Mae Clair’s Mythical Monday: Robert Johnson and the Crossroads

There are plenty of mythical beasts and legends to rifle through each Monday, always making it hard to choose just one.

This week I’m going to venture off the beaten trail to resurrect the tale of legendary blues guitarist, Robert Johnson. Step back into the dusty days of the Mississippi delta when folklore and music intertwined. When a hardscrabble existence and a hunger for fame, led a young man to bargain his soul for the trappings of success.

According to legend, Robert Johnson was already a moderately successful blues guitarist when he walked down to the crossroads on a moonless night. At the stroke of midnight he recited an incantation to summon the devil (or Legba, depending on the version of the tale). In exchange for his soul, the devil tuned Johnson’s guitar.  From then on Johnson played with amazing skill no other musician could match. When Son House, a friend and mentor to Johnson, was overheard saying “He sold his soul to play like that,” it only served to stoke the fire of superstition.

There was no question Johnson had peculiarities. He lived the life of a nomad, roaming from town to town peddling his music. He had an uncanny ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, and was once taught by a man rumored to have learned music in a church graveyard. He often turned his back to the crowd while playing, but could easily engage a group of listeners. Outgoing in public, he was reserved in private, well-mannered and soft spoken.

Having lost his sixteen-year-old bride and unborn child years before, he became a bit of a womanizer which may have led to his downfall. Legend has it Robert met his end when he drank from an open bottle of whiskey in a juke joint where he’d been playing. Some say a jealous husband poisoned the whiskey with strychnine, others that it was an ex-girlfriend. He suffered convulsions and died three days later. Still others whisper he was shot or stabbed. Whatever the cause, the man who sang “Hellhounds on My Trail” had nowhere left to flee.

Robert Johnson died at the age of twenty-seven on August 16, 1938 not far from a country crossroads in Greenwood, Mississippi.

Among his songs, six mention the devil or something supernatural. “Crossroad Blues” which has been recorded by a number of other musicians is also rumored to carry a curse. Several of those who have recorded, or played it frequently, experienced tragic circumstances–Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers Band, Lynryd Skynrd, Led Zepplin and Kurt Corbain. I think it speaks volumes that all of these musicians and many others, kept Johnson’s song alive long after his demise.

In 1980 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Perhaps most telling of all, on September 17, 1994, the U.S. Post Office issued a Robert Johnson 29-cent commemorative postage stamp.

For Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues, his legend along with all of its inherent mystery, lives on!

26 thoughts on “Mae Clair’s Mythical Monday: Robert Johnson and the Crossroads

    • Hi, Sheri. Glad you enjoy my Mythical Monday posts. Always happy to see you here! Robert Johnson was an amazing talent and, the fact that he died so young, contributes to his mythology. I believe later findings say it was a disease that actually killed him, but, I thnk people will always flock to the legend of the crossroads.

  1. I first heard about the legend of Robert Johnson while working at the International House of Blues Foundation. In fact, it was my introduction to the blues as an art form and how it has formed the roots of much of the music we listen to today. The story is intriguing. I am a fan of singer/songwriters as storytellers and without a doubt, blues artists are masters at spinning an engaging tale.

    • Hi, Reese. Many thanks for dropping by! I’m a fan of singer/songwriters too and, although, my knowledge of the blues is limited, I know it’s at the roots of most music. So many early singer/songwriters were masters of the craft, like Robert Johnson. I’m also intrigued by folk musician Woodie Guthrie. These guys set the stakes so high.

      It must have ben awesome working a the International House of Blues Foundation!

    • Robert Johnson was the “King” or “Father” of the Delta Blues. I often wonder if Charlie Daniels didn’t draw on his legend when he wrote The Devil Went Down to Georgia (which I also really like!). I was reminded of that song while writing this, Emma! :)

  2. Intriguing post. I’ve heard some of Robert Johnson’s music but did not know his history. My brother (now deceased) was a DJ and loved the Blues. That’s where I heard most of the Blues–listening to my brother’s show. Thanks for the information.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your brother, Alicia, but how wonderful that he was a DJ with his own show. I enjoy blues but usually in small doses (I guess I have to be in the mood for it). Sometimes, it is the ONLY music that will do. Many thanks for sharing!

    • LOL, thanks, L.J.! Eric Clapton’s version of Robert Johnson’s Crossroad Blues is probably the one most people are familiar with, but Robert’s original is so soulful. And it is really weird about that song . . .how many groups and artists that recorded it that were beset by tradegy. Makes you wonder *shiver*

  3. Hi!
    I’d heard different versions of this story over the years but I never hear about “Several of those who have recorded, or played it frequently, experienced tragic circumstances–Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers Band, Lynryd Skynrd, Led Zepplin and Kurt Corbain”. I find that very interesting and it lends a different generation of suspicion as well. How cool!

    • Yep, tragedy for all those guys. I think Clapton lost his son, and band members died in all of the three groups. Then of course, Corbain taking his own life. Very creepy and sad but, you’re right – – it’s like a new generation tied to the same curse (if one believes the Robert Johson legend). Makes you think!

      Glad you had a chance to drop by and comment! ;)

  4. Oh, Mae, my friend, you’ve outdone yourself! A musical mythical Monday… Yay! I’d never heard of Robert, so thanks! The music was, indeed soulful. I wonder if the movie Crossroads from back in the ’80’s with Ralph Macchio was inspired by this…

  5. I’ve always been fascinated by this story, so I was glad to see your post about it. You always have such great info–I hadn’t heard the details about the tragedies from others who recorded the song. Yikes! Great post, as always. :)

    • Hi, Donna. Isn’t that weird about those other artists? I’d known about Robert Johnson but the curse related to Crossroad Blues was something I only just learned while researching the legend. Very spooky.

      Glad you enjoy my Monday posts. It’s always a delight to see you here! :)

    • Wow, how very cool Sonya. I read knew there was debate about where he was buried, but I didn’t realize there were three reputed grave sites. So glad you dropped by. I love Crossroad Blues as well!

  6. Pingback: Steve Hill; King of the Mountain | Rick Keene's Music Scene

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