The Crossroads, continued

by Daniel Leary

Between April 1930 and sometime in 1932, Johnson lived in Martinsville, Mississippi (LaVere 1990, p. 12). Martinsville, carved out of a thick wilderness known as Piney Woods, lies 40 miles south of Jackson and a mere 60 miles north of Louisiana. The logging and turpentine camps of the Piney Woods had provided traveling bluesmen with work since the late 1890's, and it was in these camps that Johnson got his first taste of a bluesman's life and craft. During Johnson's tenure in Bayou country, he studied the blues from guitarist Ike Zinnerman. It is also likely that Johnson studied the secrets of the Hoodoo root doctor.

I think if you examine the evidence, you will find the possibility of Johnson partaking in a venture of this nature highly probable, as well as very important to his musical development. Martinsville's close proximity to New Orleans would be the first clue to any investigation of this nature.

In the 18th century, when the French took control of New Orleans, thousands of Haitian slaves came with them. Unlike the slave populations of North America, Haitian slaves were not severely discouraged from practicing their traditional religious beliefs. West African religions which had been transplanted to Haiti, were transplanted to New Orleans. All people of African decent who lived in and around New Orleans had a working knowledge of voodoo, or hoodoo, as it would become known in the United States.

In the centuries before the Civil War, the root doctor was the healer, fortune teller, and primary source of African truth and wisdom on plantations and urban centers all over the South. It was only in New Orleans that their presence was so visible (with its Voodoo Kings/Queens and Congo Square). The African beliefs deposited in the mind of the Hoodoo man or woman were the spiritual strength behind resistance displayed by slaves in their bondage. Tragically, Hoodoo was thrown off with the yoke of slavery in an effort to enter the mainstream of America and was at the very least forgotten by most African-Americans, save the bluesman (Finn 1986, p. 151-172).

As a part of my investigation, I decided to contact someone at the University of Minnesota's Afro-American Studies Department who could recount the role of Hoodoo in the development of jazz, the blues, and the dances at Congo Square. To my surprise, I could not find one person who thought themselves qualified to discuss this topic. When I spoke with Dr. Ron McCurdy (head of the jazz studies program) about Hoodoo and its role in the development of African-American music, his reaction was a blank stare, followed by the apologetic reply, "I've not heard of that (Hoodoo in music)." The deeper I dig into the huge literature of American blues history, the more I find this strange dichotomy of texts that have no mention of "Crossroad deals" or Hoodoo whatsoever and texts that celebrate these phenomena. The liner notes accompanying the CBS compact disc set of Johnson's recordings go out their way to make no mention of a deal with the Devil and use a Websters definition to define the word crossroads and its usage in Cross Road Blues.

It is this portion of authors who seem to do everything in their power to portray all blues as a purely secular music. They were not. Many blues are as sacred as any Baptist hymn, as any Gregorian chant, or as a Hindu's Rig Veda. Why are they not treated so? Well, this blind spot has many historical and social contributors ranging from white Americans' fears of "sinister" voodoo magic to the black Christian church's campaign to eliminate all competition for the hearts and minds of free African-Americans to the nonexistent role of "superstition" in our modern, science-driven world. With these factors in mind, I would like to suggest that the biggest roadblock holding most people back from a clear vision of Hoodoo and its role in black America's music and history is a lack of understanding of its vocabulary.

Now, I'm no jazz guy, but I have enough musical knowledge to know that if you know your II-V-I and I-IV-V changes, your diatonic chord scales, your modes, and what Miles Davis called the "cliches of jazz," you'll have a pretty good start on speaking and understanding the language of jazz. Likewise, if you don't know the nuts and bolts of your II-V-I and I-IV-V changes, your diatonic chord scales, your modes, and haven't studied your "cliches of jazz," you'll have a very hard time understanding jazz, let alone make sense speaking of it. The same thing applies to Hoodoo and its languages of rhythm, dance, ritual, and mythological metaphor.

Due to the underground stature that Hoodoo was forced to take (first by whites in the late 1700's and then by free black Christians in the late 1800's), the chances of spotting hoodooisms becomes extremely problematic due to their heavily coded nature. So if you don't know what to look for, chances are, you are not going to recognize Hoodoo when you see it. As to the extent to which Johnson was influenced by Hoodoo, I offer the following thoughts.

Many of Johnson's songs are filled with hoodoo-encoded lyrics. References to the "mojo hand," the "crossroads," the "stones in his passway," and the "Devil" all speak volumes in Hoodoo lore. That's provided that you have the Hoodoo vocabulary to spot and understand them. Judging by the manner in which Johnson used these mythological metaphors in his songs, I have to believe he knew a considerable amount on the topic.

I believe that Hoodoo was a means by which Johnson dealt with and resolved his own personal feelings and abilities with the hard, sad world in which he lived. Hoodoo became a means of empowering this "victim" of fate and history. I believe the way that Johnson empowered himself was his deal at the crossroads.

The first clue I found that pointed to this possibility was a story another country bluesman told his brother. Tommy Johnson (no relation) told his bother that he had made a deal with a man named Legba at some deserted Mississippi crossroads (Barlow 1989, p. 41). I tracked Legba through Haiti and back to Africa, where Legba is a god known to the Yoruban people as Esu or Eshu.

Esu is an extremely dynamic god. Above the bounds of ethical judgement, Esu, the lord of the crossroad (the place where heaven and earth meet for the Yoruban people), carries messages and sacrifices to and from the gods. No communication to the gods can be made without Esu's help, so he plays a role in virtually every Yoruban or Voodoo ritual (Euba 1989, p. 4). In addition to being this cosmic go-between, Esu, whose wisdom and humility are the greatest of all Yoruban gods, has command of a supernatural force know as ashe. Ashe is the force to make all things happen and multiply (Thompson 1983, p. 18). The manner in which Esu uses it is entirely up to Esu.

