Robert Johnson: the Legend, the Devil, the Crossroads, and 27

The Dark of a Moonless Night...

 Story of the bluesman, the Devil, and the deal at the crossroads, as retold in Stephen Davis's Hammer of the Gods.

In the delta of the Mississippi River, where Robert Johnson was born, they said that if an aspiring bluesman waited by the side of a deserted country crossroads in the dark of a moonless night, then Satan himself might come and tune his guitar, sealing a pact for the bluesman's soul and guaranteeing a lifetime of easy money, women, and fame. They said that Robert Johnson must have waited by the crossroads and gotten his guitar fine-tuned.

Highway 61 intersects with Highway 49 aka the Crossroads

"I went down to the crossroads and fell down on my knees, asked the Lord up above for mercy, save poor Bob if you please." --Cross Road Blues by Robert Johnson

"You may bury my body down by the highway side so my old evil spirit can get a Greyhound bus and ride." --Me And The Devil Blues by Robert Johnson

"If you want to learn to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a crossroads is. A big black man will walk up there at the stroke of midnight and take your guitar, and he'll tune it..." --LeDell Johnson

Robert Johnson’s life is a blend of folklore and mystery. His life is engulfed in myth and legend; adding the myth is his haunting lyrics. And his impressive, innovative country guitar style; you can quickly see why he is known by many as the father of the Delta Bues. Robert Johnson’s guitar playing was the beginning of the his legend. Robert was heavily influenced originally by Son House and Charley Patton, but Johnson quickly found his own style with unique chord movements and note progressions. Robert traveled throughout the Deep South in the 1930’s playing anywhere the train happened to take him. Son House had known Robert when he began to learn to play. House went on the road and did not see Robert for three or four years, and when Son and Johnson finally did meet again, House was astounded by Robert’s impressive guitar playing....but....

Just how did Robert learn to play so well so fast?

Robert Johnson was a Mississippi blues singer and songwriter, who according to legend, sold his soul to Satan "at the crossroads" in exchange for his remarkable talent on the guitar.

Born and raised in Mississippi, Robert Johnson started playing blues guitar in the late 1920s. His wife and child died in childbirth around 1930 and he is said to have devoted himself to the guitar. Part of the crossroads story comes from a report that he dropped out of sight for a while in the early 1930s and returned a much-improved guitarist.

In 1936-37 he recorded at least 29 songs in Texas (San Antonio and Dallas), then returned to Mississippi to play and sing in clubs and bars. His mysterious death at the age of 27 added to the legend: He died in 1938, falling ill after playing a party and dying four days later.

Some people said that Robert’s deal with the devil came due and as evidence gave the fact that they had seen him on all fours, howling at the moon the night he died.

...Or that he was shot by a jealous husband ( Robert was not shy with the ladies, and often stayed in strange towns with women he found at the places he played at. ). Or stabbed by a woman.

The truth is that Robert was poisoned, either by the barkeeper at the saloon he played that night, who was angry because Robert had been talking to his wife, or by a jealous girlfriend.

Whatever the reason, Johnson died at the young age of twenty-seven, and left a legacy of Delta Blues music that has influenced guitar players like Muddy Waters, and his songs have been covered by several rock stars, including Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones.

In 1986 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His songs include "Crossroad Blues," "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Terraplane Blues."

Adding To Robert's Mystic and Folklore...

Those who saw Robert Johnson play, may have also heard the rumors. Just like anyone who possesses an extraordinary talent and skill... Jealous counterparts circulated vicious rumors about Johnson.

In fact, it was Robert's one time friend and mentor, the great Son House who stated "He sold his soul to play like that". Johnson's peculiarities added to the rumors.

Some fans thought that he had the "evil eye". Actually, he suffered from a small cataract. Also, it has been reported that Johnson would turn his back to the audience while playing. Robert would also leave suddenly from a performance, and sometimes even during breaks in his set. While today such actions are not considered odd, In those days they were. Many people took it to mean that he was a man with something to hide. Actually, Johnson was doing some things that many musicians still do today. It's not uncommon to leave right after a performance in order to avoid mob scenes and the company that maybe around after a show. Eddie Van Halen, for example, also would turn from the crowd during club shows; to hide his technique from other guitarists.

Johnson's choice of teacher did nothing to slow the Legend from spreading His instructor, Ike Zinnerman, was alleged to have learned to play the guitar at night sitting atop tombstones in old country churchyards.

In certain southern communities, it was a well-known notion that one could go to the crossroads and sell one's soul to the devil. The concept dates back to African Folklore. When deity Esu was believed to be the guardian of the crossroads, and was the laision between the gods and humans.

