This is the latest installment in our weekly series, The Language of the Blues, in which author and rocker Debra Devi explores the meaning of a word or phrase from a blues song. Come back every week for the latest! Devi’s award-winning book, The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu, includes a foreword by Dr. John and is blurbed by Bonnie Raitt and Joe Bonamassa. Get your signed copy at Bluescentric.com!
The crossroads is the place where two or more roads intersect. It symbolizes the point at which one must call upon one’s resources and spiritual strength and face one’s demons. Stories of pacts made with the devil at midnight at the crossroads have appeared in African and European folklore for centuries.
The exceptionally gifted blues artist Robert Johnson is believed by some to have sold his soul to the devil at midnight on a Delta crossroads in return for an uncanny mastery of the guitar. A small-boned man with long, delicate, slightly webbed fingers, Johnson earned respect and kept fights at bay with his astonishing musicianship. According Steve LaVere’s liner notes for Robert Johnson- The Complete Recordings, “[Johnson] could hear a piece just once over the radio or phonograph or from someone in person and be able to play it. He could be deep in conversation with a group of people and hear something–never stop talking–and later be able to play it and sing it perfectly. It amazed some very fine musicians, and they never understood how he did it.”
Today, we recognize such eidetic memory (commonly referred to as “photographic memory” or “total recall”) as a savant syndrome, not payment from the devil. Autistic concert pianist Derek Paravicini, for example, has absolute pitch and can also play a piece of music after hearing it once.
Johnson never publicly claimed to have made a deal with the devil; that boast was actually made by Tommy Johnson, best known for his recording of “Maggie Campbell Blues.” I asked LaVere why Johnson came to be associated so strongly with a deal with the devil. LaVere responded: “The crossroads story was also told by Ike Zinermon, Robert’s primary mentor, and for Robert Johnson by Son House during interviews in the mid-1960s, which is how Johnson’s relationship with the myth began.”
Traditionally, crossroads are intersections between the material world and the spirit world. There, spirits are able to slip into our reality. The Yoruba trickster god Eshu-Elegba was granted the ability to make anything happen–once he had his mettle tested at the crossroads. As a little boy, Eshu loved to tell tall tales. One day he saw a pair of scary eyes shining in a coconut shell at a crossroads. He ran home to tell his parents, who didn’t believe his latest tale. Crushed and believing himself cursed, Eshu died. Soon after, terrible disasters–floods, fires, and epidemics–struck the world.
Eshu’s parents remembered their son’s story and sent the local priests to the crossroads to try to coax his spirit to return. The shell with the evil eyes was gone, so the priests erected a beautiful smooth stone and anointed it with precious oils, such as sandalwood and myrrh. Eshu’s spirit, drawn by the warm scent of the oils, came to live in the stone and peace and order returned to the world. Yoruba markets today still sell smooth laterite stone for home altars. Palm oil is poured over them daily to keep Eshu happy.
Art history Robert Farris Thompson explains in Art from Africa that Eshu provokes us to test our wisdom and compassion, and our ability to rise above ego-driven arguments and attachments. “He sometimes even ‘wears’ the crossroads as a cap, colored black on one side, red on the other,” Thompson notes, “provoking in his wake foolish arguments about whether his cap is black or red…”
Unlike the Christian devil, Eshu is not inherently evil. His provocations may result in good or in evil results, depending on how people respond. Eshu challenges us to grow beyond the limitations of our egos, and he lays down that challenge at the crossroads.
In the Vodou religion, ancestral spirit-gods called loa or lwa also like to hang out at the crossroads. As Michael Ventura explained in his famous essay on voodoo and rock-and-roll, “Hear that Long Snake Moan”: “For the African, the human world and the spirit world intersect. Their sign for this is the cross, but it has nothing to do with the Christianist cross, which impales a man in helpless agony upon the intersection…[In Africa] The earthly and the spirit worlds meet at right angles, and everything that is most important happens at the spot where they meet, which is neither solely of one world nor the other.”
Robert Johnson recorded “Cross Road Blues” in San Antonio, Texas, on November 27, 1936. In the first verse, Johnson describes going to the crossroads and falling to his knees, crying out to God to save him. In the second verse, he stands and tries to flag a ride as dusk descends. A ride is both a slang term for a lover and a metaphor for divine possession. In Vodou ceremonies, practitioners call upon the loa to descend a central pole called the poto mitan and “ride” members of the congregation. In Pentecostal churches, worshippers cry out “Ride on, King Jesus!”
