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Crossroads

Monday, April 16, 2012 - 07:00 PM

Crossroad at night Crossroad at night (eioua/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

In this short, we go looking for the devil, and find ourselves tangled in a web of details surrounding one of the most haunting figures in music--a legendary guitarist whose shadowy life spawned a legend so powerful, it's still being repeated...even by fans who don't believe a word of it.

For years and years, Jad's been fascinated by the myth of what happened to Robert Johnson at the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The story goes like this: back in the 1920s, Robert Johnson wanted to play the blues. But he really sucked. He sucked so much, that everyone who heard him told him to get lost. So he did. He disappeared for a little while, and when he came back, he was different. His music was startling--and musicians who'd laughed at him before now wanted to know how he did it. And according to the now-famous legend, Johnson had a simple answer: he went out to the crossroads just before midnight, and when the devil offered to tune his guitar in exchange for his soul, he took the deal.

Producer Pat Walters bravely escorts Jad to the scene of the supposed crime, in the middle of the night in the Mississippi Delta, to try to track down some shred of truth to all this. Not because they really thought something spooky would actually happen, but because deep down, there's a part of this story that--as much as the facts fall apart--still feels kind of true. 

To help us get close to the real human behind the tall tales, we talk to Robert Johnson experts Tom Graves, Elijah Wald, David Evans, and Robert “Mack” McCormick. And we hear, posthumously, from Ledell Johnson...a man of no relation to Robert, who unintentionally helped the world fall for a blues-imbued ghost story. 

Read more:

Tom Graves, Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson

Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues

David Evans, Tommy Johnson

Peter Guralnick, Searching for Robert Johnson

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Comments [64]

Becky S. Gatsby from Florida

The mythology on crossroads is something that has always haunted me yet intrigued me at the same time. The idea of waiting at a crossroads and just as it strikes 12 the devil appears is kind of mystical in a sense. Being a hardcore fan of supernatural I thought I knew all there is to know about making a deal with the devil but after listening to this podcast I am certain that I am far from the expert I thought I was. The most eerie part about this podcast was how out of all the odds Robert Johnson was murdered. That just adds to the great mystery of how a horrendous blues player turned into a inspirational musician. What I loved most about the podcast was the ending. It left you pondering whether Robert Johnson because a high class musician based on trauma or does the Devil actually exist.

Oct. 20 2014 11:07 PM
billvill from Tewksbury, Ma

Fantastic stuff. Love those Delta Blues!

May. 03 2014 11:16 AM
Dave K from NYC

When you first asked "How does someone suck then suddenly be great?" my answer was: you stop playing someone else's Blues and start playing your own Blues.

Fun set of stories but I still think that is the correct answer.

Feb. 05 2014 02:43 PM
Daniel S. Simmons from 66044

Love you guys. That pic not an accurate representation of a road crossing another road. Also, fuck Eric Clapton.

Jan. 19 2014 12:44 AM
JP Myers from Diamond Bar, CA

Amazing, great job guys.

Dec. 01 2013 08:34 PM
Ben Macri from San Anselmo, California

Thoroughly enjoyed this piece. My partner and I went on a several month long blog adventure in search of the roots of the blues in America and attempted to connect with Robert Johnson's spirit as he traveled up highway 61 to and through the "Crossroads." Read and enjoy our blog, benandruth.blogspot.com
This work in progress will be emerging as a multimedia book soon.

Dec. 01 2013 01:42 PM
Ashe

I know it's been a long time since you first recorded the story, but I wanted to leave a comment to say I don't think what you found negates the eerie qualities of the legend. Here, instead, you have a man whose life is so shrouded in mystery that fact and fiction are impossible to pull apart, who some say sold his soul, who some say died, yet who appears and disappears in different places and different times long after the first reports of his death, what haunting recordings you have of his music following him all the way. In some ways, it makes the story better.

Nov. 11 2013 04:47 PM
brent

"Trivia" means 'three roads' and is the alternative name of a roman Goddess also called Hecate, who would stand where three roads crossed and feed on the offerings left her by country folk trying to appease the thefts, murders and rapes that went on in that area.
Yes, the legend of the devil turning up where roads cross is as old as the hills, dates back millenia.

The question is. is it true? Does the Devil turn up when you invite him/her?

I expect he does when he has a free appointment..

Oct. 31 2013 03:56 AM
Dave Judy from San Diego

Well, since this show was aired one and a half years ago, I know I'm on the "late freight", but here goes.

I was taught that the legend of the crossroads in Black American culture was derived from the West African (Yoruba) religion, specifically the deity" Eshu" AKA "Elegua", god of the crossroads, and sometimes referred to as the "Trickster". This deity is often associated with the Christian devil in syncretic religious expression practiced by West Africans who had been bought to the new world as slaves.

