. King Museum. There, I take in multimedia presentations on what life was like on the Chitlin’ Circuit, check out a re-creation of King’s recording studio, and peruse the blues maestro’s guitars and stage costumes. It’s a fitting tribute to a man born into a cotton-picking family who rose to unimaginable heights.

As daylight wanes, I steer the Lexus into the parking lot of Clarksdale’s Shack Up Inn, an intentionally rustic, blues-themed hotel where you can overnight in an original sharecropper’s shack or a repurposed cotton gin. My room is cozy and comfortable, but I’ve got places to be.

I drop off my bag and get back into the car, flipping on the near-infrared “night view” lights to illuminate a bit of pitch-black road. I make the short drive to Ground Zero, a blues club bankrolled by Morgan Freeman. Inside, a righteous-sounding blues combo rips it up onstage. They’re good and the vibe is fine; frankly, though, I’m looking for something a bit more down-home.

I ask around, and eventually wind up at a joint called Red’s Lounge. It’s stripped down, cramped and hot. Folks sit on metal folding chairs, and a hat gets passed around for donations. Onstage, bathed in red and yellow light, is Robert “Bilbo” Walker. With a deft touch on his battered guitar’s fretboard, he growls his way through standards like “Lucille” and originals that center on the usual blues themes of love, murder and redemption. There’s barely a moment’s pause between numbers and Walker isn’t one for stage patter, but the people are deep into it nonetheless. The night goes on like this for some time.

Late the next morning, bleary-eyed and back on the road, I’m looking for the spot where Johnson reputedly made his fateful pact. Though I worried it might be hard to find, apparently soul-selling isn’t the discreet business one might expect: Three giant guitars above a couple of small trees mark the site of the original crossroads. I park in the lot of Abe’s Bar-B-Q and walk to the landmark, waiting for something to overtake me, for a deal to be proffered—but my soul remains intact. So I do what anyone in my position would do. I retreat to Abe’s for a plate of devilishly good ribs.

MICHAEL KAPLAN is a writer in Brooklyn whose work has appeared in Wired, Details and the New York Times.

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