“If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a crossroad is. A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he’ll tune it…”
– Tommy Johnson (1896-1956), celebrated bluesman.
Delta of the Damned
We were driving through the heart of the Mississippi Delta on a sacred mission. We were trying to locate the holy of holies for rock and roll musicians – the crossroads where, sometime during 1930, the influential bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for guitar expertise and fame. No one knows the exact location of Johnson’s crossroads. So we were relying on instincts to find it.
I was riding shotgun in a big red Cadillac we’d hired back in Jackson. Trinidadian singer Earl Marlowe was at the wheel, chain-smoking Marlboroughs and slugging from a bottle of Rebel Yell. The midday sun was burning down, and every so often I tipped a whole bottle of Bud over my head to cool off.
“Do you believe Robert Johnson really sold his soul to the Devil?” I asked Earl.
“Yeah, I believe it,” he answered. “You gotta believe it if you’re black. It’s the whites that don’t believe it.”
He explained that Johnson’s biographers and commentators tend to fall into two racial camps: the black bluesmen who knew him and believe he made a pact with the Devil at the crossroads, and the white folklorists and musicologists who don’t. So far as Earl was concerned, Johnson’s white biographers are university-educated intellectuals, full of pompous rationality. Accordingly, they describe him as an “existential” blues singer who died young and tragically and compare him to white romantic figures such as Orpheus, John Keats, and James Dean. Earl was utterly repelled by this. “They paintin’ a white face on a black man,” he insisted. “Why, in the name of the Devil himself, don’t they at least compare Johnson to Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley!?”
Earl argued that white authors tend to distort Johnson’s story to the point that it reads more like Shakespeare’s tragedy “Hamlet” than what it really is – an odyssey into the world of Hoodoo.
“You wanna find the key to Robert Johnson, then study Hoodoo,” he stated. “But there ain’t many white intellectuals got the guts to do that.”
In Earl’s view, the Faustian pact mythos surrounding Robert Johnson simply reveals that he had been involved with a Hoodoo practitioner who taught him the mystical lore of the crossroads.
Man behind the myth
As we drove further down the dusty roads of Mississippi, we sank into silence and I mused on Robert Johnson’s life story — the facts of which are sketchy and vague. He was probably born on May 8th, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi — the result of a brief extramarital affair between Julia Ann Dodds and a local plantation worker called Noel Johnson. Two years previously, Julia’s husband Charlie had been run out of Hazlehurst by a lynch mob, due to falling out with some prominent local landowners, called the Marchetti brothers. The Marchettis later evicted Julia from her home, forcing her to send her children, including Robert, to live with Charlie, who had settled in Memphis, Tennessee, with his mistress and their two children. But around 1918 or 1920, Robert returned to the Delta, to the area around Robinsonville, to live with his mother and her new husband, Dusty Willis. Robert is said to have taken on the name Johnson as a teenager when he learned who his real father was. Up until then he’d been called Robert Leroy Dodds Spencer.
Music was a long-time interest for Johnson. His first instruments were the Jew’s harp and the harmonica. Before he became seriously involved with the guitar, however, he married Virginia Travis in February, 1929, and the young couple soon became expectant parents. But tragedy struck when Virginia, only sixteen years old, died in childbirth in 1930.
Around June of that year, renowned blues musician Son House moved to Robinsonville. His music deeply affected Johnson, who considered it the “rawest, most direct pure emotion” he had ever heard and he followed House and his musical partner, Willie Brown, wherever they went.
By this time he had dedicated himself to playing the guitar, but apparently didn’t have much of a gift for the instrument. Commenting on his playing, Son House said, “Such another racket you ever heard! It made people mad, you know. They’d come out and say, ‘Why don’t y’all go in there and get that guitar from that boy! He’s running people crazy with it’.”
“He’s was so good!”
Unhappy and unwilling to be caught in the sharecropper’s world of backbreaking work with little reward, Johnson left Robinsonville, and headed deep into the Delta, to near Hazlehurst, his birthplace. There he played the juke joints, which were tumbledown shanties where people danced, drank, gambled and listened to music. He also found a “kind and loving woman” more than ten years his senior, named Calletta “Callie” Craft. The couple were married in May 1931, but, at Johnson’s insistence, they kept the marriage a secret.
