Bluesman at 100, ever at a crossroad
The intersection of DeSoto and State streets here doesn’t look like anything special.
On the southeast corner of the roads is H Town Custom Wheels. Across DeSoto to the west is Beer & Bud Mart, which faces a Church’s Chicken stand. Immediately to the east of that are the Delta Donut shop and Abe’s BBQ, the latter noting its service to residents and visitors since 1924.
Yet this is the focal point of one of the towering legends of 20th century popular music -- the original intersection of Highways 61 and 49, the place where seminal blues musician Robert Johnson is said to have arrived one midnight to seal a deal with the devil, trading his soul to become the greatest blues musician in history.
Actually, there are at least three such crossroads around northern Mississippi, any of which might be the one Johnson had in mind 75 years ago when he wrote his signature song “Cross Road Blues” -- and that’s only relevant to those who are remotely likely to believe in such things.
The only sign of anything out of the ordinary today at the crossing of 61 and 49 is a triangular traffic island with a tall pole atop which are three identical oversized replicas of a blue electric guitar -- not, by the way, the type of instrument Johnson played in the 1930s.
But whether his reputation was the outcome of a supernatural bargain or simply natural-born talent combined with patience and practice, Johnson remains the man most broadly considered the preeminent bluesman of all time, a reputation that grows only more solid as the 100th anniversary of his birth in Hazlehurst, Miss., approaches on May 8.
Consider that during his lifetime, his biggest-selling recording, “Terraplane Blues,” sold about 5,000 copies. When the “King of the Delta Blues Singers” LP surfaced in 1961 with 16 of his songs, it sold around 20,000 copies. Since its 1990 release, a two-CD box set of all his known recordings has sold 1.5 million copies. That’s despite detractors who have suggested his reputation is over-inflated.
“Robert Johnson to me is the most important blues musician who ever lived,” said Eric Clapton, who helped turn a generation of rock fans on to Johnson playing an amped-up version of “Crossroads” with the English power trio Cream in 1968. “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.”
References to the supernatural in songs such as “Cross Road Blues,” “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Hell Hound on My Trail” have only enhanced the mystery surrounding Johnson’s seemingly overnight transformation from a competent guitarist and singer to the music’s most powerful proponent before his death at 27 from poisoning by the jealous partner of a woman.
Hundreds of musicians from the famous to the obscure have recorded his songs over the last half-century since Johnson’s own recordings first surfaced in a major way. Dozens of tribute albums have been recorded, and books, plays and films have been made about his extraordinary life, much of it shrouded in uncertainty.
The question is why. Johnson was just one of hundreds of African Americans struggling to eke out a living playing music in rural Mississippi in the early part of the last century, the only alternative for many to the backbreaking labor harvesting cotton in acre after acre of fields that still cover this part of the state.
Even a partial list of the music greats who emerged from Mississippi is imposing: Muddy Waters, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Son House, Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Junior Lockwood. And then there are blues-influenced rock and R&B; giants including Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke. That cultural richness is the reason the Grammy Museum just announced that it has chosen Cleveland, Miss., as the site for its first facility away from its home in Los Angeles.
Before Johnson came along, others were playing the Delta blues. Artists such as Patton, Brown and House were major influences on him. But Johnson’s hauntingly expressive, high-pitched voice, the sophistication of themes and lyrics in his songs and a technical mastery of the acoustic guitar that still has musicians scratching their heads in wonder all helped elevate him above his musical predecessors, peers and descendants.
One of those peers, 96-year-old David “Honey Boy” Edwards, will take part in a major centennial tribute to Johnson and his music coming up Thursday through May 8 in Greenwood, Miss., the town of about 15,000 where he is buried.
Even that core piece of biographical information wasn’t confirmed until about 10 years ago. That site is now marked with a stately tombstone at the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church about three miles north of Greenwood.
“So many mysteries remain, some we may never resolve,” pianist and music historian Ted Gioia writes in the notes accompanying “Robert Johnson: The Complete Original Masters -- Centennial Edition,” released Tuesday to mark the occasion. It culls all 29 recordings and the surviving alternate takes from his only recording sessions, the first in San Antonio in 1936, the last in Dallas the following year.
Fact or fiction, it can seem everyone in this region wants a piece of the Johnson crossroad myth.
“He was poisoned at a little joint called Three Forks, which is at the crossroad of Highways 49 and 82 -- that could have been the mythical crossroad,” said Paige Hunt, executive director of the Greenwood Visitors and Convention Bureau, which is coordinating the four-day Robert Johnson 100th Birthday Celebration this weekend.
Shelley Ritter, director of the Delta Blues Museum in downtown Clarksdale, notes that Living Blues magazine in 1990 identified the most likely sites as the intersection of 61 and 49 in Clarksdale or 61 and 82 in Leland.
Historian and Johnson authority Steve LaVere, the lawyer who championed his music and navigated through multiple lawsuits in recent decades to establish the rights of Johnson’s son, Claud, as the legitimate heir to his estate, wants no part of such debates.
