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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Robert Johnson's Infamous Crossroads Deal with the Devil

Is the Devil real?  And did the late blues guitarist Robert Johnson really sell his soul to the Dark Prince at "The Crossroads" sometime in the early-mid part of the last century?

In this post, we will take a look at the legendary tale of Johnson's supposed deal with the Devil, while enjoying the songs allegedly written by Johnson while under the Devil's not so divine influence.  We will also take a brief look at some of the other famous musicians that have been inspired by Johnson's work, including Led Zepplin and Eric Clapton.

We know that Robert Johnson famously claimed to have encountered him at these mysterious crossroads.  While the exact location is a matter for debate, it is generally believed that is was somewhere in Southeast Louisiana (east of New Orleans) or Southwest Mississippi.  The alleged meeting is said to have yielded a deal in which Johnson sold his soul to the Prince of Darkness in exchange for becoming the most influential blues guitarist in the world's history.

As is typically the case when one bargains with Satan, the Devil is in the details.  Johnson died a few short years later and did not live to enjoy his new found success.  He recorded an album or two in a dingy, one-room studio and went on his way trying to stay a step ahead of the Hell Hounds on his trail.

On the album were a couple songs that forever changed music in America and have served as inspiration to most if not all of the great American and British musicians of the past 75 years.  Most famous among them is the song "Crossroad Blues," in which Johnson recants his meeting with the Devil in bittersweet terms.

Robert Johnson: "Crossroad Blues"



That song ("Crossroad Blues") has been incorporated into songs from dozens if not hundreds of Rock and Roll musicians including Eric Clapton and Led Zepplin.

Eric Clapton: "Crossroads"



Led Zepplin: "Crossroads"

"Crossroads" does not began until about seven minutes and twenty seconds into the video. I would recommend skipping ahead until about the 7:20 mark of the video and letting it play from there.



According to some of the rumors that have circulated in the time since Johnson died, that meeting and that song started the modern trend of celebrities from the music and film industries selling their souls to the Devil in exchange for success.  Some people believe many if not most of them have made such a pact, others are a bit more skeptical. Others doubt the theory entirely.

The Devil Legend (Compliments of Wikipedia)
According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Robert Johnson was branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician. He was "instructed" to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. The "Devil" played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This was, in effect, a deal with the Devil mirroring the legend of Faust. In exchange for his soul, Robert Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous.
Various accounts

This legend was developed over time, and has been chronicled by Gayle Dean Wardlow,[31] Edward Komara[32] and Elijah Wald, who sees the legend as largely dating from Johnson's rediscovery by white fans more than two decades after his death.[33] Son House once told the story to Pete Welding as an explanation of Johnson's astonishingly rapid mastery of the guitar. Welding reported it as a serious belief in a widely read article in Down Beat in 1966.[34] Other interviewers failed to elicit any confirmation from House and there were fully two years between House's observation of Johnson as first a novice and then a master.

Further details were absorbed from the imaginative retellings by Greil Marcus[35] and Robert Palmer.[36] Most significantly, the detail was added that Johnson received his gift from a large black man at a crossroads. There is dispute as to how and when the crossroads detail was attached to the Robert Johnson story. All the published evidence, including a full chapter on the subject in the biography Crossroads by Tom Graves, suggests an origin in the story of Tommy Johnson. This story was collected from his musical associate Ishman Bracey and his elder brother Ledell in the 1960s.[37] One version of Ledell Johnson's account was published in 1971 David Evans's[disambiguation needed] biography of Tommy,[38] and was repeated in print in 1982 alongside Son House's story in the widely read Searching for Robert Johnson.[39]

In another version, Ledell placed the meeting not at a crossroads but in a graveyard. This resembles the story told to Steve LaVere that Ike Zinnerman of Hazelhurst, Mississippi learned to play the guitar at midnight while sitting on tombstones. Zinnerman is believed to have influenced the playing of the young Robert Johnson.[40] Recent research by blues scholar Bruce Conforth uncovered Ike Zinnerman's daughter and the story becomes much clearer, including the fact that Johnson and Zinnerman did practice in a graveyard at night (because it was quiet and no one would disturb them) but that it was not the Hazlehurst cemetery as had been believed. Johnson spent about a year living with, and learning from, Zinnerman, who ultimately accompanied Johnson back up to the Delta to look after him. Conforth's article in Living Blues magazine goes into much greater detail.[41]
The legendary "Crossroads" at Clarksdale, Mississippi.

