A “vision”, as told by Henry Goodman
Robert Johnson been playing down in Yazoo City and over at Beulah trying to get back up to Helena, ride left him out on a road next to the levee, walking up the highway, guitar in his hand propped up on his shoulder. October cool night, full moon filling up the dark sky, Robert Johnson thinking about Son House preaching to him, “Put that guitar down, boy, you drivin’ people nuts.” Robert Johnson needing as always a woman and some whiskey. Big trees all around, dark and lonesome road, a crazed, poisoned dog howling and moaning in a ditch alongside the road sending electrified chills up and down Robert Johnson’s spine, coming up on a crossroads just south of Rosedale. Robert Johnson, feeling bad and lonesome, knows people up the highway in Gunnison. Can get a drink of whiskey and more up there. Man sitting off to the side of the road on a log at the crossroads says, “You’re late, Robert Johnson.” Robert Johnson drops to his knees and says, “Maybe not.”
The man stands up, tall, barrel-chested, and black as the forever-closed eyes of Robert Johnson’s stillborn baby, and walks out to the middle of the crossroads where Robert Johnson kneels. He says, “Stand up, Robert Johnson. You want to throw that guitar over there in that ditch with that hairless dog and go on back up to Robinsonville and play the harp with Willie Brown and Son, because you just another guitar player like all the rest, or you want to play that guitar like nobody ever played it before? Make a sound nobody ever heard before? You want to be the King of the Delta Blues and have all the whiskey and women you want?”
“That’s a lot of whiskey and women, Devil-Man.”
“I know you, Robert Johnson,” says the man.
Robert Johnson, feels the moonlight bearing down on his head and the back of his neck as the moon seems to be growing bigger and bigger and brighter and brighter. He feels it like the heat of the noonday sun bearing down, and the howling and moaning of the dog in the ditch penetrates his soul, coming up through his feet and the tips of his fingers through his legs and arms, settling in that big empty place beneath his breastbone causing him to shake and shudder like a man with the palsy. Robert Johnson says, “That dog gone mad.”
The man laughs. “That hound belong to me. He ain’t mad, he’s got the Blues. I got his soul in my hand.”
The dog lets out a low, long soulful moan, a howling like never heard before, rhythmic, syncopated grunts, yelps, and barks, seizing Robert Johnson like a Grand Mal, and causing the strings on his guitar to vibrate, hum, and sing with a sound dark and blue, beautiful, soulful chords and notes possessing Robert Johnson, taking him over, spinning him around, losing him inside of his own self, wasting him, lifting him up into the sky. Robert Johnson looks over in the ditch and sees the eyes of the dog reflecting the bright moonlight or, more likely so it seems to Robert Johnson, glowing on their own, a deep violet penetrating glow, and Robert Johnson knows and feels that he is staring into the eyes of a Hellhound as his body shudders from head to toe.
The man says, “The dog ain’t for sale, Robert Johnson, but the sound can be yours. That’s the sound of the Delta Blues.”
“I got to have that sound, Devil-Man. That sound is mine. Where do I sign?”
The man says, “You ain’t got a pencil, Robert Johnson. Your word is good enough. All you got to do is keep walking north. But you better be prepared. There are consequences.”
“Prepared for what, Devil-man?”
“You know where you are, Robert Johnson? You are standing in the middle of the crossroads. At midnight, that full moon is right over your head. You take one more step, you’ll be in Rosedale. You take this road to the east, you’ll get back over to Highway 61 in Cleveland, or you can turn around and go back down to Beulah or just go to the west and sit up on the levee and look at the River. But if you take one more step in the direction you’re headed, you going to be in Rosedale at midnight under this full October moon, and you are going to have the Blues like never known to this world. My left hand will be forever wrapped around your soul, and your music will possess all who hear it. That’s what’s going to happen. That’s what you better be prepared for. Your soul will belong to me. This is not just any crossroads. I put this “X” here for a reason, and I been waiting on you.”
Robert Johnson rolls his head around, his eyes upwards in their sockets to stare at the blinding light of the moon which has now completely filled tie pitch-black Delta night, piercing his right eye like a bolt of lightning as the midnight hour hits. He looks the big man squarely in the eyes and says, “Step back, Devil-Man, I’m going to Rosedale. I am the Blues.”
The man moves to one side and says, “Go on, Robert Johnson. You the King of the Delta Blues. Go on home to Rosedale. And when you get on up in town, you get you a plate of hot tamales because you going to be needing something on your stomach where you’re headed.”
A deal with the Devil, pact with the Devil, or Faustian bargain is a cultural motif widespread wherever the Devil is vividly present, most familiar in the legend of Faust and the figure of Mephistopheles, but elemental to many Christian folktales. In the Aarne-Thompson typological catalogue, it lies in category AT 756B – “The devil’s contract.”
