The Crossroads

by Daniel Leary

Mythic Narrative, 1st Variation:

Story of the bluesman, the Devil, and the deal at the crossroads, as retold in Stephen Davis's Hammer of the Gods.

In the delta of the Mississippi River, where Robert Johnson was born, they said that if an aspiring bluesman waited by the side of a deserted country crossroads in the dark of a moonless night, then Satan himself might come and tune his guitar, sealing a pact for the bluesman's soul and guaranteeing a lifetime of easy money, women, and fame. They said that Robert Johnson must have waited by the crossroads and gotten his guitar fine-tuned.

Mythic Narrative, 2nd Variation:

Cross Road Blues, as recorded by Robert Johnson, Friday, November 27, 1936, San Antonio, Texas.

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above "Have mercy, save poor Bob, if you please."

Mmmmm, standin' at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Standin' at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Didn't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by

Mmm, the sun goin' down, boy, dark gon' catch me here
oooo ooee eeee, boy, dark gon' catch me here
I haven't got no lovin' sweet woman that love and feel my care

You can run, you can run, tell my friend-boy Willie Brown
You can run, tell my friend-boy Willie Brown
Lord, that I'm standin' at the crossroad, babe I believe I'm sinkin' down

The mythic narratives I have chosen to examine, and which I will attempt to interpret, are the stories of crossroad deals between rural Mississippi bluesmen (Robert Johnson in particular) and the Devil. These are deals that Johnson and others supposedly made for virtuosic chops, fame, and fortune, provided by the Devil, in exchange for the bluesman's immortal soul. These are Faustian pacts consecrated in midnight meetings on deserted country crossroads by having the Devil tune the bluesman's guitar. These are contracts made by poor rural black men on the haunted byways of the Mississippi Delta in the 1920's and 1930's.

These stories, birthed by an oral narrative tradition, still seem to carry the hushed tone of late-night Delta roadhouse confessions and the sticky hot atmosphere of a Mississippi night, north of New Orleans, with its ties to Spain, Haiti, and Voodoo. It is not hard to believe that stories of a Faustian nature would grow out of such fertile mythic soil. With the murky, primordial bayou country of the Delta as the backdrop for these tales, the land itself becomes a living testament to things ancient, mysterious, and powerful. The bayou country setting, compelling as it may be, is only one part of a mythological construction that stretches across time, cultural barriers, and vast geographic distances.

To accurately interpret meaning from these tales, one must examine all the actors involved. You have to know who the blues people are (Robert Johnson specifically and blues people in general). You have to know who the Devil is, what the crossroads are, and why they dealt there. One has to have a grasp of the broader social issues of the region and deduce any effect that they may have had in the shaping of the myth. Who propagated the myth and what was gained by doing so? Did the teller believe the story? Did the listener? Who keeps telling the story today and why? Once you start answering these questions, what may at first seem a simple tale of greed and it's consequence becomes an incredibly complex social commentary, mythic syncretism, and act of cultural resistance.

I will use Johnson's lifetime as a road map for my discussion, addressing social, political, economic, cultural, and mythological issues as they are introduced into or impact upon Johnson's life. It is my hope that this chronologic structure will make a manageable forum for this large group of complex ideas.

On May 8, 1911, Robert Johnson, the product of a union between Julia Dodds and Noah Johnson, was born into a world not of his making (LaVere 1990, p. 7). Johnson, like all humans, was a victim of both fate and history. He was a victim of fate with regard to his God-given (read genetic make-up) physical and mental capacities, and a victim of history with regard to the nature of the environmental, economic, and social conditions in which he was raised. Johnson was both blessed and cursed by his inherited qualities and conditions.

Born with the potential physical and mental capacities needed for musical virtuosity and a mind capable of great transcendent vision, Johnson was indeed a very gifted individual. Fate also dealt Johnson his lean frame, the timbre of his voice, and perhaps the most overriding component of his personal make-up (historically speaking), his black skin color.

Had Johnson been born in west Africa, the land from which Johnson's ancestors had been forcibly taken, his inherent characteristics would have made him a prime candidate to be a griot or other spiritual leader of some capacity. Had he been born elsewhere in the New World, a son of Brazil or Haiti, his obvious talents would have made him a fixture of his community rather than a fatalistic outcast, drifting though the dark recesses of a criminal and spiritual underworld. But, alas, Johnson was not born to these worlds. A true "victim" of history, Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

If there were areas of the world in the early part this century that were harder on a black person than the southern United States, I have neither read nor heard of them. To this day, the Mississippi Delta area is one of the most impoverished regions in the country, and in 1911 its bottom-of-the-barrel standard of living was only rivaled by the very worst immigrant ghettos and the tragic plight of native peoples living on reservation lands. To be black in Mississippi during these days can be likened to living under the rule of a hostile invader.