By the third verse of “Cross Road Blues”, Johnson expresses his fear of being caught in the dark on the crossroads with no rider, “no loving sweet woman that love and feel my care.” He asks the listener to run and tell his friend Willie Brown “that I’m standing at the cross roads, babe, I believe I’m sinking down.”
Brown, a blues musician of some renown, was a mentor and father figure to Johnson. He was patient with the little boy who would sneak away from home in Robinsonville, Mississippi, to pester him about the guitar. Brown showed Johnson how to form chords, and he and Charlie Patton, who lived in Robinsonville for a time and played the juke joints there regularly, were huge influences on Johnson.
Johnson, in turn, mentored another little boy–Robert Lockwood. Johnson began teaching Lockwood to play guitar when the boy was eleven years old. I asked Lockwood, who was born in 1915 in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, about their relationship and he said: “He lived with my mother [Estella Coleman] common law for about eight, nine years. He taught me to play. Can’t nobody play his stuff but me.” Lockwood remarked that people think the blues are easy to play, but that Johnson’s blues weren’t simple and neither are his: “Lot of blues that I play got a lot of changes, like four and five and six changes and stuff like that.”
Robert Lockwood became known as Robert Junior, or Robert Jr. Lockwood, and performed and recorded until his death in 2006 at age ninety one. He was a brilliant traditional Delta blues artist and also a terrific jazz guitarist who pioneered the use of the electric guitar for blues during his early appearances on the King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show. In 2004, Lockwood won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album for the live album Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live In Dallas.
Lockwood and his mother lived with Robert Johnson in Helena, Arkansas, while Johnson performed around the Delta. The family also spent time in Memphis and St. Louis. To Lockwood, Johnson was not some mysterious loner who was making pacts with the devil. “What did I think about Robert Johnson?” Lockwood said, “I think he’s a nice man. All them stories about him, I don’t know about that. He never told me nothing about it.”
Lockwood also described Johnson as an intelligent and curious man who was always on the lookout for inspiration for his songs. “I have to say that he done quite a bit of studying in his life,” Lockwood said. “He did a lot of reading and stuff like that. Just about anything you could read, he read it. You read things and after you get through reading about it, you can sing about it.”
Johnson’s musical genius and intellectual sophistication are apparent in his songs. What’s especially striking about “Cross Road Blues” is Johnson’s expressed sense of failure at having dug into his spiritual resources and come up empty handed. Rather than giving us a pat story of being overwhelmed by the devil or raised to the heavens by God, Johnson stands at the crossroads, sinking down, crushed by existential dread. Christianity has failed him here, and the ancestral rituals that might have rescued him are lost to him:
Standing at the cross roads, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by
Rumors of Johnson’s crossroads pact with the devil persisted, fueled by his supernatural musical abilities and fanned by songs like “Me and the Devil Blues.” Johnson’s death in 1938 at age twenty seven–after drinking whiskey that had likely been poisoned with passagreen (a backwoods poison made from mothballs) by a jealous husband–put the seal on the legend of the genius bluesman’s deal with the devil.
To the people who loved him, however, his death was the hard loss of a very sensitive and talented person. “I was pretty shaken up,” Lockwood told David Witter of Chicago Interview, adding “I didn’t play for over a year. As far as my mother and I were concerned, he was a wonderful, wonderful man.”
No other acoustic artist, let alone one from the 1930s, has had such a powerful impact on electric blues and rock music. Many of Johnson’s solo acoustic country blues songs have become monster hits for electric blues and rock musicians. Led Zeppelin,The Rolling Stones, Cream, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and countless other bands have turned Johnson’s songs into rock, funk and heavy metal gold.
These artists all heard a blueprint in his songs for the future of rock ‘n’ roll. “Robert was way ahead of his time,” mused Lockwood during our interview. “He sounded different. When Robert played the guitar, he played the whole guitar. He played the lead and the background and everything.”
Pick up a copy of Language of the Blues
“Central Avenue Blues”- Will Day
“Cross Road Blues”- Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson – “Cross Road Blues”
Robert Jr. Lockwood – “Black Spider Blues”
Robert Jr. Lockwood – LIVE “Every Day I Have the Blues”