It’s an old, old story. The shadowed, dusty crossroads sit lonely in the sultry, oppressive summer night, seemingly waiting for the young Black man who now arrives. He holds a guitar in one hand and a mostly empty bottle of whiskey in the other. He does not stumble as he walks, but looks about warily as he slowly approaches, his misgivings chasing each other across his handsome face. The crossroads are lit only by the dull light cast off from the sickle of light shining in the dark sky, gleaming almost bronze through the thick humidity. It is enough. He can see that he’s alone.
As midnight comes upon him, he feels a change, as of movement. It’s not a smell or a sound or something he can name. His skin, already slick with the sweat of the hot night, feels clammy and a shiver thrills through his body. With his intentions, in this place, he has already crossed a threshold and he can feel it.
A figure bulks in the darkness at the crossroads now, broad as a thoroughbred and so, so tall. The young man can’t see his features, can’t even see if it’s truly a man, but he can see a wicked, white smile. He didn’t see him arrive, didn’t hear a footstep or feel a wisp of breeze. This is the right man. He is in the right place.
He clears his throat, tightens his hold on the guitar, and steps forward.
Famously known as the bluesman who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for musical talent, Robert Leroy Johnson has been described by several of his friends and lovers as moody and a loner in life, and a little bit mysterious. A genius he certainly was, and he has left his mark on the world. Among those directly influenced by Johnson and his music: Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, and Bob Dylan.
Robert Johnson’s short life was plagued with misfortune. Born out of wedlock and under difficult conditions, he spent the first nine years of his life cared for by his mother’s ex-husband and family. Despite the circumstances, those were happy, stable years for Johnson; he was loved by foster family, and was especially close to his older half-sister Carrie. He was educated and exposed to music and dancing. His mother, now married to a share-cropper, returned for him when he was 9, seeking to use him as labour on their farm.
Robert spent several years with his mother and step-father, where he was regularly abused for his reluctance to labour in the cotton fields. But he was naturally gifted, and very intelligent, and took to music easily. He began to play the jukes in the area, spending as little time at home as he was able.
Robert was later known for his love of whiskey, women, and wandering. Prior to all of that, he was already a widower by the age of 19. His first wife, Virginia Travis, died giving birth to their child only 14 months after their wedding. The cause of death was reported as nephritis and eclampsia, but her family felt they knew the truth: it was Robert and his devil’s music. He was driven away by her family. He later had a son named Claude with Vergie Mae Smith. Despite his repeated pleas, she refused to marry him. A short time after, he married Caletta Craft in 1931, perhaps in rebound. Caletta fell ill and died within two years, some sources say in childbirth. Johnson was already gone. Thereafter he worked as an itinerant musician, traveling throughout the Mississippi Delta region and further afield when the opportunity presented itself, seducing women as he went. He traveled as far north as Canada, and as far south as Texas. During this period, he had one final ongoing relationship with Estella Coleman, mother of musician Robert Lockwood Jr. Johnson took Lockwood under his wing and helped Lockwood make his first guitar. The two Roberts played and traveled together for a little under a year. In time, his relationship with Estella ended and he returned to his licentious ways. His friend and traveling companion Johnny Shines would later claim that he preferred older women, because they could pay his way.
In a sense, that would be the thing that killed him.
We know the story of Johnson’s death only by eyewitness testimony. It was August of 1938, and Johnson was frequenting a juke called the Three Forks, in Greenwood, Mississippi. He was enjoying a passionate romance with the juke owner’s wife. The owner discovered their liaison and in retribution supplied his unwitting wife with a bottle of poisoned whiskey for Robert. Robert’s good friend Sonny Boy Williamson, a witness to the event, says that he knocked the bottle out of Johson’s hand, warning him about tainted alcohol and opened bottles. Johnson ignored his warning and drank it anyway. He fell ill immediately, and died in agony three days later.
The poison in question has been identified variously as either strychnine or naphthalene made from dissolved mothballs, which was a common way to make someone very sick and confused at the time. Naphthalene poisoning was very uncomfortable for the victim, but virtually never deadly. Blues experts Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlaw believe that it was naphthalene, which caused fatal hemorrhage in combination with his diagnosed stomach ulcer.
