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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
Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson
Ron "Pigpen" McKernan
Jean-Michel Basquiat (yes, he had a band, Gray)
Pete de Freitas
Richey Edwards (disappeared and presumed dead)
Sean Patrick McCabe
Jeremy Michael Ward
- Levi Kereama
- Amy Winehouse