Johnson’s time in Southern Mississippi was very important because it was there that his musical talent came to fruition. When he returned to Robinsonville, Son House and Willie Brown were astounded by his development.
“He was so good!” recalled Son. “When he finished, all our mouths were standing open. I said, ‘Well, ain’t that fast! He’s gone now!'”
This was when rumors began about Johnson trading his soul to the Devil in exchange for guitar expertise. Not only had be suddenly become a brilliant musician, but he had also gained extraordinary charisma, to the point that his performance often moved a crowd to tears and also attracted many blues players, destined to become famous in their own right, as his disciples. On top of all this, his career took off.
“He sold hisself to the Devil…”
The idea that you could sell your soul to the Devil in exchange for talent and fame was not new. It had been a part of black culture for years. The Rev. LeDell Johnson (no relation to Robert) described how his brother Tommy, like Robert Johnson, left home scarcely able to play the guitar and came back an accomplished musician:
“Now, if Tom was living, he’d tell you. He said the reason he knowed so much, said he sold hisself to the Devil. I asked how. He said, ‘If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ‘fore 12.00 that night so you know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself. A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.'”
Son House was convinced that Robert Johnson had done the same thing, as were many other blues players.
In performance, Johnson played the songs of other bluesmen as well as his own. Depending on the crowd, he also played popular tunes by performers such as Bing Crosby, as well as various ballads and sentimental songs of yesteryear. When he made up his mind to record, he approached H.C. Speir, a white record store owner in Jackson, Mississippi. Speir sent him to Ernie Oertle, a scout for the American Record Company label group, who was duly impressed. Oertle and Johnson went to San Antonio late in November, 1936. There, over a period of five days, Johnson recorded some sixteen songs, including “Terraplane Blues”, “Kindhearted Woman Blues”, “Cross Road Blues”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”, and “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)”. When he was finished, he returned home to Mississippi. Being a recording artist brought Johnson a good degree of fame; he now found eager and expectant crowds nearly everywhere he played. Johnson returned to recording in 1937, this time in Dallas, where he laid down “Hellhound On My Trail”, “Little Queen Of Spades”, “Me And The Devil Blues” and “Love in Vain”, amongst others.
During the next year, Johnson travelled to such places as St. Louis, Memphis, Illinois, and back home to the Delta. Then, on Saturday night, August 13th, 1938, at a juke joint named Three Forks, near Greenwood, Johnson played his last gig. Of the many rumors concerning Johnson’s death, poisoning is the most substantiated. His death certificate was found in 1968, verifying that he died in Greenwood, Mississippi. He was buried in a small church in nearby Morgan City.
One of the few certainties about Robert Johnson’s life and music is the lasting effect it has had on popular music and culture. Although not a household name himself, some of those who aspired to be like him are. Rock legends Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Eric Clapton (Cream), The Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley, were all inspired by the music of Robert Johnson. And in turn, their music has had an enormous impact on the development of pop, rock, country, and blues — as well as on the styles of music that continue to derive from these forms.
The first person to record a cover of a Johnson song was Tommy McClenna, who reworked “Sweet Home Chicago”. Other bluesmen who covered Johnson tunes were Muddy Waters with “Kindhearted Woman Blues”, and Elmore James with “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”. During the late 1960s, Eric Clapton, then of rock trio Cream fame, covered “Cross Road Blues” and “From Four Till Late”, and The Rolling Stones did a country-flavored version of “Love in Vain”. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin made numerous references to Johnson in their songs. “The Lemon Song” (from the 1969 album “Led Zeppelin 2”, for instance, borrows the Johnson line “You can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice runs down my leg”; and a lyric in “The Ocean” (from the 1973 album “Houses of the Holy”) makes direct reference to Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail.” Rumor has it that Robert Plant keeps a vial of dirt, supposedly from Johnson’s crossroads.
At the very heart of blues and rock music, both of which have been described as the “Devil’s music”, lies the shadow of the Faustian pact, as epitomized by Robert Johnson. But behind the Faustian pact mythos lies the Hoodoo lore of the crossroads. In Southern black communities during Robert Johnson’s time, it was a commonly held notion that you could go to a crossroads and meet the Devil. This concept has its roots in the African belief that a guardian spirit inhabits the crossroads. The Yoruba tribes of Nigeria call this spirit Eshu, while the Fon of Dahomey call it Legba. This spirit is the intermediary not only between the supreme deity and the gods, but also between humans and the gods. This is why, in all African-derived religions worldwide, the crossroads deity is always first to be honored and called upon in any ceremony.