“If you want to know where he died, where he lived, where he was born, where he was poisoned -- any factual information, I’ll tell you,” said LaVere, who moved from Glendale, Calif., to Greenwood about 10 years ago to work on Johnson matters. “But don’t ask me about that crap about the crossroad.”
Besides, given the string of casinos that have opened in recent years along Highway 61, a.k.a. “the Blues Highway,” between Memphis and Clarksdale, there’s no shortage of real-world places to make Faustian bargains for those so inclined.
That taboo subject aside, LaVere has lost none of his passion for Johnson’s music through more than four decades of work.
“If the music was second-rate, you’d say, ‘What’s all this fuss about?’ But the music delivers,” LaVere said. “The mystery and the myth and all that stuff become even more appealing when the music is something of value.”
Claud Johnson’s son, Steven, is a 51-year-old preacher who in 2009 started singing his grandfather’s music to keep the family connection to the music alive. His Robert Johnson Grandson Band also is performing in Greenwood for the centenary festival.
“I believe the crossroad was a point in my granddad’s life,” he said. “In ‘Drunken Hearted Man,’ when I heard that song, it felt like my granddaddy was speaking to me, saying what kind of man he was, saying that if he could change his living, he would.”
Johnson’s posthumous fame also has sparked backlash. Some scholars have gone so far as to debunk not only the Johnson myths but his stature in the blues world.
“As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note,” musician and author Elijah Wald wrote in his 2004 book, “Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.”
“The fact is, from the first, all sorts of people who heard Johnson had the same experience W.C. Handy did on that (mythical?) night he describes in his autobiography when he first heard someone play the blues,” said Greil Marcus, who explored Johnson’s legacy in his 1975 book “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.” “Handy -- the canniest and most ambitious black purveyor of black popular music -- couldn’t believe what he heard.’ And that’s what people have continued to hear since.”
Some have even debated the veracity of what everyone has been hearing for seven decades, suggesting the otherworldly sound of Johnson’s voice and guitar are merely the result of all-too-worldly speeding up of his recordings -- a theory roundly dismissed by those with access to the original discs.
Musicians, for the most part, seem to think there’s enough mystery in the music itself to obviate the need for additional mythology.
In his autobiography “Life,” Rolling Stones songwriter and guitarist Keith Richards said that Johnson “took guitar playing, songwriting, delivery, to a totally different height. ... Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself. Some of his best stuff is almost Bach-like in its construction.”
Thematically too, Johnson “took the blues into new artistic areas in a new, self-consciously artistic mode,” music journalist Peter Guralnick wrote in his 1982 book “Searching for Robert Johnson.” “Where someone like Son House or Charley Patton was content to throw together a collection of relatively traditional lyrics ... Johnson intentionally developed themes in his songs; each song made a statement, both metaphorical and real. ...
“Unlike other equally eloquent blues, this is not random folk art, hit or miss, but rather carefully selected and honed detail, carefully considered and achieved effect.”
Even with everything that’s been said and written about Johnson over the last half century, debate and new analysis is unlikely to subside.
“Almost any interpretation you have of Robert Johnson can find some justification in the body of work he left behind -- but will still lead you to dead ends and unanswered questions,” wrote Gioia. “And it is this open-endedness, this richness, his inexhaustibility of meanings that keeps drawing new listeners to Johnson long after other, more glamorous entertainers of his era have fallen from view.”
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Why is Robert Johnson, above all other blues players, the preeminent figure in that bedrock form of American popular music?
“Just look at the picture of him with the acoustic guitar: His fingers are in the weirdest position. If you’re a guitar player looking at that, you know this is a guy who’s not even thinking; he’s just there. ... The soul of his creative originality plays a huge part in music making for everyone who’s ever written a song and really known what they’re doing.”
-- Neil Young
“He might have actually sold his soul to the devil. [Laughing] You know why? He was just an unbelievably great guitarist, a mind-blowingly great guitarist. ... He also was a great composer on the guitar. He wrote, what, 29 songs? Almost all those songs are different from one another. There’s a lot of depth to it.”
-- T Bone Burnett
“I think it was just more extraordinary things in such a short period of time and a skill set above and beyond. It was ridiculous how good he was at what he did. It was just like a moment, a fleeting moment of music. The fact that we’re still talking about him like this ....”
-- Robbie Robertson
“I prefer to steer away from superstition and mystification of these things because, I think in a way, it cheapens it all somehow. If it’s as easy as that, then anyone can do it. ... I think he was just incredibly gifted, and he found how to make the most of that.”
-- Eric Clapton
“You think you’re getting a handle on playing the blues, and then you hear Robert Johnson -- some of the rhythms he’s doing and playing and singing at the same time, you think, ‘This guy must have three brains!’ ”
-- Keith Richards
“The deepest, scariest, most elemental and hair-raising blues there is.”
-- Bonnie Raitt