All the dirt, news, culture and commentary for Oklahoma's second century.

Last train to Clarksdale

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
This spot - at Tallahatchie and MLK in Clarksdale, Mississippi - is thought to be one of the locations where Robert Johnson made his deal with the Devil.
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CLARKSDALE, Miss. – Writing in his short book The Mystery of Electricity: A Retrospect and a Prophecy, Manly Palmer Hall writes about a French writer and scientist named Dr. Jobard who in 1856 wrote that he felt electricity was not only “brute and blind” but that a certain aspect of electricity demonstrated intelligence and even clairvoyance!

The ancients used this “power” in their ceremonies and in their temples. The Ark of the Covenant was thought to have links to the electrical forces in the air.

Later, Hall writes: “Also in the doctrines of the early Christian Gnostics electricity was represented by the chariot of Abraxas, which is drawn through space by four galloping white horses. Again, according to the alchemists, these four elements supported and sustained in their midst a fifth element – the akashic Azoth – which is merely a cabalistic name signifying the electrical agent.”

Fast-forward to this century. And it is here that I want to bring my attention to the director/writer/actor David Lynch, who is a powerful force all his own. His art, films, TV shows and writings inspire and perplex millions. And with the TV series Twin Peaks (1990-91) and Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), as well as the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), we are reminded how the force of electricity plays a very important part when he tells his stories – stories that seem to connect on a very, very deep level.

In particular, I am drawn to the scenes in Twin Peaks showing electrical wires, telephone poles and electrical pylons that seem to be conduits to other realms, like the White and Black Lodges. The buzzing and crackling energy of these electric lines and the “bad transformers” causing lights to flicker eerily … Lynch is most definitely on to something. And it is in part because he admits to seeing electricity as something of an enigma, much like the aforementioned French writer Dr. Jobard, noted in Manly Palmer Hall’s The Mystery of Electricity.

TOWER OF POWER: Tranmission tower in Twin Peaks: The Return. (Showtime)

Lynch uses electric lines, poles, outlets as portals of sorts. They are there to help transport you to the next location in space and time. How it works, no can really say with 100 percent certainty.

As Lynch said in recent years: “(S)cientists don’t understand electricity. They say, ‘It’s moving electrons.’ But there’s a certain point where they say, ‘We don’t know why that happens.’ I’m not a scientist, and I haven’t talked to these guys that are into electricity, but it is a force. When electrons run down a wire – do they have that power? It’s amazing. How did a plug or an outlet get to be shaped that way?

And lightbulbs: I can feel these random electrons, you know, hitting me. It’s like when you go under power lines. If you were blindfolded and drove down a highway under those power lines, and really concentrated, you could tell when they occurred. There’s something very disturbing about the amount of electricity – they know these things now. A tumor grows in the head. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not, you know, whacking you.”

And you know, I have David Lynch to thank for bringing the Alan Greenberg script Love In Vain to my attention.

Love In Vain is the story of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson and those final years of his life when he allegedly sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for guitar-playing prowess and fame. (Read my review here).

Lynch talked about the script in his recently-published autobiography Room To Dream (review here) and said he had tried to turn it into a film, but without success (for reasons that are not specified).

Robert Johnson’s encounter with the Devil at the crossroads was thought to have taken place in the mid-1930’s, likely in Clarksdale, Mississippi, although Rosedale, Mississippi is a strong contender (“Traveling Riverside Blues,” giving us clues). Of course that small Delta city has wisely embraced the myth and has done well in attracting tourists who come down Highway 61 and 49, following the Mississippi Blues Trail and the legend of Robert Johnson and his infamous, Faustian “deal.”

Pickup at King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

Specifically, in Greenberg’s stunning script Love In Vain, which grippingly recounts Robert Johnson’s alleged meeting at the crossroads with the Confederate-soldier-capped “Devilman,” who tunes the acoustic guitar and plays it to where it “sounds and resounds like an electric guitar.” Robert gives the Devilman a dime for his “trouble” and when he leaves Robert there under the midnight moon, he instructs Robert to give that devil-touched guitar a try (“Talk some shit, man, talk some shit.”)

