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!