According to traditional Christian belief in witchcraft, the pact is between a person and Satan or any other demon (or demons); the person offers his or her soul in exchange for diabolical favours. Those favours vary by the tale, but tend to include youth, knowledge, wealth, or power. It was also believed that some persons made this type of pact just as a sign of recognising the Devil as their master, in exchange for nothing. Regardless, the bargain is a dangerous one, for the price of the Fiend’s service is the wagerer’s soul. The tale may have a moralizing end, with eternal damnation for the foolhardy venturer. Conversely it may have a comic twist, in which a wily peasant outwits the Devil, characteristically on a technical point. Among the credulous, any apparently superhuman achievement might be credited to a pact with the Devil, from the numerous European Devil’s Bridges to the superb violin technique of Niccolò Paganini.
Robert Johnson, born Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) is among the most famous of Delta blues musicians. His landmark recordings from 1936–1937 display a remarkable combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced generations of musicians. Johnson’s shadowy, poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend. Considered by some to be the “Grandfather of Rock-and-Roll”, his vocal phrasing, original songs, and guitar style have influenced a broad range of musicians, including John Fogerty, Bob Dylan, Johnny Winter, Jimi Hendrix, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers Band, The Rolling Stones, Paul Butterfield, The White Stripes, The Black Keys, The Band, Neil Young, Warren Zevon, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton, who called Johnson “the most important blues musician who ever lived”. He was also ranked fifth in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. He is an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi, who ran a general store and doubled as a talent scout. Speir, who helped the careers of many blues players, put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who offered to record the young musician in San Antonio, Texas. At the recording session, held on November 23, 1936 in rooms at the landmark Gunter Hotel which Brunswick Records had set up as a temporary studio, Johnson reportedly performed facing the wall. This has been cited as evidence he was a shy man and reserved performer, a conclusion played up in the inaccurate liner notes of the 1961 album King of the Delta Blues Singers. Johnson probably was nervous and intimidated at his first time in a makeshift recording studio (a new and alien environment for the musician), but in truth he was probably focusing on the demands of his emotive performances. In addition, playing into the corner of a wall was a sound-enhancing technique that simulated the acoustical booths of better-equipped studios. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played 16 selections, and recorded alternate takes for most of these. When the recording session was over, Johnson presumably returned home with cash in his pocket; probably more money than he’d ever had at one time in his life.
Among the songs Johnson recorded in San Antonio were “Come On In My Kitchen”, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”, and “Cross Road Blues”. “Come on in My Kitchen” included the lines: “The woman I love took from my best friend/Some joker got lucky, stole her back again,/You better come on in my kitchen, it’s going to be rainin’ outdoors.” In “Crossroad Blues”, another of his songs, he sang: “I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees./I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees./I asked the Lord above, have mercy, save poor Bob if you please./Uumb, standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride./Standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride./Ain’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by.”
When his records began appearing, Johnson made the rounds to his relatives and the various children he had fathered to bring them the records himself. The first songs to appear were “Terraplane Blues” and “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”, probably the only recordings of his that he would live to hear. “Terraplane Blues” became a moderate regional hit, selling 5,000 copies.
In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas, Texas, for another recording session in a makeshift studio at the Brunswick Record Building, 508 Park Avenue. Eleven records from this session would be released within the following year. Among them were the three songs that would largely contribute to Johnson’s posthumous fame: “Stones in My Passway”, “Me and the Devil”, and “Hellhound On My Trail”. “Stones In My Passway” and “Me And The Devil” are both about betrayal, a recurrent theme in country blues. The terrifying “Hell Hound On My Trail”—utilising another common theme of fear of the Devil—is often considered to be the crowning achievement of blues-style music. Other themes in Johnson’s music include impotence (“Dead Shrimp Blues” and “Phonograph Blues”) and infidelity (“Terraplane Blues”, “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” and “Love in Vain”).
Six of Johnson’s blues songs mention the devil or some form of the supernatural. In “Me And The Devil” he began, “Early this morning when you knocked upon my door,/Early this morning, umb, when you knocked upon my door,/And I said, ‘ Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go,'” before leading into “You may bury my body down by the highway side,/ You may bury my body, uumh, down by the highway side,/So my old evil spirit can get on a Greyhound bus and ride.”
It has been suggested that the Devil in these songs does not solely refer to the Christian model of Satan, but equally to the African trickster god, Legba..
In the last year of his life, Johnson is believed to have traveled to St. Louis and possibly Illinois, and then to some states in the East. He spent some time in Memphis and traveled through the Mississippi Delta and Arkansas. By the time he died, at least six of his records had been released in the South as race records.
His death occurred on August 16, 1938, at the age of twenty-seven at a country crossroads near Greenwood, Mississippi. He had been playing for a few weeks at a country dance in a town about 15 miles (24 km) from Greenwood.
