This is the last creepy month of the year and I figured we'd go out this year with one of my absolute favorite pieces of mythology, The Crossroads. The old legend, the Faustian tale, told many a time over, in so many different incarnations its dizzying, but the most interesting story of all of these, may not be a story at all....
"If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and your go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there be sure to get there just a little ' fore 12 that night so you know you'll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself…A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he'll tune it. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you. That's the way I learned to play anything I want."
- Tommy Johnson
We're talking about the legend, the man himself, Robert Johnson. The "Most important blues player of all time."
Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) is among the most famous Delta Blues musicians and arguably the most influential. Considered by some to be the "Grandfather of Rock-and-Roll," his vocal phrasing, original songs, and guitar style influenced a range of musicians, including Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, U2, and Eric Clapton, who called Johnson "the most important blues musician who ever lived."
Of all the great blues musicians, Johnson was probably the most obscure. All that is known of him for certain is that he recorded 29 songs; he died young; and he was one of the greatest bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta. There are only five dates in Johnson's life that can undeniably be used to assign him to a place in history, everything else about his life is an attempt at reconstruction.
Johnson's peculiarities added to the rumors. Some fans thought that he had the "evil eye". Actually, he suffered from a small cataract. Also, it has been reported that Johnson turned from the audience while playing, and would leave suddenly from a performance, sometimes even during breaks in his set. While today such actions are not considered odd, In those days they were. Many people took it to mean that he was a man with something to hide.
Hellhounds on My Trail
Robert Johnson was born in the Mississippi Delta (Hazlehurst, Mississippi) sometime around May 8, 1911, the 11th child of Julia Major Dodds, who had previously born 10 children to her husband Charles Dodds. Born illegitimate, Johnson did not take the Dodds name. Johnson’s real father was a a field worker named Noah Johnson. While in his teens, Johnson learned who his father was, and it was at that time that he began calling himself Robert Johnson.
By 1930, Johnson had married and become serious about playing the guitar. During the time that he was married, he lived with his sister and her husband. But his wife died in childbirth at the age of 16. In 1931, he married for a second time. By then, his fellow musicians were beginning to take note of his precocity on the guitar.
Johnson began traveling up and down the Delta, travelling by bus, hopping trains, and sometimes hitchhiking. When he arrived in a new town, he would play on street corners or in front of the local barbershop or a restaurant. He played what his audience asked for—not necessarily his own compositions. Anything he earned was based on tips, not salary. With an ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, Johnson had no trouble giving his audiences what they wanted. Also working in his favor was an ability to establish instant rapport with his audiences.
Around 1936, Johnson met H. C. Spier in Jackson, Mississippi, who ran a music store and doubled as a talent scout. Spier put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who offered to record the young musician in San Antonio, Texas. At the recording session, Johnson was too shy to perform in front of the musicians in the studio, so played facing the wall. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played 16 selections. When the recording session was over, Johnson presumably returned home with several hundred dollars in his pocket—probably more money than he had ever had at one time.
Interestingly, six of Johnson's blues songs mention the devil or some form of the supernatural.
His death came on August 16, 1938, at the approximate age of 27 at a little country crossroads near Greenwood, Mississippi. He had been playing for several weeks at a country dance in a town about 15 miles from Greenwood when, by some accounts, he was given poisoned whiskey at the dance by the husband of a woman he had been seeing.
The actual cause of his death has recently been discovered to be marfan's syndrome, which is a connection tissue disorder, the most obvious symptom of this on Johnson was his long fingers, legs and arms, other symptoms are curved backline, eye problems (johnson was said to have 'one bad eye') and a slim body.
Dance With The Devil
Here, in its entirety, as published by the Crossroads Blues Society is the “vision, with a V” of bluesman 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."
The Crossroads Curse
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”: “Crossroads will you ever let him go? Or will you hide the dead man’s ghost?”
The popular Alabama band Lynyrd Skynyrd added a cover version of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues” to their live performances. It’s raw power and driving rhythm were something that every audience looked forward to and the crowds kept coming as the band toured the south throughout 1976 and 1977. Then in October 1977, as the band was flying from Greenville, SC to their next show at the L.S.U. Assembly Center their aging Convair 240 lost an engine in mid-flight. The panicked crew lost control of the plane when they mistakenly dumped all the fuel. Minutes later the plane plunged into a swamp outside Gillsburg, Mississippi and broke into pieces. Both pilots, two of the band’s members, including singer Ronnie Van Zant, and other relatives were killed in the crash. What had been a promising future in rock music lay in pieces in a Mississippi swamp.
Led Zeppelin was famous for lapsing into treatments of many of Robert Johnson’s blues songs, including a riveting live version of “Crossroad Blues.” It is from Johnson that singer Robert Plant borrowed the famous lyrics for The Lemon Song, “squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg.” Arguably one of the best and most influential rock bands ever, Led Zeppelin spent the 70’s defying gravity and riding their “lead balloon” to super fame and fortune. Near the end of the 70’s, however, the band fell upon some bad luck, triggered by the untimely death of Plant’s son to septic shock in 1977. Shortly after this, amid rumors of black magic and sexual sadism, guitarist Jimmy Page was battling his own demons trying to kick a monstrous heroin addiction. In the next several years, Led Zeppelin would lose its drummer, the phenomenal John Bonham, and the manager who had guided them to supergroup status and beyond, the inimitable Peter Grant.
Finally, Kurt Cobain, the father of the grunge movement of the 1990’s, was said to have performed his own acoustic version of “Crossroad Blues” while traveling with Nirvana and for family and friends. Cobain considered reworking it for the band to play live and was said to have been toying with recording a new version of the Robert Johnson classic when his life came to a tragic end. In April 1994 Cobain was found on the second floor of his garage at his Washington state dead from a shotgun blast through the head. The circumstances surrounding Cobain’s death are still the subject of hot debate – with rival camps claiming that Cobain committed suicide and others claiming that he was murdered in a conspiracy that centered around his wife, Courtney Love – and it seems that the curse didn’t stop at Cobain’s death. Two people, one former Cobain employee and a Seattle cop widely reviled for having botched the death site investigation, have both followed Cobain to the grave.
Till Next Year
We're closing the crypt for this year, Creepy Month will be back again, hopefully with more insights on the disturbing macabre world we live in. But never worry, Creepy Month would never leave you, just like the inescapable unknown, always lurking in the shadows...
Just beyond your sight. In the corner of your eye. Behind you until you turn around. We're always there.
Happy hunting. Till next year.