White southerners, beaten in the Civil War by the industrial might of the North, carried with them what can be described as an unresolvable vendetta with their northern adversaries. The black population of the South became a living reminder of the defeat of the old southern way of life, which, for most whites in the South, had never been that great.

Pre-Civil War living conditions were forgotten, and poor southern whites were satisfied to blame their black neighbors for their low standard of living, lack of upward mobility, and the limitations of available employment. Led by the false visions of a once utopian Dixie, orchestrated by old southern hierarchies, and fueled by the anger of the disenfranchised poor white underclass, the white South directed its frustration and hate at something that false history and defeated tradition demanded, black people.

Beaten in battle, the braintrust of the old South manipulated Reconstruction through legislative and policy decisions. Enter the feudalistic system of sharecropping to maintain the pre-emancipation paternal hierarchies of master and slave under the guise of planter and tenant. Enter Jim Crow with its two separate regimes of truth and justice, the county farm, and legislated racially segregated housing.

The economic plight of poor white southerners birthed the KKK, whose message of racial hatred fueled thousands of lynchings and mutilations, causing areas like the Delta to become places of fear and loathing. An argument can be made, and a strong one at that, that the main seed of worry in Johnson's Cross Road Blues is not some moment of Faustian regret, but the fear involved in being a traveling bluesman, with no place to go and no one to befriend, in a land where you could just as easily be killed, beaten, or tortured as be left in peace. These were the issues that blacks in the Deep South had at the front of their minds every day of their lives.

Within 30 years of the passage of the 16th Amendment, it became obvious that the African-American population of the South was to be beaten, re-enslaved, and, if need be, annihilated until such a time when satisfaction could be gained from the jaws of cultural, political, and military defeat. This was the world into which the infant Johnson had the bad luck to be born -- the world that would shape his God-given abilities into one of the most dynamic bluesmen to ever live.

At the time of Johnson's birth, the musical traditions of African-Americans had already passed through many phases of development. African and European musical traditions had been mixing for many hundreds of years, manifesting themselves in the field holler, the spiritual, the Hoodoo -- encoded passages of Creole work songs, as well as an unknown number of time-lost styles that were unceremoniously dumped with the shackles of slavery. It was not until the early 1900's that what would become know to the world as "America's Music" began to make its way into the American mainstream.

The dissemination of jazz, ragtime, and the blues in the early 1900's was occurring at a rapid pace. All three had important mainstream contributors: jazz's Buddy Bolden, ragtime's Scott Joplin, and blues' W.C. Handy. It was during this time that much of America was hearing these new sounds of ragtime and jazz for the first time, be it in their parlors or urban red-light districts. The styles of music that we classify today as classic and country blues were just beginning to make their first steps toward fame and recognition beyond certain segments of the African-American community. Classic and country blues were the blues traditions that were most active during Robert Johnson's lifetime, and aside from the influences of Mississippi Delta Hoodoo, they were the two guiding forces to which his music would both absorb and contribute to the most.

The classic blues singer was, nine times out of ten, a woman who had honed her skills singing in all-black, traveling minstrel shows. These minstrel shows were, in fact, an outgrowth of a pitiful tradition in which white musicians/comedians donned black face paint and sang "traditional nigger folk songs." These "Nigger Minstrel" shows were all the rage in Europe in the mid-19th century. One of the most popular songs preformed by these troupes was a little number called The Jim Crow Jump, written about the strange gait of a crippled black stable hand's walk (Oakley 1976, p. 20-21). The broad-based success of these "burnt cork" minstrel shows opened the door for many African-Americans to perform in their own right, but at the same time, they set the standards by which all dark-skinned performers would be expected to follow. For most black performers, that was no easy pill to swallow, nor should it have been.

The black-run minstrel shows of the 1910's were a combination of song, dance, theater, comedy, circus, and freak show, oftentimes traveling the country by train and always playing for predominantly segregated audiences. The road was very hard on these performers (as it was on all traveling African-Americans), but the comraderie of the collective group gave these singers a strength and kinship that would follow them out of the minstrel show and into the spotlight of 1920's blues singer stardom. The unity displayed in the classic blues community is in stark contrast to the brooding isolation expressed by most country blues players of the same era. These two alternate reactions to a similarly hostile world by what would seem to be two closely related groups raises some questions about gender and how it affected the coping devices of the African-American community.

