CLARKSDALE, Miss.–Robert Johnson, perhaps Mississippi’s most famous bluesman, traveled the Delta playing parties, dives, clubs and even front porches. His playing in 1936 differed so much from his playing in earlier years that many people believed he sold his soul to “The Devil” at the crossroads.
The myth of the “crossroads” comes from Africa and some of its traditions brought to the U.S. and Mississippi with its slave population. The story goes that if you need something bad enough, you can make a deal with “Elegba”, or Satan. You go to a crossroads at midnight and wait until he shows up. That’s when you sign your soul away and lose your chance at salvation in exchange for whatever gift it is you want or need.
“I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees,” said Johnson in the song “Cross Road Blues”. “I asked the Lord above for mercy, save poor Bob if you please.”
That may have jump started a myth that has lived for almost 80 years. People who knew Johnson swear he told them that’s how he learned the guitar and singing so well. Apparently, just a short time before, his guitar playing annoyed other blues players. Johnson was considered a poser before 1936.
“His family renounces this and Robert Johnson, we can’t find where he ever said it,” said Shelley Ritter, executive director of the Mississippi Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. “This was projected upon him after death.
So, why the big change in such a short time?
“He probably really just practiced a lot. He learned from some of the hreat people like Son House and Robert Nighthawk,” said Ritter.
She added that Johnson was one of the few bluesmen who were recorded in that era.
As for where this mythical crossroads is, some people think it’s the intersection of highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale. That’s where a world famous monument is today.
“The crossroads is wherever you want it to be,” said Ritter. “It could be at a railroad crossing, it could be at a road crossing.”
Indeed there are hundreds of spooky, out of the way places to choose from in the Delta, if you are brave enough to be out there, at midnight.
It’s a piece of world-famous Mississippi mythology that lives on and brings people in from around the globe.