The Crossroads. Big Mama's Story

The Crossroads—Big Mama’s Story
BY CATFISH KRAY
I met a fascinating lady from Rosedale this year. Her name is
Mariza Dalla Valle and she was an organizer of the now-inactive
blues society in Rosedale. She is director of the Bruce Turner Kelso
Foundation, which is involved with activities to better the living
conditions of the residents there in Bolivar County, Mississippi. She
is also involved with the organization of the Great River Road,
Highway 1 Heritage (and blues) Festival to be held in Rosedale
over the second weekend of August this year. Her knowledge of the
area and its history is firsthand.
We talked about many things, but of particular interest was the
story she had to tell about a lady called “Big Mama” and their
meeting a few years back. Big Mama was 105 years old when she
died last winter in Shelby, Mississippi. Before passing on she sat
down with Mariza and a couple of friends, Jessie Brown (better
known in the area as June Bug) and his relative “String Bean.” She
told stories about Robert Johnson from her memories.
It seems that Robert spent quite a bit of time in the tiny town of
Beulah, Mississippi, which is just south of Rosedale. To quote
Mariza’s writeup of this story from the BKB Foundation’s website
(www.bkbfoundation.com):
“…We went to Shelby to see Big Mama, who knew Robert Johnson
well (she was 102 when we talked with her). We asked what really
happened when the young musician disappeared for so many
months. This is what she told us.
“At a certain point, Johnson broke away from the group of
musicians in Rosedale and camped out in an abandoned church
just south of Beulah. Adjacent to the church was a cemetery where
Son House used to compose his songs. Son House helped the
determined Johnson find himself, she said. When Johnson later
turned his place [the church] into a juke-joint the church leaders,
understandably outraged, spread the word that he’d been to the
crossroads to make a pact with the devil.”
The crossroads attributed to this encounter is the one discussed in
my article in last month’s Holler, directions to which were provided
to the folks from Rosedale by Big Mama herself. To get there,
follow Highway 1 south out of Rosedale, 7.4 miles from the
intersection of HW 8 and 2.1 miles south of Main St. in Beulah.
Turn left (east) onto the dirt road. Cross the railroad tracks and you
will see the crossroads. Yes, this is the crossroads used in the 1986
Hollywood movie.
Every blues historian, amateur and professional alike, I’m sure, has
his own idea on the location of the crossroads. Many believe the
old story that it is at the intersection of highways 49 and 61. For
those of you who have been in the area, you know that this
assumption is incredible since, first of all, 61 and 49 never really
meet at a crossroads. Secondly, any location where 61 and 49 meet
is far from a deserted location where Robert might have met the
devil with any degree of privacy.
Myself, based on Robert Johnson’s life story, I would have guessed
the crossroads to be much further down south near the town of
Hazlehurst, where Robert returned for a few years before returning
to Coahoma and Bolivar Counties to resume his active musical
career. It was after this interlude that the locals observed the
miraculous improvement in his playing ability.
Still, this account of the crossroads in Beulah is the only direct
statement from anyone living at the time that I have on which to
base a conclusion. As we all know, written history and notarized
documentation were not the style of the day in 1930s Mississippi.
Most of Robert Johnson’s life story is mythology based on hearsay
and interviews with those who knew him when he was alive,
oftentimes done decades after his death.
If this story intrigues you, as it did me, why don’t you look for
yourself? Visit Rosedale. Talk to the residents. Stop by June Bug’s
juke-joint on Bruce Street in town. Robert Johnson definitely
played at this juke joint back in the 1930s. Talk to June Bug or
Mariza themselves.
I plan on again visiting myself later this year to follow up on this
story. This is too fascinating to pass up. Feel free to contact me at
edd@catfishkrayband.com
Originally published in the Colorado Blues Society Newsletter, "The Holler", August, September, 2004