Times were tough for an old black man working the fields. Jim had been working the fields for as long as he could remember and that wasn’t about to change either. Mississippi was a hard place for a black sharecroppers son to cut his teeth and Jim knew he’d never leave those fields unless it was in a casket. He had always wondered what life must’ve been like for all those white boys his age. There were always reading and writing and playing games outside. Jim had seen them. Always seen them with balls and sticks and good hats while Jim and the other black boys had the sun beat their brow and the fields arch their backs to work. Jim knew there was a better life out there than what he had.
That promise of a better life is what brought Jim down to the crossroads. He grew up hearing about all the stories about a man getting to cut heads with the devil down there. The legend said that if you could bring you guitar and outplay the Devil he’d give you all the fame and fortune you could ever want. But, if you didn’t win, you’d lose your soul. Jim never thought much about his soul, but he knew about picking cotton and he’d trade anything to not pick another bushel.
He reached the crossroads after a good days walk. This had better turn out right because missing a days work was going to cut deep into his whiskey fund. His dreadnought was slung over his back and he took a rag out to wipe his forehead. The sweat fell to his shirt from the heat and he felt a lump in his throat. He looked at the spot where the two roads met in the near darkness and saw there was a chair underneath a tree with a lantern hanging on a branch.
“My Lord the devil is a -waitin on me,” Jim whispered.
He felt his whole body tense at the sight. He had it set in his mind he was going to cut heads with the devil and wake up tomorrow the best guitar picker in the Mississippi Delta. He hadn’t considered that he’d have to face the Devil himself. His sweat went cold. His eyes grew huge. He could feel his numb fingertips in his clenched fists. He tried to step and his legs felt like logs. His feet were like the blocks of ice those white folks kept in boxes in the kitchen. He knew it was too late to turn back. You abandoned the good Lord when you went down to the crossroads and Jim was here already.
The sky was growing dark now and the lantern’s light was dim and shallow. He looked back toward home and saw rain clouds coming in. He felt his bones grow hollow and twist with the weather. A storm was brewing, he just didn’t know which kind. He was breathing through his mouth now and couldn’t keep his eyes from darting back and forth on the horizon. There was nothing in any direction, just the crossroads and that tree, the meeting place, where Old Jim would cut heads with the Devil.
He took a deep breath and sat down. He put his guitar on his knee and hit chord. The sound resonated for miles underneath the darkening sky. He looked around almost expecting to see the one they call Scratch just walk up and touch him with his cold hands. He fingered another chord and noticed his hand was shaking. The sweat now mixed with tears as he began to play s few disjointed notes. He felt a cold breeze come over his wet face. His red eyes darted side to side looking, just waiting to see the devil walk up out the corner of his eye. He closed his eyes and started playing.
The music rang out in contrast to the desolate fields. The dusty dirt roads and the empty, dead fields were bathed in the guitar picking of a desperate man. He picked his guitar with a ferocity he had never known. He howled Sweet Home Chicago and picked the notes like his life depended on it. Every note he held he felt his finger grow colder. Every chord made his stomach knot and contort. The sounds coming from his mouth were guttural and loud and made with pure fear. He played like his music was a weapon to stave off that cold touch of the devil. The tears ran from his face and he felt the footsteps get closer to him on the ground. He breathed the dust that his heels kicked up. The devil must have been right beside him. The howling grew louder and the notes got bent to the breaking point. The cold tears and sweat made his cheeks freeze with the cold wind that blew.
He played in this fashion for a time. The sky was black now and the breeze turned into a heavy wind. He had long since lost his voice and was rasping through 32-20 blues when the lightning lit the sky. His sad eyes almost left their sockets when he saw it. A second later the thunder blasted his ears and his excited hand ripped through two guitar strings. Mouth open, gasping for air, he looked down. The silence overwhelmed him. He threw his guitar on the ground and jumped out of that old wooden chair. He saw footprints on the ground fear shot through him. He eyed his guitar lying on the dirt road and then looked to the sky. As the rain began to wash down in the Mississippi valley that night, a tired old black man named Jim ran back home as fast as he could.
He never touched a guitar again in his life.