And Robert does, with Greenberg writing: “Robert falls down on his knees at the crossroads, strumming a fierce guitar riff as the devilman’s words fade.

I read and re-read that bit (page 46 in Love In Vain – I’m 46 years old, by the way) and I thought of how the Devilman in Greenberg’s version makes an acoustic guitar sound “electric.” It’s given power, in this version of the story. Again, it’s the electricity coming from realms beyond our ability to see.

MEMPHIS-TOPHELES

I have been drawn to Memphis, Tennessee like a pilgrim drawn to a holy site far from home. I’ve been to that city on the Mississippi River half-a-dozen times in the past couple of years, always discovering something new. Having grown up in my earlier years in Little Rock, a little over two hours west, my family and I would go to Memphis for those things that slightly-smaller Little Rock did not offer.

Plus, the history! The music. The food. The vibe. The mix of cultures. I just love it, like I love other Mississippi River cities like New Orleans and St. Louis. And Minneapolis-St. Paul, I guess …

Memphis, though, is unique. And so wandering around downtown, I like sensing the history there, from the Peabody Hotel to the sounds coming off of Beale Street.

It's also, of course, where civil rights leader and martyr Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel in April 1968. Early synchromystic (with a Forrest Gump-like ability to be at the crossroads of history!) James Shelby Downard talks about Memphis and its importance to rogue Freemasons, secret society rites and dark magic. And how all of this was utilized in killing MLK 50 years ago.

But one of my favorite locations is the Memphis Pyramid, which was remodeled and made into a Bass Pro Shops store, complete with a restaurant at the apex of the pyramid and a nice hotel, which I stayed in earlier this year (writing about it here). I wrote about the transition to a Bass Pro Shop in my 2012 article "With its strange history, Memphis Pyramid to become a Bass Pro Shop," with information about about mystical builder Isaac Tigrett and that he hid a crystal skull at the very top, later discovered by workers and removed. All this angered Tigrett who announced that they had made a horrible mistake in removing the crystal skull. 

I wrote at the time: "Tigrett “believes in the supernatural power of this skull and that cosmic balance depends on it (somehow) and that it carries a cosmic curse which can destroy the earth.” (More sync thoughts on this here).

The Memphis Pyramid is now a Bass Pro Shop. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

And Robert Johnson lived here too, for a short while, anyway, between 1916 and 1920, in those early, formative years of his young life. This was when he was known as Robert Spencer and city life (he lived near Beale Street) was far more sophisticated and interesting than life back on the Mississippi plantation.

The Robert Johnson Blues Foundation notes that Johnson incorporates Memphis in his song “From Four Until Late,” which is similar to Johnny Dodd’s popular 1920 song “Four Until Late Blues.”

DEVILMAN’S PROMENADE

And so after a few days in Memphis, I drove south on historic Delta Blues Highway 61, past the Tunica casinos and Robinsonville (where Robert Johnson had lived) and on to Clarksdale where at the intersection of N. State Street and DeSoto Avenue, there are three “crossed” guitars on the Highway 61/49 sign, with the words “The Crossroads” appearing on a sign below them.

The touristy "Devil's Crossroads" spot in Clarksdale, Mississippi. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

It’s in a rather busy area and is the “touristy” version of the Crossroads legend. A nearby eatery, Abe’s Bar-B-Q is right by these crossroads and advertise that distinction on the wall of their building, attracting much attention from visitors and passers-by. This is “The Devil’s Crossroads,” according to Google. And they know it all, right?

But I sensed that this wasn’t the actual location of the crossroads. As with so many things related to Robert Johnson, it’s shrouded in mystery and the mists of time. Who knows, right?

I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees,” sang Johnson in the song “Cross Road Blues”. “I asked the Lord above for mercy, save poor Bob if you please.

It’s cool to get a picture of this famous intersection, where a Ol’ Scratch (Or Legba, or Lucifer …) and a mortal with a penchant for the blues allegedly had a soul-altering encounter back in the 1930’s. It’s rock n’ roll, right?

