A father and daughter consider the past—and the future—on a road trip through the Mississippi Delta

An essay by writer Michael Knight

Illustration by Tom Haugomat

Drive north on Money Road out of Greenwood, Mississippi, and the town gives way in a hurry to cotton and corn, an occasional house set back from the road. Another few miles and the Little Zion M.B. Church appears, white clapboard, gravestones scattered beneath the trees, many of the stones so old the lettering is worn away. Here is the final resting place of fabled bluesman Robert Johnson, littered with mini bottles of bourbon left as tribute. Not much farther down the road, you’ll find the country store where 14-year-old Emmett Till was accused of whistling at a white woman in the summer of 1955. A few days later, he was abducted, beaten, and shot. His mother insisted on an open casket to show the world how he’d suffered at the hands of racists in the South.

At the end of her freshman year of college, I invited my oldest daughter on a road trip through the Mississippi Delta with the promise of round-the-clock blues music and no-limit shopping at several excellent independent bookstores. To sweeten the deal, I threw in accommodations at the Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood and the facial of her choice at the hotel spa. This trip was not-so-secretly about me, a few days alone with my oldest at a time when we were beginning to lose her to her own life. It was also about introducing her to a part of the world that holds a meaningful place in my imagination, not just because of the music, but because of the terrible history from which the music draws its power, lending the landscape a kind of gravity I’ve felt nowhere else.

The trip wasn’t all gravestones and historical markers. We booked time at the spa and loaded up on novels at Turnrow Books in Greenwood. At legendary Lusco’s, we ate shrimp broiled in butter and hot sauce and steaks buried in crabmeat. We followed Highway 49 to Clarksdale, where it meets Highway 61, the crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil for guitar prowess like the world had never seen. We hit Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, where my daughter bought more books and a letterpress print. We listened to Lightnin’ Malcolm and Howl-N-Madd Perry live at Ground Zero Blues Club.

I’m embarrassed to admit how many hours I’d spent curating playlists for the road, imagining that the blues would provide a soundtrack to conversations about the history of the South, its musical and literary legacies and the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, about how sharecroppers from Mississippi somehow created a spare but magical sound rooted in spirituals and field songs, a sound that would change music forever. A trip like that is akin to pressing your favorite novel on someone you care about. There’s a chance the other person won’t feel the way you feel.

To tell the truth, the actual crossroads was disappointing, bright flowerbeds and cartoonish guitars marking the site, decorated to conjure Disney rather than the devil. We had to dart across four lanes of traffic to take a selfie at the sign. Here was the spot where Robert Johnson knelt at midnight with his dreams and his cheap guitar, where Beelzebub himself came swirling out of the mist? You can tell by her expression in the selfie that my daughter was unimpressed.

But on the way back to Greenwood, she spotted a red clay track snaking off into the distance. We pulled a U-turn and bumped along until the track bisected another one just like it, nothing to see in any direction but fields and sky and light and shadows. To my surprise, she buried a lock of her hair, leaving a part of herself in that place. I snapped another picture then, my daughter at the crossroads. Neither of us had any idea where those tracks might lead.

Michael Knight is the author of three novels, three collections of short stories, and a book of novellas. He teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee.

This article appears in the Spring & Summer 2022 issue of Southbound.