DELTA BLUES LEGEND ROBERT JOHNSON
It has to rank up there as one of the music’s spookiest legends.
Aspiring Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson, hellbent on guitar immortality, meets the Devil at a rural Mississippi crossroads at midnight. He’s there to bargain for a classic Faustian trade: complete mastery of his instrument in exchange for his immortal soul. The Devil accepts, and Johnson hands over his guitar to Lucifer, who tunes it, plays a few songs, and then returns it to Johnson along with the promised talent. Soon after, Robert wows audiences and beats out rivals with a virtuosic new blues style. But the fame is short-lived. The Devil comes to collect in August 1938, and Johnson dies mysteriously on the eve of a Carnegie Hall performance that would have made him a legend—apart from any spooky stories.
So goes the most repeated version of the so-called Crossroads legend. But how did the iconic bluesman’s name get attached to such a dark story in the first place? Like much about Johnson’s life, the origins of the Crossroads legend are murky, and at best, the story appears to be loosely woven from the few known facts about Johnson’s life.
What we do know about Johnson is this: He was born in 1911 in rural Mississippi, where he and his family worked on a plantation. It was clear that the young Robert had a thirst for music right from the start, and he would often nag the older Delta blues musicians for a chance to play. At that time, however, Johnson was remembered more for how terrible his guitar playing was than for the revolutionary blues style that would inspire rock legends like Eric Clapton and countless others.
Robert Johnson’s talent could easily have been lost to history. In fact, when his original recordings were reissued by Columbia Records in 1961, he was so obscure the record company didn’t even have a photo of him for the album cover.
So, Johnson retreated to the “woodshed,” a time-honored practice that has served many an embarrassed musician over the years. Like Charlie Parker, who famously practiced night and day after being chased from the bandstand by a flying cymbal flung by drummer Jo Jones, Johnson flung himself into his craft, emerging some time later with a mastery of the guitar. How long Jonhson spent in the ‘shed is not known; estimates range from a couple of months to a couple of years. Adding to the mystique is the fact that his intense study took place during a period in which Robert had moved out of the Delta. In fact, historians believe that the Crossroads legend could have originated upon his return to Mississippi, where the old timers, who Robert could now play circles around, may have come up with the Faustian tale in order to discredit the young upstart.
Several other details about Johnson’s life also have fed the legend over time. He did, in fact, love singing about the Devil. “Hellhound On My Trail,” “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Up Jumped the Devil” are all Johnson classics. As is his “Crossroads Blues,” which seems to provide the setting for the legend (though it doesn’t even mention the Devil and, if you listen to the lyrics, is clearly a song about hitchhiking).
In addition, his untimely death at the age of 27 adds another layer of mystique to an already mysterious biography. Back in 1938, the legendary talent scout John Hammond wanted to book Johnson for a performance at Carnegie Hall—the now-famous “From Spirituals to Swing” concert, which featured Count Basie and Big Joe Turner and would have likely made Johnson a star overnight. But Johnson died of mysterious causes before word from Hammond ever reached him. Explanations for Johnson’s death range from poisoning to bad moonshine, though the official cause listed on the back of his death certificate is syphilis.
One of the more streamlined explanations for the Crossroads legend is that it’s a simple case of mistaken identity. An earlier Delta bluesman by the name of Johnson—this one Tommy Johnson—apparently told a near-identical story of his devilish talents as a way of cultivating a more mysterious persona, and it’s possible the story later got attached to Robert Johnson by mistake. Whatever story you choose to believe, though, Robert Johnson’s name and the Crossroads legend now seem permanently linked. And no doubt many people will have a hard time giving it up, especially this time of year.
Check out Johnson’s 1937 recording of “Hellhound On My Trail” for a little of the iconic bluesman’s devilish side.