I've heard blues musicians refer to meeting a guy named "Mr. Legua" (Elegua) at the crossroads to bestow gifts of musical ability in trade for whatever you got. (Sorry, can't come up with a reference).

I've seen offerings placed at crossroads in many countries that I presume we're placed there by members if the West African diaspora. The idea is the offering wards off trouble that this deity is reputed to be a responsible for. Offerings are often toys, dolls, or little trinkets that are said to be objects of interest to this deity.

Has anybody else heard this explanation?

Oct. 02 2013 04:19 PM
TED from Australia

An amazing story! Absolutely loved the movie. Thanks for taking the time to set up this pod cast. Nice work!

Jun. 10 2013 04:12 AM
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Mar. 07 2013 09:04 AM

Great show! I am a big fan of Robert Johnson. I just want to comment that to say that Johnson sold his soul to the devil or he experienced some tragedy and that event was what made him a great musician may demean from the long hours and hard work he likely put in to becoming so great. Though I think the experience of sorrow is evident in the voices and sounds of the blues masters, their hard work should also be recognized.

Jan. 28 2013 12:48 AM
I am Sancho from Altona

Jesus was a honkey.

Jan. 24 2013 05:53 PM
Westy from Perth

This was great. I'd seen the movie and new the plot but wasn't aware of the actual musician behind the story. I love the blues and knowing the full story has inspired me to play some right now. Thanks.

Jan. 14 2013 12:17 AM
Perth from WA

Ahh, blues music. So much soul. Shame that Robert lost his to the devil. LOL
I had to listen to the last jam from the movie Crossroads with Ralph Macchio after listening to this pod cast. AWESOME!!

Jan. 14 2013 12:13 AM
Adelaide from SA

Funny how Pat turned off the lights for the added "scare" effect. Keep up the good work guys. Absolutely love listening to your pod casts.

Jan. 14 2013 12:09 AM
Melbourne from VIC

Nice post Radiolab. I love the information you guys provide. Very informative and engaging.

Jan. 14 2013 12:06 AM
Sydney from NSW

It's an interesting topic "The Devil". Thank you for the article. Quite a good read.

Jan. 14 2013 12:02 AM
Brisbane from QLD

I remember the movie Crossroads. It was excellent.

Jan. 14 2013 12:00 AM

The devil's greatest accomplishment is to...convince the world that he doesn't exist. We sometimes sell our souls to the devil when we fail to acknowledge his existence and then continue to walk in darkness unknowingly...or perhaps well aware of our choices. Like on that night at the crossroads when walking in the darkness, Robert Johnson had his chance meeting with the "thief of souls"! Mr. Johnson got his coveted guitar tuned so he could play those haunting melodies we enjoy today!

What is it that the devil has offered you today?

Was it worth your soul Mr. Johnson?

Is it worth your soul? Sleep well tonight pondering that thought.

Contemplate the worthiness of what ever it is that may be drawing you away from God. Is it material things, money, cars, the "American Dream" even...(in the memory of snaggle tooth)

Jesus was tempted by the devil at the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem.
The same devil who tempts us today offered God Himself all the nations in the world and everything in them. All Jesus would have to do is bow to the devil.

Jesus chose to die for our sins and rose again, that each one of us may choose Him and recieve new life eternal. This pissed the devil off and he is still at work today reaping wayward souls all around us. Maybe yours!

I hope not! Jesus says, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" ~John 14:6~

If you've seen Him (Jesus), you've seen the Father (God).

"Sympathy for the Devil" by the Stones is a classic by the way. Even the Stones got some things correct in this tune! Enjoy!

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Sep. 18 2012 03:23 AM
Sandy Campbell from Fort St John BC

Great story about The Blues Great "Robert Johnson" Using the "Devil" to
promote yourself still works real well today. Just ask "The Rolling Stones"

Aug. 21 2012 01:03 AM

You guys just don’t get it. Or you do, and you were leaving it unsaid. They were all Robert Johnson's. The only question is if the recordings were made with the original human being, or with one of the spirit Roberts. How does it sound to you?

Aug. 20 2012 01:00 AM
Don from Citrus Heights, Ca

I followed the Johnson story since 1965 when a friend loaned me "King of the Delta Blues" record. I was startled to hear The Stones sing "All My Love In Vain" because this song and a few others were not included on the vinyl R. Johnson releases. It seems the collectors in England were extreme in that they had huge clubs that would comb the U.S.A. for rare blues. Keith Richards talks about this in his book. The other shocking discovery was when someone found Roberts family and they produced two photos. So for thirty years everyone Dylan, Jagger, Clapton and all had idolized this guy without knowing what he looked like. The best information I found came from Johnny Shines who traveled with Johnson for many years. Shines said Johnson could play anything including the latest pop records and would often abandon him without notice. If you want to hear what Johnson could have become listen to Johnnys later records. Good show you guys.