I found the second major clue interpeting Johnson's situation when I ran across the role of supernatural possession in both the Yoruban religion and its New World descendants. When I think of supernatural possession, the first thing that comes to my mind is the film The Exorcist. In The Exorcist, a young girl's mind and body are taken over by Satan. This (being possessed), I discovered as a youngster who had, against the better judgment of my parents, stayed up late and watched The Exorcist, was not a desirable thing to have happen to you, and fear of its possibility scared the crap out of me for years. To a child raised in Bahia, Brazil, however, supernatural possession might just be the best thing that could happen to you. To be possessed is to be chosen by a god, to be shown much favor (Finn 1986, p. 222). To have a god choose your body for its earthly manifestation speaks volumes about a person, and after some careful considerations, it speaks volumes about Johnson.

For whatever reasons, psychological, social, or environmental, Johnson's genius could not manifest itself until it became Legba's possession. Full of ashe, Johnson acquired confidence, discipline, and vision beyond that which he had ever demonstrated before. I believe Robert Johnson's soul was possessed by the Devil (read Legba), or at least that Robert Johnson believed it was. By truly believing in his fate, Legba enabled Johnson to resolve the conflicts between his great talents and his miserable environment.

If it was Hoodoo that empowered Johnson, and I believe it was, it did one hell of a good job. When Johnson first arrived to the Piney Woods, he was a broken man and a horseshit musician (ask Son House) (Finn 1986, p. 212). When he left, relocating to Helena, Arkansas, less than two years later, he was a powerful, charismatic man, a passionate visionary, and the best blues player in the world (ask Son House once again) (Finn 1986, p. 213).

The final six years of his life would amount to Johnson's entire musical career. Using Helena as a base of operations, Johnson followed the footsteps of all the country bluesmen who went before him. He rambled all around the Delta area, from Baton Rouge to Memphis, playing jukes, roadhouses, country picnics, and the hundreds of other places where blues was played and appreciated.

In 1935, desiring to record, like his idols Son House, Lonnie Johnson, and Tommy Johnson, Robert contacted the famous Jackson-based, "race" talent scout H.C. Speir. Speir had nothing for Johnson at the time of his inquiry, so he passed Johnson's name on to Ernie Oertle. After an audition, Oertle, a talent scout for Vocalion Records, decided to take Johnson to San Antonio, Texas, to record (LaVere 1990, p. 15).

On November 23-27, 1936, Johnson recorded 16 sides for Vocalion Records in a San Antonio hotel room. This session would include Johnson's only hit (and a marginal hit at that) Terraplane Blues. Johnson recorded one year later, June 19-20, 1937, a two-day session in Dallas for Vocalion that resulted in 13 additional sides. These 29 song are the only audio record of Johnson's playing. He would never record again (LaVere 1990, p. 46-47).

Robert Johnson's recordings became some of the most influential in all of American music. His complex, three-part playing style would set the precedent for future R&B; and rock & roll orchestration, with the drums and bass mimicking his rhythmic, walking bottom strings; the guitar filling in the chord changes and playing blues lead lines; and the voice, singing full of passion and speaking the truth.

Johnson wasn't the first player to use a walking baseline. Nor was he the first to use a I-IV-V chord progression. Johnson wasn't even the first to write blues songs with lyrics of such vision or sing with so much heart. What made Johnson so special was his combination of so many of the strongest elements of blues tradition under the direction of a singular genius.

It was also during the mid-1930's that John and Alan Lomax would record the likes of Leadbelly, Booker White, Son House, and Blind Willie McTell for the Library of Congress. Johnson's Texas recordings and those pulled off by the Lomaxes are some of the most important recordings in all of American music.

During the little more than a year between his final recording date and his death, Johnson would continue to play in Delta jukes and would take trips that took him a thousand miles away from the Delta. Johnson, Johnny Shines, and Clavin Frazier traveled from Helena northward, playing as far away as Windsor, Ontario; Chicago; and New York City. I have read that Johnson is said to have occasionally played with small combos during this trip (LaVere 1990, p. 15). If this is so, I would bet money that Johnson, had he not been killed, would eventually have ended up in Chicago where Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, and Sonny Boy Williamson were reinventing the blues via the small amplified combo. Others have speculated that Johnson might have jumped out of the blues altogether and into jazz, or something new and different.

Musically speaking, Johnson was a very young 27 years old (having only been playing seriously for eight years), but he already had chops comparable to a Franz Liszt, a Charlie Parker, or an Andres Segovia and the creative vision of a Miles Davis, a W.E.B. Dubois, or an F. Scott Fitzgerald. His loss, like those of Jimi Hendrix and Emily Bronte, have provided a host of "what if" type questions for the generations that would follow. I really believe that Johnson had just scratched the surface of his musical capabilities at the time of his death. But any treasures untold, he took with him, leaving only his 29 sides, his crossroads deal, and stories told by his peers for people to remember him by.

On August 13, 1938, Robert Johnson was killed at a juke near Greenwood, Mississippi. It is believed that he was poisoned by a jealous husband. His mother and brother-in-law attended his burial in a wooden coffin furnished by the county at the old Zion Church graveyard near Morgan City, Mississippi, a stone's throw off Mississippi Highway 7 (LaVere 1990, p. 18). And with that, it would seem that Johnson's final request was granted.

You may bury my body, down by the highway side.
You may bury my body, down by the highway side.
So my old evil spirt can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.
-- Robert Johnson, Me and the Devil Blues


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