Photo courtesy of Delta Haze Corporation
INTRODUCTIONThis website will recount the often troubled history of one particular song. The composition in question is "Crossroads", written by Robert Johnson. This haunting piece is one of the best-known examples of the Delta Blues and it has subsequently been re-recorded by hundreds of artists. But in a strange twist of fate, some would say that the song is cursed.
Although Johnson's recording career was very brief, his life story has taken on mythical proportions in the years since his death. In rural folklore, the intersection of two roads was often regarded as an evil place, the site of black magic. This notion dated back to early mythology in Africa and Europe. As these pagan cultures were forcibly assimilated by Christian society, some of their original beliefs were blended with the new religion. So according to the legend, Johnson went down to the crossroads and made a pact with Satan. The devil promised to fulfill his dreams, thus Johnson traded his eternal soul for his extraordinary talents. Of course, the devil wouldn't allow him to enjoy his success and the lord of the underworld soon claimed his prize. Even though Johnson's musical legacy would eventually earn worldwide acclaim, he never had a chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
But while the legend of Robert Johnson is interesting enough on its own, there is much more to the story of "Crossroads". In addition to the bluesman's untimely death, there have been a string of tragedies associated with musicians who have performed the song over the years. Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Allman Brothers Band have all experienced the loss of group members or loved ones. My website will also delve into these other occurrences. Personally, I don't believe that this song is actually cursed. While there have certainly been some terrible misfortunes associated with a number of the artists who have recorded the composition, I think these are merely coincidences. Nonetheless, it's another fascinating aspect of the "Crossroads" legend. Even now, this tale from American folklore still endures. Return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS
FROM GENESIS TO REVELATIONRobert Johnson was born on May 8th, 1911 in Hazelhurst, MS. He was the illegitimate son of Julia Dodd and Noah Johnson, a man whom he would never know.
TOMBSTONE SHADOWOver the next few years, Johnson worked tirelessly to hone his craft. He and his friend Willie Brown would often sit on tombstones, writing ominous melodies and drinking moonshine. Although he could not read music, he had a keen ear and often imitated the styles of other musicians. From watching fellow guitarist Son House, he was inspired to develop his own bottleneck slide technique. He also played with Charlie Patton and Sonny Boy Williamson, performing in juke joints throughout the Deep South. But Johnson was quite ambitious and he was not satisified with the moderate acclaim he had received. Since many of his contemporaries were envious of his musicianship, this may have led them to spread false rumors about him, whispering that he had gladly paid the Devil's price to satisfy his own ambition. Return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS
I BELIEVE I'M SINKIN' DOWNUndisputed facts about Johnson's life are few and far between. More often than not, his legend has obscured the few grains of truth which can be discerned. According to the myth, the young bluesman desperately longed for fame and fortune. Johnson was not satisified with his own musical abilities and felt that he needed more talent to achieve success. He was already bitter toward his creator, blaming God for the death of his beloved wife and unborn child. Despondent and irrational, he made a momentous decision. At the stroke of midnight, he walked down to the windswept crossroads at the junction of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, MS. Reciting an ancient incantation, he called upon Satan himself to rise from the fires of Hell. In exchange for Johnson's immortal soul, the devil tuned his guitar, thereby giving him the abilities which he so desired. From then on, the young bluesman played his instrument with an unearthly style, his fingers dancing over the strings. His voice moaned and wailed, expressing the deepest sorrows of a condemned sinner. Return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE TEXAS SESSIONSIn 1936, Johnson was approached by Don Law, a producer who worked for the American Record Company. Law was eager to record the bluesman, offering to pay him between $10 and $15 for each song. The first sessions occurred later that year, at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX. Johnson played some of his own compositions and also modified the work of other artists, recording seventeen songs on November 23rd, 26th, and 27th. If he was not fully satisfied with his performance, he would record an alternate version. But Johnson was a confident musician and he had been playing these compositions for years. As a result, most of the songs were recorded on the first take.
While in town, he was arrested for vagrancy and thrown in jail. At the station, the police beat him and smashed his guitar. Rather than risk further abuse at the hands of the officers, Johnson asked them to contact Law. The producer verified the bluesman's story and subsequently posted his bail. Although this incident might have seemed quite traumatic, it apparently had little effect on Johnson. After recording "Crossroad Blues" and several more songs in the days that followed, he left San Antonio and resumed his wandering lifestyle.
The next sessions took place during the summer of 1937, at the Brunswick Records Building in Dallas, TX. On June 19th and 20th, Johnson performed twelve more songs for Don Law. Once again, a handful of alternate versions were also recorded. As before, Johnson received a modest cash payment and no royalties. Although the producer was already making plans to conduct some additional sessions in the future, he would never see Johnson again. The troubled bluesman had a date with destiny. Return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE DEVIL TAKES HIS DUEJust as the story of Johnson's life is filled with contradictions, the circumstances of his death also remain murky at best.
RIPPLES IN THE OCEANWithout the solid foundation of the blues, rock and roll would probably not exist. During the decades since his death, Robert Johnson's music has influenced countless other artists. In the most immediate sense, his style was adopted and imitated by the blues musicians who followed in his footsteps. Then in turn, these artists had an effect on subsequent generations.
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