His official death certificate lists his cause of death as “no doctor” (that is, no doctor present to verify cause of death) but notes that the white landowner on whose land Johnson was at the time of his death, and who had not known Johnson in life, opined that it appeared to be syphilis. Robert was wrapped in a white linen and buried in a bare wooden box. There is still debate over where he was buried.
Most experts agree that it was not syphilis that killed him. There is no evidence that he exhibited any of the symptoms in his lifetime, nor do the accounts of his death match with a death by syphilis. Musicologist David Evans regards the landowner’s syphilis explanation entirely as “bigoted nonsense.”
There isn’t much of Johnson left to us now. There are a handful of photographs, official documentation of his death and marriages, and a son who never had the opportunity to know his father. Fortunately, we do have his music: Johnson had two recording sessions in the last few years of his life, one in San Antonio in 1936, and one in Dallas in 1937. This has left us with 29 songs and 13 alternate takes.
The rumour that Robert had sold his soul at the crossroads was told in his lifetime, and was known to Robert. Two of his girlfriends, Willie Mae Powell and Queen Elizabeth, have both confessed to believing it, at the time and long after. Many years later Son House would tell Pete Welding, as reported in a 1966 Downbeat article, that Robert was a terrible guitar player as a boy who made nothing but noise. Johnson vanished and reappeared months later as a master. Like magic.
There were problems with this story. Johnson’s neighbours Willie and Elizabeth Moore recall that Johnson was a good guitar player already by 1928 and used it as he played in local jukes. His first guitar had been constructed with the help of his sister, Carrie. She and Johnson both saved up as much money as they could and he bought his first guitar in 1927. At the time that House was speaking of, Johnson was 19 and already widowed and with the dust of the road on his shoes. He was playing the circuit himself by then.
What had happened in reality was that Johnson found a mentor in Isaac “Ike” Zimmerman, a talented blues musician that Johnson crossed paths with. They did, according to Ike’s daughter Loretha, actually play in cemeteries in the middle of the night. They even joked about devilry, but the real reason they did was because it was quiet there and without interruptions.
There was another very specific crossroads myth of the era that’s virtually identical, but it was told of Tommy Johnson (who was not Robert’s kin, as far as anyone knows) by his brother. Tommy recorded roughly a decade before Robert did, and it’s entirely possible that the two Johnsons were simply confused for one another.
For that matter, Paganini was accused of the same in 19th century Italy. A child prodigy and virtuoso on the violin and mandolin, rumours varied from Paganini having sold his own soul to his mother having sold her soul while she was pregnant with Paganini. Many claimed to have seen the devil standing behind him as he played, and claimed to have caught sight of him sporting devilish horns and a tail. It was apparently not difficult to find yourself accused of traffic with the devil if you were a talented enough musician.
Not helping any of this is that, according to the reports of his friend and fellow bluesman Memphis Slim, Johnson would get very drunk very frequently, and he would curse God angrily for all that he had lost. Often during these episodes, people present would leave quickly, afraid that God was going to strike Johnson down on the spot.
There were a lot of myths concerning the crossroads during Johnson’s lifetime. Talk of the devil was very much in the zeitgeist, and in truth crossroads shows up commonly in mythology across cultures. African folklore had a crossroads’ myth and a keeper of the crossroads in Papa Legba, ancient Greece had a crossroads’ myth which was presided over by Hekate and Hermes. Suicides and criminals were often buried at the crossroads in Europe, a fact that was used to great effect in Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest, and outlaws were sometimes executed there. As early as the 1500s, Faust was described as making circles at the crossroads to summon Satan himself.
Articles about Robert Johnson often offer up his music as proof of his pact with the Devil. On the surface, that seems reasonable; included in his surviving music are songs with titles like Crossroad Blues, Hellhound on my Trail, and Me and the Devil Blues. Oddly, most of the songs that people point to as being occult, seem to be anything but. The Crossroads Blues, in which the singer sings about the dark catching him at the crossroads, is generally agreed to be about Sundown laws and the dangers of being alone and Black in the Delta in the 1930s. Conforth and Wardlaw believe Me and the Devil Blues to be in homage to all the devils in the blues that had come before him.