Why was it that women blues singers aligned themselves into this sort of church-based, supportive sisterhood? What made Hoodoo so attractive to the lone bluesmen? I hope to sort out some of these issues as we go along. I feel comfortable pointing out one of the main contributing factors right now, that being the economic fall out of the 1920's blues boom.

The blues boom of the 1920's grew as a result of three major political, social, and technological forces which converged in the mid- to late 1910's. In 1914, World War I broke out in Europe, causing the demand for war-related goods to outstrip the supply that Europe could produce on its own. To meet this demand, European militaries looked to America to provide. It did, and northern industry boomed. Unfortunately, the war that was responsible for this economic boon also presented American war profiteers with a problem. Up until 1914, northern industry had relied heavily upon fresh European immigrants to work in the factories, mills, and mines of the North. During World War I, European immigration into the United States dropped from a pre-war 1914 high of 1.2 million a year to a 1918 low of 10,000 a year, an 83-percent drop in four years (Oakley 1976, p. 83). So much demand for war goods and so little variable capital (read workers) drove industry to search for a new supply of labor. They found it in southern blacks.

Word of northern jobs and a better life flooded into the South via black railroad porters and northern-based, black-run newspapers like the Chicago Defender. And though many southern African-Americans (from 20 percent living in the North during the 1890's to 35 percent in 1920) moved northward, these years of greater economic opportunity were far from days of wine and roses (Oakley 1976, p. 81, 88). Most of these new arrivals lived in the rat-infested ghettos of northern and southern cities. And with many more applicants than jobs available, unemployment and crime in many cities grew to epidemic proportions.

Women tended to do better than men, employment-wise, during this transition. Cooks, nannies, and domestic help of all sorts where always in demand, regardless of how the mills or factories were doing. Black women could be hired on to these jobs when black men typically were not. Women became the breadwinners and family leaders of many urban households, while a large percentage of men, with their options limited by race, industry, and gender, began to drift into a quagmire of depression and alienation. You can start to see the divisions within the black community along both gender and later urban and rural lines. The African-American community, while faced with many universal problems, was not a homogeneous society. It would be inaccurate to portray it so.

In addition to the economic pitfalls facing blacks, the traditional problems of racism haunted their every move. Southern whites, who still thought of African-Americans as "theirs," resented the departure of so many "possessions" into the hands of their traditional enemy, the North. More than one African-American was lynched by southern whites for a practice reported by the Atlanta Constitution in October 1919 as: SUMTER NEGRO FOUND DEAD AFTER SPREADING PROPAGANDA (Oakley 1976, p. 84).

In the North, whites, who conditionally supported the 16th Amendment (as long as they didn't have to live with "them"), began welcoming their new neighbors with shouts of "nigger go home." In 1919, 25 major white-initiated race riots ignited in cities both North and South (Oakley, 1976, p. 88).

Getting heat from both sides, black Americans struggled to establish footholds in urban centers all over the United States, many of which would become centers of African-American musical innovation and employment. Examples of these are the blues scene of Atlanta's Decatur Street, Memphis's Beale Street jug band scene, and later, the depression-born blues scenes of East St. Louis and the south side of Chicago.

Gathering steam alongside these socio-political trends were the great leaps being made in the availability and technology of sound recording and audio reproduction. It was in the late 1910's that the record player began to be something that the average American could afford to own and operate. All segments of America began to purchase phonographs, and the demand for music to fit all tastes led to the creation of hundreds of regional record labels, selling music as diverse as hillbilly and Wagner. But just as with housing, schools, and the military, the recording industry was segregated (Oakley 1976, p. 133).

Records of African-American performers, regardless of content, fell into a category called the race record. Unlike most regional recording companies, which recorded works of performers from in and around their area of distribution, the vast majority of race records were produced by northern, white-run labels which would import performers to the North to record and then sell their product to the African-American community all over the country.

Race records sold big in the twenties. Mamie Smith's August 10, 1920 recording Crazy Blues sold 75,000 copies in its first month on the shelves, and that was only the beginning (Oakley 1976, p. 63). Classic blues singers Ma (Mother of the Blues) Rainey, Paramount Records' biggest selling star in the early 1920's, and Bessie (Empress of the Blues) Smith, who sold millions of "sides" before her tragic death (the result of a car accident in 1937), were the biggest stars of the race market and made a great deal of money for both themselves and northern record executives. I guess it should be no surprise that the biggest blues stars of this period were women. Commercial art tries to appeal to the folks with the money, and in the race record market those folks were often women.

