Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Robert Johnson and the Crossroads

Vintage still life with old books stacked near brass candle, with carnival mask hanging on wall, blurred in background.

Hello, and welcome to my first Cabinet of Curiosities post. Legends and folklore have held a fascination for me since I was a child. As an adult, I’ve been privileged to give presentations on the subject, and have woven bits of legend into most of my published novels and short stories.

Today, I’d like to step back into the dusty days of the Mississippi Delta when folklore and music intertwined in the life of legendary blues guitarist, Robert Johnson. 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.

vintage acoustic blues guitar with old battered suitcase, vintage tint on image

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.

59 thoughts on “Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Robert Johnson and the Crossroads

  1. I wasn’t familiar with Robert Johnson, but what a creepy story. From the TV show Supernatural, crossroads and hellhounds are things you don’t want to get involved with. I’m excited for this feature, Mae!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love legends related to crossroads, Teri. This one is really old, but it’s always stuck with me from the first time I heard it. Glad I was able to shine a light on a talented musician. He left us way to early.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I knew nothing of Robert Johnson before your post, Mae. What an interesting (and creepy) story. It’s a mystery I think I’ll let lie. I’m amazed just how convoluted life can be at times. Thanks for the journey through this legend. I look forward to reading about more legends and folklore.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What an interesting legend Mae! I guess when great people die young, such stories are made and jealousies do play their role in case of talented persons. Cabinet of Curiosities is most appropriate title for these legends. I look forward to more. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not familiar with Robert Johnson, Mae. I went to YouTube to listen to Crossroads. Talent like that seemed supernatural. I can’t imagine Robert Johnson sold his soul for the musical talent to play guitar. Dealing with the devil always has a catch and would never be on the winning side. Thank you for the post, Mae! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad this post prompted you to check out Crossroads, Miriam. It’s a great song despite the legend behind it. Johnson was a talented man. And I totally agree with you that any dealings with the devil are bound to end bad!

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  5. I love that song played by Eric Clapton. I didn’t realize it had such an eerie history. This reminds me of a story Teagan Geneviene wrote based on Robert Johnson’s history titled Brother Love.
    Kind of freaky so many major recording artists met tragic ends after producing his song.
    Interesting post, Mae!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have the Clapton version on mp3, Jacquie. It’s a great song, though I agree the history associated with it is eerie. And I do remember Teagan’s intriguing Brother Love blog serial. Music and legends inspire so many tales. Thanks for visiting today for the launch of Curiosities posts!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Karina. Thanks for visiting to check out my post. I agree about camera phones. I guess there’s always a downside to any new technology. We’ve removed an aura of mystery from many things. I guess that’s why I cling to all these old legends and bits of folklore. I hope they never go away!

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  6. You’ve written a fantastic post, Mae. I’m a long-time Robert Johnson fan. I have his entire collection (those few and precious recordings he made) on CD and on my iPod. He certainly carries that dark legend to this day. Thanks for sharing Robert with your readers. Perhaps he has found new fans here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow! That’s awesome you have a CD of his recordings, Beem. His legend is fascinating, but his talent was extraordinary. I would love to read an account of his life. I’m going to have to see if there is any tine of biography on him. It’s sure to be thoroughly engrossing!

      Liked by 1 person

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