III. Local and Private Legislation: Branding the Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi
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255  III Local and Private Legislation Branding the Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi There’s not enough money to buy the branding we own. —Bill Seratt, president, Mississippi Delta Tourism Association Crossroads Souvenirs One of the more surprising developments in American popular music is the way a rich, variegated, and long-­standing relationship between the devil and the blues tradition has been crystalized, in our own day, into one iconic sculptural installation on a tiny patch of ground in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Few contemporary blues tourists are unfamiliar with “the crossroads”: a MapQuestable and Google Image–searchable intersection of Highways 61 and 49—actually, DeSoto Avenue and North State Street—where an interlocking trio of large blue electric guitars topped with a pair of state highway signs sits on a small triangular traffic island. “A can’t-­ miss-­ it roadside structure,” performance scholar Paige McGinley calls it, “a kitsch classic of American vernacular architecture.”118 This is where “legend has it” that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. All but the most skeptical blues tourist knows that much, and has a selfie or on-­ location YouTube performance video, guitar in hand, to prove it.119 By the same token, it is all but impossible to find a tourist, visiting journalist, or scholar, who can answer the most basic questions about the monument: who commissioned, designed, and built it, what year it was installed , whether those two highways actually crossed at that location during Johnson’s lifetime, even how many guitars the monument actually sports. (Like others, McGinley mistakenly claims that the “Graceland-­style marker” has “two guitars.”)120 Many Clarksdalians know, or know of, their townsman Vic Barbieri, the retired shop teacher who dreamed up and constructed the monument, but his name recognition ends at the city limits.121 May 11, 1999, the date his assemblage was erected, has fallen out of public memory. (A recent issue of Living Blues devoted to Mississippi blues tourism sites placed the monument’s installation as some time “in the past 20 years.”)122 In her 2009 study of Clarksdale’s hip-­ hop scene, anthropologist Ali Colleen Neff voiced a justified skepticism when she dismissed the crossroads monument Road crew in Clarksdale, Mississippi, reassembles Vic Barbieri’s crossroads monument. The three-­ guitar headpiece was taken down for a cleaning in 2012, thirteen years after first being installed. © Jesse Wright. Branding the Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi 257 as “a landscaped shiny landmark recently constructed by the Chamber of Commerce for the sake of tourists’ photo albums,” but she was wrong about the Clarksdale/Coahoma Chamber of Commerce: that office played no role in the monument’s creation, although it has avidly capitalized on the monument’s attractions in the years that followed.123 Neff, in the manner of other skeptics, insists that “the 61/49 crossroads has shifted half a dozen times since Robert Johnson’s heyday,” as though that “fact” self-­ evidently delegitimizes the monument, but here, too, as I intend to show, facts on the ground are considerably more complex than received widsom.124 The truth is that Clarksdale’s new crossroads, the intersection of two rerouted, freshly paved state highways, was in place and fully functioning by the summer of 1935—in plenty of time for Robert Johnson to have floated into view, paused, and dreamed up “Cross Road Blues” before recording the song more than a year later. The truth is also that “the crossroads” did not exist, as such, during the 1930–32 window when Johnson made his great leap forward as a guitarist. At the beginning of that period it was the nondescript T-­ junction of two city streets, DeSoto and Sycamore, that had no connection to the state highway system; two years later it was an unseemly jumble of mule-­ graded roadbed and disputed routing: the epicenter of a big fight between the city of Clarksdale and Mississippi state highway authorities . Who sells his soul in a construction zone? Robert Johnson most certainly did not. Yet there was, for all that, a legitimate reason based in long-­ standing civic tradition for Clarksdale to formally commemorate the intersection in 1999, even though Johnson played no part in that tradition. If neither popular mythology nor scholarly skepticism about Clarksdale ’s crossroads accords with historical truth, one reason for this is the heavy investment that Clarksdale’s civic and cultural elites have made in branding the monument and its location in the international blues-­touristic imaginary—a branding that depends on...