Who was the bluesman who sold his soul to the devil?
April 20, 2019
Eric Clapton said that Robert Johnson was the most important blues player that ever lived.
In college, we played a lot of the British rock group Cream on our stereos. One of their best album cuts is for the song, Crossroads. I have always wondered about its origins and even often thought I heard a Fort Worth boulevard mentioned in it. Surely not, as that is too far-fetched—the mere romantic notions of a young coed.
The actual origins for the song are even more far-fetched. Crossroads was written by the actual composer as his account of how he sold his soul to the devil to achieve musical success. It is a classic tune that stands out in the blues archives.
Here is the story: there was once a young, unknown, blues player in the state of Mississippi. He played the harmonica, guitar, and his own voice was a respectable instrument. These talents do not guarantee your musical career will go anywhere—his didn’t. He was perpetually frustrated that he wasn’t achieving his aims like many creative types are. We attempt to master the craft over and over, and when that doesn’t do it, we may temporarily put a new spin on it. We usually return to the old standby, when the spin is not effective, or we create a blend of old and new, a fusion of sorts.
Robert Leroy Johnson was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He was one of ten children. Because of some family turmoil during Robert’s early years, he lived in several different places with several different family members and he had several different last names, depending on the relative he was living with. This did not help clear up the murkiness of his early life.
As unstable as his life was, his handwritten documents indicate that Robert was able to pick up a fairly decent education for the time and area. A childhood friend related that Robert was always a whiz on harmonica. He recalls how Robert entertained their friends, but there were times he would mysteriously disappear from the scene. He figured that was when Robert was over in Memphis trying to learn from established musicians.
Johnson married in 1929 and his young wife later died in childbirth. This would set the tone for Robert’s itinerant ways. He was forever-after skittish about having a family life. His relatives tried to convince him that the death of his wife was divine punishment for singing the type of songs he sang. He fell for it.
Though he was an ace at harmonica, his friends made fun of his guitar playing. Behind his back, they called his guitar licks a racket. Records indicate that Robert Johnson knew of this criticism. He left his surroundings for a very short time and when he returned he could play the guitar with the talent of a genius. What had happened, in the short time he was away, to achieve this miracle? Those who knew him were dumbfounded.
Robert Johnson has told the story himself. Driven to become a great blues musician, from birth almost, Johnson sought out some ancient wisdom from the elders on the plantation where he lived—Dockery Plantation. He was instructed by those who seemed to know, to take his guitar to the crossroads of two local highways where he would meet up with the devil.
When he arrived at the crossroads, there was a much-larger-than-human entity waiting for him—yes it was Satan, himself. The devil took Robert’s guitar in his own hands and tuned it. He then tested his tuning by playing a few tunes. He handed the guitar off to Robert and from that point on Robert had complete mastery of the instrument. From then on he was at the top of his game. A friend reminisced that it seemed like he could channel music from another world. Another companion compared him to a computer.
That is how the amazing tune, Crossroads, came about (Cross Road Blues). It is Johnson’s own musical account about how he had to go down to the crossroads to deal with the devil in order to advance his musical career. Many people have covered Crossroads including Eric Clapton. Clapton said that Robert Johnson was the most important blues player that ever lived.
Robert Leroy Johnson died near Greenwood, Mississippi, when he was 27 in 1938. There is still much mystery about his life. He rambled around due to his music gigs. Other people called themselves Robert Johnson, confusing his life story. Robert often went by several different last names and he had several women. One of them died in childbirth.
There is more than one memorial marker for Robert Johnson—his exact burial site, not known. One of the stones includes the epitaph, Resting in the Blues. When he met his maker, an account hints that he was poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman who had been flirting with him. The poison was put in his beer in a bar. Another account says he came to an area to play banjo for a wedding and stayed in a plantation there for two weeks. He died of some kind of infection. No doctors were available. He was buried in a homemade coffin.
Whether or not Johnson sold his soul to the devil for musical ability will remain one of those enigmas. Johnson, himself thought that he had. He was fearful of the devil following him, hounding him for the rest of his life. He wrote more than one song about this fear: Me and the Devil Blues, Hellhound on my Trail.
Robert Johnson will always be known as The King of the Delta Blues. If you are up on your knowledge of the history of American music, you will know that anyone who is the King of the Delta Blues could also be considered the King of Rock and Roll.
Sara Marie Hogg is the author of the award-winning Quite Curious, a collection of stories about the mysterious and unexplained. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.