Johnson, who didn't gain real fame until well after his death, is now known for recording 29 of the most memorable songs in the American catalogue, inspiring artists like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and countless others with guitar playing even the masters cannot emulate. The legend now goes that he sold hios soul to Elegba, or the Devil, to achieve the level of playing, singing and writing that he did and that at the age of 27, in 1938, the Devil came to collect his due, taking Robert's soul with his early death near Greenwood. That's something his grandson Steven says is untrue.
"They talk about, he sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads for the talent that he had," he said. "I often tell people if you listen to that song, 'I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees, and begged the Lord to save poor Bob, if you please (sic)'. That don't sound like a man giving his soul to the Devil, then begging for salvation at the same time. The two just don't go together. He learned what he learned by practice, practice, practice and more practice."
Steven Johnson also went on to relate stories told to him by Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards and Robert "Jr." Lockwood, two bluesmen who ran with Johnson and recently passed away. Those stories included Johnson's starched white shirt that he always had in a paper bag and him being the only man they knew who always carried $200 in his pocket.
I talked briefly with both Steven Johnson and his father Claude, son of Robert Johnson.
"I was able to see him twice," said Claude. "He came to my grandfather's house where I lived and I never seen him again." Claude is now 80 and was six when his father died.
"There was a reason behind that," said Steven. "My great-granddaddy was a preacher and he didn't allow the blues- he didn't allow the Devil's music in his house. So that's why he didn't allow my grandmama and my granddaddy to be together. The only time my daddy ever saw him was looking out of a window at him. He never met him personally."
Rep. Greg Holloway, who represents the area, Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, the son of Judge Jim Kitchens, whose family had long been friends with the Johnsons, and local officials were all on hand for the dedication. Also there was Rep. Robert L. Johnson, III, no relation, who is chair of the Transportation committee, and who joked about having a difficult time getting the bill naming the highway after Johnson because they both had the same name and some thought the highway was to be named after a sitting committee member.
The bluesman Robert Johnson's catalogue includes Cross Roads Blues, Travelin' Riverside Blues, Come On In My Kitchen, Sweet Home Chicago, I Believe I'll Dust My Broom and the only hit he had while he was alive, Terraplane Blues. All were recorded in 1936 and 37 in Texas.
Steven Johnson and Visati perform Cross Roads Blues