The Legend of How Bluesman Robert Johnson Sold His Soul to the Devil at the Crossroads

We remem­ber the blues­man Robert John­son as the Jimi Hen­drix of the 1930s, a gui­tarist of stag­ger­ing skill who died before age thir­ty. Both found main­stream suc­cess, but John­son’s came posthu­mous­ly: in fact, his music and Hen­drix’s first music hit it big in the same decade, the 1960s. King of the Delta Blues Singers, an album of John­son’s songs released by Colum­bia Records in 1961, had a great influ­ence on the likes of Bob Dylan, Kei­th Richards, Robert Plant, and Eric Clap­ton, who calls John­son “the most impor­tant blues singer that ever lived.” How did this poor young Mis­sis­sip­pi­an come by his for­mi­da­ble abil­i­ties? Why, he sold his soul to the dev­il at the cross­roads, of course.

Or at least that’s what we all seem to have heard. And indeed, does­n’t the leg­end make the open­ing line of “Cross Road Blues,” King of the Delta Blues’ open­ing num­ber, that much more evoca­tive? “I went down to the cross­roads,” he sings. “Fell down on my knees. Asked the Lord above for mer­cy, ‘Take me, if you please.’ ” Well, it could’ve been the Lord, or it could have been the oth­er one. But in fact we have pre­cious lit­tle record of John­son’s life, and no direct ref­er­ences at all to his bar­gain with Beelze­bub (ani­ma­tions of which we pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture). Why has the leg­end stuck? Music Youtube series Poly­phon­ic address­es that ques­tion in the video essay above.

An ear­li­er episode cov­ered deals with the dev­il through­out the his­to­ry of music. This time, the sub­ject is the cross­roads itself, the set­ting of John­son­ian lore no one ever fails to men­tion. “Of all the marks that humans make on the earth, cross­roads are among the sim­plest and most endur­ing,” says nar­ra­tor Noah Lefevre. “As long as humans orga­nize our­selves in towns and cities, cross­roads will remain, and so will the leg­ends of their dark pow­ers and of the strange spir­its who occu­py them.” The mythol­o­gy of the cross­roads goes back at least to the Greek god­dess Hecate, who rules over “lim­i­nal space, the tran­si­tion from the known to the great unknown beyond.” In the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta, the mythol­o­gy of the cross­roads inter­sects, as it were, with the realm of Hait­ian voodoo.

“A reli­gion that mix­es Roman Catholic influ­ences with West African spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tions” — and the one that gave us zom­bies — voodoo has “one all-pow­er­ful god, but you can only speak to him through spir­its known as loa.” And to talk to loa, you’ve got to go through Papa Leg­ba, the loa of the cross­roads. From the late 18th cen­tu­ry, voodoo began mak­ing its way through the Amer­i­can South, the cra­dle of the blues. Out of this rich set­ting came John­son’s pre­de­ces­sor Tom­my John­son (no rela­tion), a singer and gui­tarist who based his per­sona on the claim of hav­ing sold his own soul to the dev­il. Even Robert John­son’s men­tor Ike Zim­mer­man was said to have prac­ticed gui­tar in grave­yards at mid­night.

“John­son is seen today as the grand­fa­ther of rock-and-roll,” says Lefevre. “That comes not just from his vir­tu­oso play­ing, but also from his mythol­o­gy.” (Con­sid­er this lega­cy in light of how often rock-and-roll was in decades past called “the dev­il’s music.”) Today, in songs like “Hell­hound on My Trail,” we can hear both ref­er­ences to voodoo-inspired rit­u­als and oth­er forms of the occult as well as con­di­tions of life in a South removed only a gen­er­a­tion or two from slav­ery. This Poly­phon­ic episode may con­vince you that “the myth of John­son and the cross­roads may have been birthed out of sheer acci­dent,” but that’s no rea­son not to give King of the Delta Blues Singers a spin this Hal­loween — or any oth­er day besides.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of Blues­man Robert Johnson’s Famous Deal With the Dev­il Retold in Three Ani­ma­tions

A Brief His­to­ry of Mak­ing Deals with the Dev­il: Nic­colò Pagani­ni, Robert John­son, Jim­my Page & More

Jimi Hen­drix Arrives in Lon­don in 1966, Asks to Get Onstage with Cream, and Blows Eric Clap­ton Away: “You Nev­er Told Me He Was That F‑ing Good”

Jimi Hen­drix Plays the Delta Blues on a 12-String Acoustic Gui­tar in 1968, and Jams with His Blues Idols, Bud­dy Guy & B.B. King

Cov­er­ing Robert Johnson’s Blues Became a Rite of Rock ‘n’ Roll Pas­sage: Hear Cov­ers by The Rolling Stones, Eric Clap­ton, Howl­in’ Wolf, Lucin­da Williams & More

Robert John­son Final­ly Gets an Obit­u­ary in the New York Times 81 Years After His Death

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (4)
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  • Donald Malcolm Smith says:

    Vou­do was the reli­gion of slaves and it was present wher­ev­er slaves that were Benin were. There were not migrants or trans­ports they were slaves.

  • Brian Markovitz says:

    While the Dev­il sto­ry is prob­a­bly more inter­est­ing, there was no Dev­il involved. John­son just worked his butt off, prac­ticed a lot at his craft, had some good teach­ers, and was born extreme­ly tal­ent­ed.

    Read this book:

  • mark mc myn says:

    John­ny Shines said that was a load of crap!

  • al cook says:

    well, i told blues fans and musi­cians, that were even only slight­ly famil­iar with the name robert john­son, that the dev­il sub­ject on cross­road blues is pure mon­key junk, that sat­is­fies the strange crav­ing for myths and sto­ry­telling. fact is, that robert john­son feared to get bust­ed by the high­way patrol, cause blacks were forced off the road after sun­down. stand­ing at the cross­roads, hitch­hik­ing in vain to get some free ride to the gunter-hotel, caused prob­a­bly pan­ic-attacks. this made him cry for willie brown. just take a care­ful lis­ten­ing to the lyrics and you’ll know, what the stuff is all about. john­ny shines told me, that he nev­er heard robert per­form the song in pub­lic. it seem­ing­ly was just a stu­dio piece he put on record.….agree??

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