When Christianity was brought to African Culture, these pagan gods were labeled as being similar to the devil. Hence, the concept that one could find the devil at a crossroad.

In celtic tradition, the bodies of the unholy were buried outside of town near crossroads to preserve consecrated ground. Witchcraft and the devil are prominent topics in early blues....and Robert's music is no exception.

Me And Devil - Robert Johson

"Old 8": The True Crossroads

Highway 61 runs south, right through the middle of the delta. It intersects Highway 49 at Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Clarksdale is the birth place pf many blues legends. It was the home to such people Muddy Waters, W.C. Handy, Junior Parker and John Lee Hooker, just to name a few.

Over the years, Clarksdale has become known as the home of the blues, so it was just assumed that this is where The Crossroads were. In later years, ''61/49 Clarksdale'' has been so heavily advertised as The Crossroads.

But, in Memphis a couple of different sources, claim that 61 and 49 are not The Crossroads. The legend supposedly began around the turn of the century from the originators of the blues ... at Dockery Farms. The location given by a couple of sources is ''WHERE DOCKERY ROAD CROSSES OLD HIGHWAY 8'' This would be between Cleveland and Ruleville.

The ''Old 8'' runs parallel to the current Highway 8, just south of it. The "Old 8" is still there - it's a dirt road.

The Crossroads...... could you just stand there... at the Crossroads on a dark moonless night?

Rumor Has It...

That Eric Clapton was the first to use the term, "the 27 Club." He himself has claimed to have narrowly escaped the spector of death at the age of 27 due mainly to heroin addiction. But many famous musicians have fallen prey to the imfamous club that was founded by Robert Johnson.

Some Others That The Devil Collected His Due... All at the age of 27

  • Brian Jones
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Janis Joplin
  • Jim Morrison
  • Kurt Cobain
  • Brad Nowell
  • Jesse Belvin
  • Malcolm Hale
  • Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson
  • Linda Jones
  • Ron "Pigpen" McKernan
  • Dave Alexander
  • Pete Ham
  • Gary Thain
  • Helmut Köllen
  • Chris Bell
  • D. Boon
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat (yes, he had a band, Gray)
  • Pete de Freitas
  • Mia Zapata
  • Kristen Pfaff
  • Richey Edwards (disappeared and presumed dead)
  • Fat Pat
  • Freaky Tah
  • Sean Patrick McCabe
  • Jeremy Michael Ward
  • Bryan Ottoson
  • Valentín Elizalde
  • Levi Kereama
  • Amy Winehouse

Robert Johnson- Crossroad

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Comments 27 comments

JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Thanks, SJ!  I'm gonna have to call a certain skinny white guitar player who *insisted* we *had* to go over to Clarksdale after a King Biscuit Blues Festival one year, and tell him he's flat-out *wrong* about the location of THE crossroads!  It's NOT at 61/49???  Really!  Then thankgawd we didn't stop (it was raining) to take the pic he said he *had* to have to put on posters for his gigs!

But we did tour the Blues Museum in downtown Clarksdale.  A verrrry interesting place!  And thanks to this fellow, I could recite the progression of blues greats in my sleep: Robert Johnson...Muddy Waters...Buddy Guy...Jimi Hendrix...Eric Clapton...Stevie Ray Vaughan.  (Sure hope I didn't leave anybody out or put them in the wrong order - maybe Eric then Jimi? - it's been a few years...)

At any rate, RJ's playing may sound tinny, but it's exactly what blues *should* sound like on a hot night in the Delta. 

Great hub!  Thanks!


goldentoad profile image

goldentoad 7 years ago from Free and running....

I had to bookmark this one.


Dink96 profile image

Dink96 7 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

I've been to "the crossroads" myself a few times (have pix), as well as Clarksdale, Helena, AR, Beale Street in Memphis.  Driving through that low country next to the Mississippi, you can only imagine what back-breaking labor it was to toil for 10 hours or more a day under a hot sun picking cotton.  Now that's what gave birth to the blues.  At that time, they had not yet moved Muddy Water's home from Dockery plantation to Clarksdale and I tried to locate it, but 10 years ago, not many people around there were much interested in capitalizing on the blues tourist dollars as they are today. 


Peppermint Thrift profile image

Peppermint Thrift 7 years ago

Awesome hub! I love the folklore surrounding musicians and their involvement with selling their souls to become super. I have always wondered about the Rolling Stones - they're not the most prolific speakers but their lyrics are and there has been much controversy about their satanic involvement. I'm so glad I found you're hubs - they're very interesting!