Still … there were other things to see for the short amount of time I was here in Coahoma County’s largest town. And the Delta Blues Museum was on the top of the list.

And so after a tour of the terrific Delta Blues Museum, I noticed that time was flying and I had to get on over to Helena, Arkansas and the 33rd Annual King Biscuit Blues Festival, which was featuring headliners Blackberry Smoke and Steve Cropper and Dave Mason, among others.

As I was driving out of the parking lot I was trying to get back out to Highway 161 and head back north on Highway 49/61 to the turnoff at Lula, Mississippi.

But somehow I found myself on Martin Luther King Blvd. and near some railroad tracks, at a railroad crossing. It was here that I noticed this railroad crossing was also at the intersection of Tallahatchie. I remembered seeing some comment on Google Maps talking about the real crossroads being at this very intersection, although it did not say anything about railroad tracks. (I later researched this and it seems to be a part of the Mississippi Delta Railroad, which is a short line and had originally been part of the Illinois Central Railroad).

So, I pulled over and jumped out. I was immediately stunned by the intense buzzing sound in the air. The hair on my arms moved slightly. I felt dazed there at the “other” crossroads, a place I had planned to see but couldn’t find on the map. But somehow, here I was!

Another view of the railroad and the electric wires overhead. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

I looked up and saw all of these overhead wires here at this crossing. I thought of the significance of MLK and the name “Tallahatchie,” as well, in history (the former) and legend (the latter), via Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 song “Ode to Billie Joe,” and, it was in 1955 that young Emmett Till, a black teen from Chicago, was beaten, shot and sunk in the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck by racist whites who felt the boy didn’t know his place by showing interest in a white woman. A lot of pain and sadness connected to those names and the African-American experience in the South – and in America in general.

I feel that we are reaping what we have sown. How else to explain the odious Trump phenomenon? The vitriol and malice rife in the land, as it was 150-plus years ago as the entrenched Slave Power was challenged – and ultimately defeated.

I felt a bit dizzy, as though I had stepped into a slightly surreal place that was there – but not entirely.

It then dawned on me how bizarre this was. It’s all very hard to explain and this experience was totally unexpected.

All the while, I thought how similar this was to the scenes in Twin Peaks: The Return, where David Lynch’s FBI character Deputy Dir. Gordon Cole is in Buckhorn, South Dakota and sees the swirling portal that nearly pulls him in – before Agent Albert Rosenfield (the late Miguel Ferrer) – grabs him and pulls him away from the maw of the vortex.

If you saw that particular scene, you will remember how dull and rundown this particular “portal” location appears. It’s a rundown house in a poor area of Buckhorn. And this particular railroad crossing at MLK and Tallahatchie had that same appearance. Nothing remarkable. But the spot itself had a distinct power that I was sensitive to.

And at a rail line. That made sense to me. Trains and railroads have played a key role in my life. My first record albums as a child were old folk songs about trains and railroads. And for my life, following this curious path - like a rail line - was something I had to do. Note how the train metaphor, particularly in the blues, represented salvation. (Check out Jimi Hendrix's "Hear My Train A Comin'" here).

So, does this particular location have anything to do with the Robert Johnson legend of meeting the Devil at the Crossroads? I really don’t know. I only know it is marked as such on Google Maps, and someone else commented that this location was significant in connection to the Crossroads legend.

But for me, well, I just happened upon it, having given up a few days earlier because I could not figure out the location on the map. Yet, here I was, as if drawn to it. It was exceedingly eerie, particularly as those wires buzzed and crackled above me and all around me. The energy was palpable.

I was reminded of what paranormal investigator John Keel wrote in his book The Mothman Prophecies, which I reviewed in 2017. I wrote: "Many have connected ley lines to paranormal activity. And we know what happened when the blues singer met the devil at the crossroads ... 

"In earlier times, fairies, demons, and even human witches practicing Black Sabbath rites, chose gravel pits, garbage dumps, cemeteries, and crossroads for their appearances," writes Keel. "Modern hairy monsters and UFOs select the same sites, and quite a few UFO contacts have occurred near crossroads or on highway still under construction at points where old highways once intersected. Derenberger's first contact with Cold was on a newly completed highway yards from an old intersection.

