Conclusion
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304 Conclusion Everybody . . . got a little devil . . . in their soul . . . oh yeah. —Tommie Young, “Everybody’s Got a Little Devil in Their Soul” (1972) From Black to White The seventy-­ five-­ year span that separates Clara Smith’s “Done Sold My Soul to the Devil” (1924) from Clarksdale’s erection of a monument at a peculiarly vexed crossroads location offers an occasion for reflecting on the birth and flowering of a devil-­ blues tradition, as well as on the apotheosis of a somewhat narrowed idea of what that tradition is about. For the first thirty or forty years, the tradition was shaped primarily by the tastes of a black record-­ buying public, one rebelling against the strictures of black southern evangelicalism and abetted, early on, by a broader Lost Generation cohort of “misbehaving” urban whites. With the reissue of Robert Johnson’s seminal recordings on King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961) and then, just as significantly, the release of Cream’s Wheels of Fire (1968) featuring Eric Clapton’s live rock-­ blues recasting of “Cross Road Blues” as “Crossroads,” the tradition began to reorient itself toward a white blues public: its taste for romance (Johnson as a tortured loner), its hunger for Southern Gothic, its limited understanding of the devil’s-­ music dispute within black southern culture, and its profound ignorance of the broad array of purposes to which African American blues people had deployed the devil figure in their songs. It is hard to overstate the importance of Clapton to this process. Although he has personally scoffed at the devil-­at-­the-­crossroads conception of Johnson’s achievement, the continuing popularity of “Crossroads” as a rock-­blues standard—endlessly replayed on classic rock radio and covered by countless rock and blues performers—along with Clapton’s awed testimonials in his autobiography and documentary interviews, his periodic recorded homages to Johnson, and his triennial Crossroads Guitar Festival, have combined to foster in aging baby boomers and their children a sense of Johnson as ne plus ultra: the incomparable Delta blues genius, always Conclusion 305 already framed in his empowering-­ yet-­ troubled crossroads haunt.1 In this respect, Clarksdale’s opportunistic claiming of Johnson’s legend represents not just the opening gambit of that Delta town’s drive to become the market leader in Mississippi’s nascent blues tourism industry but also the final stage of a much longer canonizing-­ and-­ narrowing process. Although the year 2000 is the effective end point for this study, it is worth briefly sketching three developments from the decade and a half since then, each of which has inflected the devil-­ blues tradition in a different way. These are, in turn (1) the continued capitalization and racial problematics of Clarksdale’s crossroads, (2) an unexpected second flowering of devil-­ blues recordings by a contemporary cohort of white and black performers, and (3) the stubborn remnants of the devil’s-­ music dispute in contemporary Mississippi. A Bittersweet Thing On July 6, 1999, two months after James Butler and his road crew erected Vic Barbieri’s three-­guitar monument in Clarksdale, President Bill Clinton swept into town with his entourage, including the secretaries of transportation , labor, and agriculture. It was his first visit to Mississippi as president: one stop on a six-­ state antipoverty tour termed the “New Markets Initiative .” Although Butler, Barbieri, and the good white members of City Beautification weren’t the focus of his attentions, the eagerness of Clarksdale’s white elites to rebrand the city as a blues-­ touristic hub, a “crossroads of the blues,” makes more sense when considered in light of the region’s epic fail in the matter of its African American population. In the 1990 census, 58.5 percent of black families in Coahoma County lived below the poverty line and black unemployment was 21.9 percent.2 During the five and a half hours he spent in town, Clinton made a point of visiting Issaquena Street, once the heart of Clarksdale’s thriving black entertainment district and now a blighted, boarded-­ up wasteland where, as one account noted, “the long-­ shuttered Roxy Theater looked like a prop for ‘The Last Picture Show.’ ”3 His host there was florist Shirley Fair, longtime proprietor of Ooo So Pretty Flowers on the corner of Issaquena and Martin Luther King Boulevard (formerly Fourth Street), one block from the old crossroads. “Nothing has gotten any better,” Fair told visiting journalists, speaking about the town’s woes in the aftermath of the riverboat...