The film O Brother Where Art Thou? by the Coen Brothers incorporates the crossroads legend and a young African American blues guitarist named Tommy Johnson, with no other biographical similarity to the real Tommy Johnson or to Robert Johnson. There are now tourist attractions claiming to be "The Crossroads" at Clarksdale and in Memphis.[42]
[edit] His own account

Johnson seems to have claimed occasionally that he had sold his soul to the Devil, but it is not clear that he meant it seriously, and these claims are strongly disputed in Tom Graves' biography of Johnson, Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, published in 2008. The crossroads detail was widely believed to come from Johnson himself, as it would explain his high emotions and religious fervor in "Cross Road Blues" when simply hitchhiking at night; the myth offers a literal explanation.

In "Me And The Devil" he began, "Early this morning when you knocked upon my door/Early this morning, umb, when you knocked upon my door/And I said, 'Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go,'" before leading into "You may bury my body down by the highway side/You may bury my body, uumh, down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride."

The song "Crossroads" by British psychedelic blues rock band Cream is a cover version of Johnson's "Cross Road Blues", about the legend of Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads, although Johnson's original lyrics ("Standin' at the crossroads, tried to flag a ride") suggest he was merely hitchhiking rather than signing away his soul to Lucifer in exchange for being a great blues musician.
[edit] Interpretations

The Devil in these songs may not solely refer to the Christian model of Satan, but equally to the African trickster god, Legba, himself associated with crossroads—though author Tom Graves deems the connection to African deities tenuous.[43] As folklorist Harry M. Hyatt discovered during his research in the South from 1935–1939, when African-Americans born in the 19th or early-20th century said they or anyone else had "sold their soul to the devil at the crossroads," they had a different meaning in mind. Ample evidence indicates African religious retentions surrounding Legba and the making of a "deal" (not selling the soul in the same sense as in the Faustian tradition cited by Graves) with this so-called "devil" at the crossroads.[44]

Folk tales of bargains with the Devil have long existed in African American and European traditions, and were adapted into literature by, amongst others, Washington Irving in "The Devil and Tom Walker" in 1824, and by Stephen Vincent Benet in "The Devil and Daniel Webster" in 1936. In the 1930s, Hyatt recorded many tales of banjo players, fiddlers, card sharks, and dice sharks selling their souls at crossroads, along with guitarists and one accordionist. Another folklorist, Alan Lomax, considered that every African American secular musician was "in the opinion of both himself and his peers, a child of the Devil, a consequence of the black view of the European dance embrace as sinful in the extreme".[45]
SOURCE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Johnson_%28musician%29#Devil_legend

In closing, whether you believe the legend about Robert Johnson and the Devil or not, most can agree that his musical accomplishments were unprecedented and have had a lasting impact on those who came after him.

I hope you've enjoyed this article and the accompanying music videos. On that note, I will leave you with two final songs by Robert Johnson that expand upon the mystique surrounding his alleged meeting with the Devil himself.

Robert Johnson: "Hellhound On My Trail"



This post would not be complete without the inclusion of the following song.

Robert Johnson: "Me And The Devil Blues"



For Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton, Led Zepplin and Satan, I'm Fat Lester signing off.

3 comments:

  1. I know you're not a music blogger but thought you might be interested in my extended history of the 'musician selling their soul to the devil' story going all the way back to the 1700s.

    If not that's cool:
    http://sinewavesandvibrationsinthesky.blogspot.com/2011/06/first-trim-your-fingernails-as-close-as.html


    Does it strike you as odd that of the few songs Johnson recorded more than half have some reference to his meeting with the devil/going to the crossroads/making a deal or just general evil-ness? I think he was playing up the gimmick for controversies sake.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Michael, thanks for sharing!

    You may be right. I will say that it's more fun to believe he actually did sell his soul, but your view does seem to be a little bit (okay a lot) more grounded.

    ReplyDelete
  3. thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete

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