The crossroads deity is also a trickster. An unpredictable character, whose jokes and tricks are normally mischievous and benign, but do sometimes turn malicious. This aspect of the trickster is no doubt why the Christians, when they arrived in Africa, associated him with the Devil. The blacks who were taken to America as a result of the slave trade retained the demonic appellation, particularly in the Southern States. But for them, the Devil wasn’t the evil terror of Judeo-Christian belief. On the contrary, he was a tutelary spirit, who could teach you both physical and mental skills. Even his trickster nature served a teaching function in that it showed that being unpredictable and doing the unexpected were, in fact, creative and effective approaches to solving problems.
The tutelary aspect of the crossroads deity was emphasized by a friend of Earl’s, the Rev. Gary Fox, a Texan conjure man, whom we visited before embarking on our odyssey into the Mississippi Delta.
“The Devil ain’t nobody to be afeared of,” insisted Fox. “He a spirit, like any other spirit. Ain’t no better, ain’t no worse. But if you want to learn how to do something – like how to play the guitar or banjo, or how to do sorcery, then you have to sell yourself to the Devil. That’s the way it is.”
I asked him how one would go about this?
“You have to go to the cemetery at the stroke of midnight for nine nights, and get some dirt and bring it back with you and put it in a little bottle,” he replied. “Then find a place where the roads cross, a crossroads, and at midnight, for nine nights, sit there and try to play that guitar. Don’t care what you see come there, don’t get ‘fraid and run away.’
What do people see? I asked.
“Mostly they see black animals. Might be a black rooster, black bull, black dog or cat — even a black snake or lion. Usually, it’s raining and a thunderin’ too. Some say a black smoke comes down so’s you can’t see anything. Then on the last midnight there will come a rider, in the form of the Devil, riding at lightning speed. You stay there, still playing your guitar, and when he has passed, you can play any tune you want to play or do any magic trick you want because you have sold yourself to the Devil.”
From what the Rev. Gary Fox said, it is evident that selling your soul to the Devil doesn’t have particularly dire implications. The myth surrounding Robert Johnson implies that in exchange for fame and guitar brilliance you die young, forfeit your soul and spend eternity in Hell. But this isn’t born out by the evidence, as reported by actual Hoodoo practitioners. I was beginning to wonder if the Hoodoo notion of selling your soul to the Devil is more a metaphor to describe gaining contact with your unconscious mind, the instinctive and creative aspect of ourselves. At the crossroads you learn to enter trance and thus, in effect, allow the unconscious mind (the “Devil”?) to come to the fore. My take on what happened to Robert Johnson is that he went to a lonely crossroads, played some guitar, and experienced visions on a par with those experienced by shamans during their initiatory vision quest. This allowed his unconscious, or inner-genius, to take control of his guitar playing – thus his musicianship became outstanding. It also brought him a high level of charisma – which is something you can learn to exude through profound contact with your unconscious resources.
None of this is to say that the Devil, or the spirit of the crossroads, did not appear to Robert Johnson. It all depends on what model of reality you’re using. If you believe in the Devil, as Johnson and other bluesmen did, then the Devil will appear. If you believe in the unconscious, then the unconscious will manifest itself. What matters is the results you get.
By sundown Earl and I had found what we instinctively felt was the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil. We parked up the Cadillac and sat down in the center of the dusty crossing of the ways. I set up my Vox battery amplifier, plugged my Fender Stratocaster guitar into it, and began to play a slow, haunting blues to match the sunset. Earl blew a delicate tune on his harmonica to go along with it, then he gently sang a lyric I’d written, which went:
“In the heat of the moment,
this miracle like an ancient rain,
falling north of the city of time,
where I will wait for you, wait for you.
And in the evening when the white dust falls,
we’ll escape the mundane days.
“Hear the sky splashing softly
on the east side of paradise,
in the rainbow land,
where a Hoodoo sun shines, and a mojo rain falls.”
After we’d had something to eat, we pulled out our sleeping bags and went to sleep beside Robert Johnson’s crossroads, under the Delta stars.