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.
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.