There had long been an association between the devil and the blues well before Robert Johnson’s time. It made it delicious and forbidden, and was frequently used in marketing and lyrics. Done sold my soul to the Devil was a whole song on the subject by Clara Smith in 1924, and in 1928 Peg Leg Howell found himself unable to shun the devil, as two examples among many.
Hellhound on my Trail, though not a confession to his infernal pact, does contain something else occult — a reference to Hoodoo.
Hoodoo was very important and widely practiced in the Mississippi Delta region of the 1920s and 1930s, as it still is today. It developed as a result of varying religious influences on the African people who were enslaved and brought to America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their own religion, forbidden for the enslaved Africans, was observed in secret and over time became blended with the Christianity that was forced upon them and the Native American traditions that surrounded them. It’s been suggested that Hoodoo was so widely practiced because it gave the enslaved people a sense of power in a situation where they had little, and perhaps that’s true. It’s certainly the case that Jim Crow was law in the early 20th century, and while slavery had been abolished formally, that didn’t necessarily improve life or working conditions for the Black people of the American south. They needed all the power they could get. Robert needed all the power he could get.
In Hell Hound on my Trail, the singer blames his “rambling mind” on the Hot Foot Powder sprinkled around the door. This is Foot-Track Magic, very commonly used in Hoodoo, where the Hot Foot Powder sprinkled across his own doorway won’t allow him to cross the threshold, forcing him into a life on the road. Another form of Foot-Track Magic is the subject of Stones in my Passway, in which the singer complains of all the harm that has come to him because he walked over a crossing that someone had laid for him.
He makes use of other areas of Hoodoo as well. In I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, a number of people have suggested that, despite ‘dust my broom’ being common slang at the time for leaving someone, the sweeping might also be a sly reference to the use of sweeping motions in Hoodoo to banish bad energy from your home and life. The nation sack mentioned in Come In My Kitchen is a small bag used by women to keep their men faithful. In the song, he has freed himself from its influence and can pursue another love.
As a strange side note, Johnson’s prodigious musical talent and tragic death at the age of 27 qualifies him as a very early member of the “27 Club.” The 27 Club, often referred to as a curse, is a list of uncommonly talented musicians (some people include actors and artists as well) who died unexpectedly at the young age of 27. The list includes, among many others, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix.
What, then, is the legacy of Robert Johnson? Is he the earnest, talentless young man who paid for his genius with his very soul, or an intelligent young man with the aptitude and determination to influence untold generations of musicians? He would later be known as the grandfather of rock and roll, and the King of the Delta Blues singers. Perhaps worth the price of a soul, but is it one that Johnson was willing to pay? The evidence indicates strongly that he persevered through innate talent, persistence, and ceaseless practice. The figure of Robert Johnson at the crossroads in our collective imaginations, though, and the secretive, mysterious Robert would perhaps have not had it any other way.
FURTHER READING & SOURCES
Belard, Angelie. Hoodoo for Beginners: Working Magic Spells in Rootwork and Conjure with Roots, Herbs, Candles, and Oils. Hentopan Publishing, 2020.
Butler, J. M. “Crossroads myth.” Mississippi Encyclopedia. 4 March, 2019. Accessed 25 September 2021.
Conforth, Bruce M., and Gayle Wardlow. Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson. Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2019.
Graves, Tom. Crossroads: the Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson. Rhythm Oil Publications, 2012.
Lewis, John. “Robert Johnson Sells His Soul to the Devil.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 15 June 2011. Accessed 25 September 2021.
Oakes, Brian, director. Devil at the Crossroads, Netflix Remastered, 2019. Accessed 25 September 2021.
Quinn, Shannon. “18 People Who Allegedly Sold Their Soul to Pure Evil.” HistoryCollection.com. 28 September 2018. Accessed 25 September 2021.
Roberts, Maddy Shaw. “Niccolò Paganini Was Such a Gifted Violinist, People Thought He Sold His Soul to the Devil.” Classic FM. Classic FM, 1 Feb. 2019. Accessed 25 September 2021.
Rolling Stone. “The 27 Club: A Brief History.” Rolling Stone. 8 December 2019. Accessed 25 September 2021.
Yronwode, Catherine. “Foot-Track Magic.” Foot-Track Magic in the Hoodoo Tradition. Accessed 25 September 2021.