CROSSROADS,  PACIFIC STYLE

Flag of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (note sycamore tree in the background). (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

So, is it really any surprise that the US Navy codenamed their atomic bomb testing series in the Marshall Islands in 1946 “Operation CROSSROADS”? For me, the name is clear. The US government, the year before, had detonated an atomic bomb at the Trinity Site, along the Jornada Del Muerto in New Mexico.

And while the “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, was pleased at the success of the Trinity Test, he was full of apprehension about the forthcoming CROSSROADS tests, and told President Harry S Truman as much. “I have blood on my hands,” Oppenheimer is said to have told Truman, knowing his creation had led to hundreds of thousands of Japanese being killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Truman was not impressed.

And so Oppenheimer did not go to the Marshall Islands to observe the CROSSROADS tests, tests that would adversely affect the Marshallese and the marine life in that area with radioactive fallout and loss of their home islands that meant so much to them. It was a tragedy of catastrophic proportions – and done in the name of the State and the War Machine.

I thought of that as I was at that crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi – with two fascinated folks in the back of my vehicle who were along for the ride.

It’s downright eerie how things go in life, particularly when you pay close attention to the details – particularly when you find yourself at the crossroads.

UPDATE (4:45 p.m. Oct. 11, 2018): So, I finally got around to watching a video by Twin Peaks fan "Gisela" titled "Twin Peaks: The connections between sycamores and the portals - New York theory." And, as we have known since the original run of Twin Peaks, sycamore trees act as gateways to that next world ...

I am reminded of my April 6, 2017 Dust Devil Dreams post “Desaparecidos (upside down),” where I discussed unexplained disappearances, from a strange case involving a Brazilian man investigating paranormal phenomena to Special Agent Dale Cooper’s courageous crossing into the unknown when he goes to Glastonbury Grove, in Ghostwood Forest, and – where the sycamore trees are located, enters the gateway to the Black Lodge in hopes of saving Annie Blackburn.

So … what really grabbed my attention in the piece was the following:
"I'm reminded of the writer Ambrose Bierce. I am fascinated with the man. He lived an adventurous life, was a prominent journalist in the late 19th and early 20th century and wrote the famous story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which was later an episode of The Twilight Zone. He also wrote (unwittingly) about President William McKinley's assassination, something I wrote about in my McKinley assassination sync piece, "The red carnation."

Now, what is interesting about that is that this past week I had been thinking about Ambrose Bierce and assassinated President William McKinley. In fact, I had been considering writing the City of Oklahoma City to complain that the street signs for McKinley Avenue are shown as "Mckinley." It's just laziness on their part. And as for Bierce, while researching The Stilwell Enigma up in Kansas City, I stopped in at Prospero's Books and purchased a collection of Bierce's Civil War-related short stories.

But how does that connect with Clarksdale and the Crossroads? While watching Gisela's video and noting the sync/link between either sycamore trees or locations called "Sycamore," (as in Sycamore St. in Dougie Jones' Las Vegas subdivision or Sycamore Street in Buckhorn, South Dakota where the aforementioned portal was located) I had an odd feeling that there was a Sycamore Street in Clarksdale, Mississippi. And sure enough, I was right!

The red marker shows Sycamore Street running into and merging with N. State Street, going to the "Devil's Crossroads." It then goes southwest and runs into the railroad and Tallahatchie Street, linking with the second "Crossroads" location where I had my strange, electrical encounter. 

But I almost forgot. Right where Sycamore runs into State, it also runs into - McKinley Street! Named after the dead president. Note the rundown quality of that location (even a discarded rubber tire). The rest of Sycamore is weedy and rough, with a few residential spots that are more middle-class in appearance, via Google Earth.

Where Sycamore St. intersects with McKinley St. in Clarksdale, MS. (Google Maps/Google Earth)

I do believe David Lynch is on to something regarding the symbols he uses in Twin Peaks. The sycamore is certainly one. The two main trees in my own front yard are tall, old sycamores. And I do feel a certain energy when I am by them.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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