Joe Russ 7 years ago from Kill Devill Hills, NC

What a great hub! Are you a guitar player? I am and am a Blues nut. I spent 12 years in Nashville and got to tour with Percy Sledge, Curtis Mayfield's Impressions, Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose and more. There are some incredible blues bands in Nashville. Jimmy Hall from Wet Willie plays all over town all the time. He's great. You obviously did a lot of research for this site.

I've been thinking about doing a series of hubs on old blues pioneers like Lightening Hopkins, T Bone Walker and more. You've already got the the man covered, that's great. I'll look for more of your hubs. I have a guitar series on here called "Guitar Lessons That Don't Suck" Check them out if you get a chance.

Thanks again and keep on wid it.

My email is joeruss56@gmail.com

Have a good one

Joe


mattberrigan 7 years ago

Wow! Great Hub! Thanks for the time and effort. So much content!


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Thank you for taking the time to check out a little bit of music's greatest legends... You are all so kind.


Hannah Whatley 7 years ago

Oh my what an interesting hub! I am so becoming your fan! Check out my hubs sometime!

-h


gusripper profile image

gusripper 7 years ago

Hell of a guitar dude,i tried a lot to play like him but...............................maybe i should have shold my should for rock and roll


gwinto500 profile image

gwinto500 6 years ago

I've read this story so many times and just love it! For me it sums up the early Delta Blues: Great guitar playing, great lyrics, hard drinking and I guess hard times.


St.James profile image

St.James 6 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

I'm happy you enjoyed this Hub. It was started because someone once asked about the "27 Club" and it just grew from there


Yvo 6 years ago

you forgot to mention Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon in the 27 club


St.James profile image

St.James 6 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Yvo, Just to let you know Shannon Hoon died at age 28 (September 26, 1967 – October 21, 1995)... which is why I didn't meantion him in the "27 Club" he was NOT 27 years old when he died


shauky profile image

shauky 6 years ago

St.James u just saved me a lot of trouble. I've been trying to get some background on blues roots - and to get inspired with playing some blues, for the last couple of days - this hub just did both of that for me. Growing up I saw that 'Crossroads' movie with Steve Vai and it fixed me up with something bad for the blues. Thanks for reminding me about that.

For a bit of unconventional 'blues' from Maldives, please read my hub on Maldives music anthology.

Thank you and remind me to buy you a drink.


paranormalinvestigators 6 years ago

were actually researching the crossroads phenomenon and its history and poor lost souls


Cornbread 6 years ago

The article says "But, in Memphis a couple of different sources, claim that 61 and 49 are not The Crossroads. The legend supposedly began around the turn of the century from the originators of the blues ... at Dockery Farms. The location given by a couple of sources is ''WHERE DOCKERY ROAD CROSSES OLD HIGHWAY 8'' This would be between Cleveland and Ruleville." It doesn't say that 61/49 aren't the crossroads.


james 6 years ago

mondo


ellie-may  5 years ago

aparantly after he made the deal and near the end of his time he was seeing things and said he could see hellhounds then he went missing when they found him he was dead


Jalene Rose profile image

Jalene Rose 5 years ago from ~the center~

I read your hub from start to finish with great interest.

Thank-you sincerely,

~Jalene Rose~


Radman1 5 years ago

I love the music of Robert Johnson, and love even more the mystery that surrounds him. Thanks for an interesting read. I never knew that there was a particular location for "the" crossroads, I always just assumed he was singing about any place where two roads crossed.


leozorn 5 years ago

MY FRIENDS LOOK OVER YOUR SHOULDER, THEM HELL-HOUNDS STILL A'COMING GOD HELP US ALL, BRING BACK THE REAL BLUES


Syrus 5 years ago

How about adding Amy Whinehouse to the list?

Seems like here time came due.

Folks like us, there ain't no happy ending.


aaliha 5 years ago

this is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo freaky i had to research the 27s club for a school project along with robert johnson and i came to this sit to find some information not to be scared to death!!!!!!!help.......


mississippiwife profile image

mississippiwife 5 years ago from somewhere in SoCal...

I am so happy to see a comment that acknowledges Stevie Ray Vaughan as part of the line of bluesmen!! B.B. King recognized Stevie early on!!


mistabluesman profile image

mistabluesman 4 years ago from Reno, Texas

Great read. Thanks for sharing your finds and thoughts! I have many of my own as well. Doc "MistaBluesman" Quinn


traged 4 years ago

Yeah i would call for Amy Whinehouse as well. She would deserve to be in the list...


cat on a soapbox profile image

cat on a soapbox 4 years ago from Los Angeles

Hi St. James, Loved this hub! Definitely a legend who will live on through those he' influenced. The "27 Club" really is kind of freaky. I remember the deaths of most of those on the list but never realized that age was a factor in common. Enlightening! Thank you for the awesome info. :)

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