There can be no doubt that a young Robert Johnson, who from the time of his birth until the mid-1920's, had been shuffled around between relatives and family friends, rural Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee, would surely have heard and been influenced by both the style and message of the classic blues singers. It would not be until the late 1920's, while living in Robinsonville, Mississippi, that Johnson would be exposed to his greatest musical influences -- the great country blues players Charlie Patton, Willie Brown, and Son House, all of whom lived and worked on the nearby Dockery Plantation (LaVere 1990, p. 9).

In February 1929, Johnson and 16-year-old Virginia Travis where married in Penton, Mississippi (LaVere 1990, p. 9). The newlyweds moved in with Johnson's older half-sister Bessie and her husband, Granville Hines, on the Klein plantation just east of Robinsonville. Johnson took up farming Bessie's share and began learning the skill of playing the guitar on the side. With his wife, and a child on the way, Robert's life was beginning to take on the look of a career sharecropper. That "look" would not last long.

In April 1930, Virginia and child died in childbirth (LaVere 1990, p. 11). Robert would marry once again, but only for convenience. Those who knew Johnson have said that he never spoke much about Virginia's death or personal matters of any other sort. We will never know the extent of his feelings on this loss, but I think one can safely say that Virginia's death must have played a major role in Johnson's leap into the blues. The blues tradition that Johnson entered was that of the country bluesman.

From the 1890's through the 1940's, traveling bluesmen worked the plantation, barrelhouse, logging camp, and roadhouse circuits of the Deep South. They played guitars (6, 8, and 12 string), harps, and in the case of most barrelhouse players, the piano (Jelly Roll Morton and Big Joe Williams, for example). Their songs were patchwork quilts of women (read sex), poverty, the county farm, isolation, violence, and Hoodoo. In short, they were the realities of their own personal lives. The country bluesman was the bard of an extremely violent African-American underworld -- the songster of the Devil, if you were to believe the rhetoric of the day's black Christian church (Finn 1986, p. 153).

A few of the great early contributors to this genre were the likes of Charlie Patton, Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas, and Johnson's neighbors, Willie Brown and Son House. All four of these players had done some recording for the race record market by 1929. Players like Son House traveled to northern studios to record, while many others had their songs captured by an operation know as field recording. Field recordings were made in mobile recording studios all over the South. Studios set up in hotels, private homes, and (God forbid) churches were the sites of many historic country blues recordings, including Johnson's own. In 1929, the bottom fell out of the race record market, but that should be no surprise.

By 1929, the U.S. economy was primed for disaster. Industry, fueled by an orgy of stock market speculation, was plain and simply, overproducing goods (read supply), outstripping the buying power of world markets (read demand) and causing the stock market to crash. Black Monday would send a tidal wave of economic disaster across every segment of the American population, ushering America into the Great Depression of the 1930's.

There are historians who maintain that the Depression had little impact on the condition of black America. To a certain extent, this is correct. For example, many black businesses were so far outside the "loop" of mainstream American business that the domino effect of bankruptcies and bank failures hardly touched them. One can also argue that so many African-Americans were in poverty in the 1920's that any additional suffering could not have been significant. While both points certainly have their merits, it is my belief that things got significantly worse for black Americans during the 1930's, particularly in the Deep South.

First, African-Americans, who had always been the last hired, were the first to be fired during the Depression. Any economic input via mainstream white America was yanked out of black communities, throwing many African-Americans into poverty.

Second, the policies of FDR's Agricultural Adjustment Administration hurt tenant farmers tremendously. The AAA's so-called "Cotton Contract," which had intended to raise the price of cotton by paying growers to cut production, ended up lining the pockets of landowning planters and devastating thousands of sharecroppers. Most planters kept all the federal monies for themselves. At the same time, they demanded payments from their tenants, who had just plowed under their share. Without a crop, how could they have possibly paid such a bill? The introduction of this huge cost into the already debt-laden finances of most sharecroppers resulted in thousands of tenant farmer evictions. Whole families were kicked off their shares and hit the road like so many others in the 1930's (Oakley 1976, p. 204).

An interesting sidebar to this screw job (I can't think of a better way to say it.) was the birth of the Southern Tenant Farmer Union. Many of the STFU's tactics and organization were used as the blueprints for the civil rights movements which followed in the 1950's and '60's (Oakley 1976, p. 204).

It's ironic that America's "long dark tea time of the soul" would coincide so closely with Johnson's. The Depression became the ideal tragic backdrop for one man's journey into the murky depths of his own sorrow and psyche. In late April 1930, filled with a rambling spirt, Johnson wandered southward, into the heart of the Piney Woods.

For Part 2, click here.

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