There are a number of accounts and theories regarding the events preceding Johnson’s death. One of these is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance. One version of this rumor says she was the wife of the juke joint owner who unknowingly provided Johnson with a bottle of poisoned whiskey from her husband, while another suggests she was a married woman he had been secretly seeing. Researcher Mack McCormick claims to have interviewed Johnson’s alleged poisoner in the 1970s, and obtained a tacit admission of guilt from the man. When Johnson was offered an open bottle of whiskey, his friend and fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson knocked the bottle out of his hand, informing him that he should never drink from an offered bottle that has already been opened. Johnson allegedly said, “don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand”. Soon after, he was offered another open bottle of whiskey and accepted it, and it was that bottle that was laced with strychnine. Johnson is reported to have started to feel ill into the evening after drinking from the bottle and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days, his condition steadily worsened and witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain – symptoms which are consistent with strychnine poisoning. Strychnine was readily available at the time as it was a common pesticide, and although it is a very bitter-tasting substance it is extremely toxic, and a small quantity dissolved in a harsh-tasting solution such as whiskey could possibly have gone unnoticed, but (over a period of days due to the reduced dosage) still produced the symptoms and eventual death that Johnson experienced.
The precise location of his grave remains a source of ongoing controversy, and three different markers have been erected at supposed burial sites outside of Greenwood. Research in the 1980s and 1990s strongly suggests Johnson was buried in the graveyard of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist church near Morgan City, Mississippi, not far from Greenwood, in an unmarked grave. A cenotaph memorial was placed at this location in 1990 paid for by Columbia Records and numerous smaller contributions made through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund. More recent research by Stephen LaVere (including statements from Rosie Eskridge, the wife of the supposed gravedigger) indicates that the actual grave site is under a big pecan tree in the cemetery of the Little Zion Church north of Greenwood along Money Road. Sony Music has placed a marker at this site.
In 1938, Columbia Records producer John Hammond, who had heard Johnson’s records, sought him out to book him for the first “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. On learning of Johnson’s death, Hammond replaced him with Big Bill Broonzy, but still played two of Johnson’s records from the stage. Robert Johnson has a son, Claude Johnson, and grandchildren who currently reside in a town near Hazlehurst, Mississippi.
Without Robert Johnson and the music of the Delta Blues much of the music we know and love so well today would not exist. Certainly soul and R&B owe a tremendous debt to Johnson, but in every sense, rock and roll would not be rock and roll had Johnson never existed or made that sinister deal with the Devil. It may just be that Johnson did make that deal after all and some think that there is evidence existing today that proves it.
They call it the Crossroads Curse and there are those who point to this theory to prove that the curse of Johnson’s devilish bargain has had far-reaching and unexpected consequences.
It has been said by many that Johnson never particularly liked the song, although he obliged his record producer with at least three known versions. Nevertheless, modern musicians who weren’t even born when Johnson was walking the roads of the Mississippi Delta have since learned to worship at the shrine of his talent and it is this song – “Crossroad Blues” – in particular that is most associated with modern adaptation as well as modern tragedy.
Popular rock musicians who have performed the song include Eric Clapton and Cream, The Allman Brothers Band, and Lynyrd Skynyrd; and Led Zeppelin has lifted several of Johnson’s more sexual allusions for use in their lyrics. The Crossroads Curse may have touched even Kurt Cobain, the founder of Nirvana. Each of these bands has been the target of intense professional and personal tragedies that make some wonder whether the Devil isn’t still taking his payment all these long years later…
Eric Clapton and Cream recorded “Crossroad Blues” for their “Cream: Wheels of Fire” LP at the height of their fame. Within a few short years, the band was disbanded and Clapton was wallowing in the throes of heroin addiction. Years later, having cleaned up his life and enjoying a profitable solo career, Clapton was tragically struck by the death of his two year old son who fell from an apartment window to death several stories below.
The tragedy surrounding The Allman Brothers Band is practically legend in the annals of rock and roll. At the height of their fame, in 1971, Duane Allman, who is said to have loved performing “Crossroad Blues” live, was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident at another crossroads near Macon, Georgia where he swerved his motorcycle to avoid hitting a truck. He died later from his injuries. Just over a year later, in 1972, another band member, guitarist Berry Oakley, was killed while riding his motorcycle; he died less than a mile from the spot where Duane Allman had met his death. Though the band soldiered on, Duane’s brother Gregg felt compelled to immortalize his brother’s connection to a crossroads in the song “Melissa”:
Johnson’s recordings have remained continuously available since John Hammond convinced Columbia Records to compile the first Johnson LP, King of the Delta Blues Singers, in 1961. A sequel LP, assembling the rest of what could be found of Johnson’s recordings at that time, was issued in 1970. In the UK, both albums were issued as a two-LP set by Blue Diamond Records in 1985 under the same name, King of the Delta Blues Singers. An omnibus two-CD set (The Complete Recordings) was released in 1990 and produced by Beryl Cohen Porter [Sony/Columbia Legacy 46222], containing all 41 known recordings of his 29 compositions.
A 1996 plastic jewel-case remaster of the Complete set [Sony/Columbia Legacy 64916] corrected fidelity and pitch problems from the cardboard-packaged box. The more recent CD re-releases of “King of the Delta Blues Singers” Volumes 1 & 2 improve the sound quality far more dramatically, but don’t include 10 alternate takes (and two accidental introductions) found on Complete. Volume one includes a recently discovered alternate take of “Traveling Riverside Blues” which is not included on the Complete collection. This now brings the number of known Johnson recordings to forty-two.