The Devil on Guitar: Robert Johnson’s Crossroads

August 2, 2015 — I assume the Devil’s made a lot of deals for a lot of souls over the years. We don’t hear about most of them, because maybe the Devil ain’t proud of most of them. But there are a few that are legendary. Case studies, the Devil would call them were he a businessman. And he is. Faust, of course. That’s a big one. Pope Sylvester II. That was a good day for the Devil. Here in New England, it’s General Jonathan Moulton, whose home and cenotaph I’ve seen with my own [Devil-take-my] eyes. And then there’s the guitar-toting, high-pitched black man from Mississippi named Robert Johnson.

Robert Johnson has influenced every person who has ever picked up or picked at a guitar. Especially if they’re white. And even more especially if they’re British. He’s talked about like he's an unfathomable gift from the music gods, made from the fret of a guitar like Eve was made from a rib. And he is. But that’s not his legend. His is a bit more diabolic.

Robert Johnson was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. That’s the famed Delta region, whose swampy morass of poverty and oppression birthed the Blues. He was a rambler, that Johnson, but much of his short life was spent in the Delta.

Story goes, Robert Johnson disappeared one day. When he came back, he had a guitar strapped to his back and a distinct take on the Delta Blues.

Story goes, that during that missing time he sold his soul to the Devil, who appeared as a giant black man.

Story goes, he did it at a crossroads.

Regardless, the Devil did eventually get his due. Both of Johnson’s wives died during childbirth and Johnson himself went to the Great Below in 1938 at age 27. His cause of death is unknown, but rumored to be poison at that hands of a jealous husband. Johnson left behind 29 songs, three gravestones, and a controversy over whether his recordings were sped up or not. Today, his legend looms large. And that crossroad? It’s been paved. And not with good intentions.

People place his fabled crossroads all over the region. But only one place has capitalized on it. Claimed it. Worked it into its geography, so to speak. And, since we were passing through Mississippi, we decided to go see it.

We were coming from the south, Yazoo City way, where we’d found the grave of a witch. We had Johnson playing from the dash, and were driving up Route 61—the “Blues Highway”—to where it crossed with Route 49 in Clarksdale. These roads don’t have much in the way of evocative names, but where they crossed is where Johnson’s hell is supposed to have broken loose.

And in a way, it had.

The crossroads was a busy mess of automobiles and highways, telephone pole wires and traffic lights, stores and restaurants. Were Johnson to have fallen down on his knees at these crossroads, he’d have been run over by rubber tires and rolled into a pitted parking lot. It was…ugly. I understood the Devil to have a greater sense of ambiance.

But there was something cool there. Or cheesy. Probably the latter, but I still like that it was there. A trio of giant blue guitars high above the intersection, each one facing outward in a triangle. Beneath them, it said “The Crossroads.” That’s it. Just that generic phrase. But it didn’t have to say more. Everybody knows what it means: This is the site of Robert Johnson’s soul-death.

All around us, stores were named after his crossroads. Crossroads Furniture. Crossroads Market. I wanted to immediately go out into the middle of the intersection, but we had lunch to attend to first. Right near the spot is a place is placed called Abe’s Bar-B-Q. Been in business since 1924. Johnson was a teenager when this place first started cutting up pigs.

The original site of the BBQ joint was about half a mile away, back when it was the Bungalow Inn, but it moved to the crossroads around 1936, just a year or two before Johnson’s mysterious death. Inside, that was exactly what it was, a BBQ joint. Plain furniture. Food on paper plates. A TV in a corner tracked a hurricane that would eventually catch us outside of Johnny Cash’s birth home in Arkansas. A perfect spot. Great BBQ, but you knew that before I wrote it. The tables had articles about Robert Johnson pressed into them.

Eventually, we wiped our sticky fingers on our clothes and rolled ourselves out. I braved the street to the small grassy median under the guitars, but saw nothing Robert Johnson-ish beneath its trees. Just a metal sign that talked about the city. No Devil either. Don’t blame him, though. I barely want my soul myself.

Now, this wasn’t our only dalliance with the Legend of Robert Johnson that day. Before we arrived in Clarksdale, we made a slight detour to Rosedale. That’s Rosedale as in “Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gonna take my rider by my side.” Some place Robert Johnson’s crossroads in this city, at the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 8. Again, not very evocative names.

The site was near Great River Road State Park, and the T intersection has a high school on one side and ends at a restaurant called Leo’s at the Levee. It was closed when we were there, so I can’t tell you about whether they tout Johnson or even have BBQ. Just that the site was a relatively lonely one on our early morning and apparently weekend visit. I couldn’t see anybody erecting giant blue guitars there. But maybe I could see a soul being commodified there.

Again, not mine. Mine sucks.