Aug. 17 2012 01:59 PM
Debra Devi from Jersey City, NJ

You all might enjoy reading my new article in The Huffington Post today: Robert Johnson and the Myth of the Illiterate Bluesman, which includes excerpts from my interview with Robert Johnson's common-law stepson Robert Jr. Lockwood. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/debra-devi/robert-johnson-and-the-my_b_1628118.html

Great show and fascinating comments!!

Jun. 28 2012 05:05 PM
Kosha80 from Dallas

http://www.dallasnews.com/incoming/20120619-photos-robert-johnson-look-alike-contest-at-the-stewpot-in-downtown-dallas.ece

Jun. 20 2012 02:30 AM
Fruteland Jackson

Under normal circumstances, what happens at the crossroads stays at the crossroads. But,because of how you framed this story here is what really happened http://www.fruteland.com/rjsmall.jpg

Jun. 05 2012 10:02 PM
Janet from Phoenix, NY

I really enjoy your show, the topics and presentations are always well done. But this one was more than that. It inspired me.
My dad was a guitar player and my partner is a poet. I am a photographer and after listening to "Crossroads" I decided to visit the rail crossings near where I live. The result was a photo showing a paved road and a train rail crossing with the rails leading off into the perspective distance, reflecting the full moon overhead (taken at 11:45 p.m. on 6/4/12.)
While my belief system is a rational one, I did look over my shoulder once to be sure the croak I heard was just a frog in the nearby pond.

Jun. 05 2012 08:45 AM
Mojo Bone from Lafayette

Everything that can be known about the real, original Robert Johnson is in those twenty-nine songs; that's the legacy, and that's enough.

Jun. 04 2012 09:12 AM
Roly from UK

Isn't it interesting that the "Crossroads" story is a blues version of what Pagganini did. If you want to listen to some of the devils most potent music listen to the classics e.g. Night on a bare mountain by Mussorgsky.

Jun. 04 2012 08:15 AM
Bret A Vogel from Portland

If Robert and Jad are correct in their findings it seems that we dont have any way of knowing how old RJ was at death so the 27 curse would just be speculation.

Jun. 03 2012 10:23 AM

Marcus is 100% correct... that is an onerous omission. The curse of 27 has beset upon many a musical savant, whom have clearly made some faustian pact... or so it seems

May. 28 2012 05:30 PM
Marcus Frost from Santa Cruz

How could you do this whole story and not bring up the curse of 27? The second part of the legend is that because Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil (and died at the age of 27) many other musicians have also been claimed by the devil at that same age- Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. An intriguing added wrinkle, no?

May. 20 2012 02:10 PM
Benjamin from australia

i always thought it was cool that Johnston was picked up by Columbia records, whose current address is 666 5th ave, new york.

May. 17 2012 03:59 AM
emilygriffinallan from lower east side, ny

so fucking good radiolab!!

May. 11 2012 01:04 PM
Nathan from San Francisco

Does anyone know what song Ledell Johnson is singing when he crones "baby don't you hear my lonesome cry?"

May. 04 2012 01:32 PM
cliff berrien

The crossroads story also relates to an aspect of traditional African religions on the life, thought and experience of African Americans throughout the diaspora. There exists the trickster, Papa Legba (or Èṣù, Exu, Eshu Eleggua) who is not to be confused with the Christian concept of the devil. Rather, Papa Legba is the character whose presence at the crossroads represents unrelated intentions meeting and the coincidence of unrelated causes. Please consider checking out the article Hear That Long Snake Moan by Michael Ventura:
http://www.sjsu.edu/people/mira.amiras/courses/c10/s2/Michael Ventura Hear that Long Snake Moan.pdf

Apr. 30 2012 05:47 PM
Allison

So.... what about Tommy Johnson?

Apr. 28 2012 07:57 PM
Ash

I have enjoyed RadioLab for awhile, but this story really got me. I too have been thinking about the crossroads myth for a long time ( being a blues fan how could you not?) and knew some of the stuff you presented already due to my own research. However, there was some new information in the story that I didn't know that really caught me by surprise. I think my interest has been stoked and I will be taking that trip to Robbinsville I have always planned but never done.

BTW I would be curious which one of the many "true" crossroads you chose for your story.

Apr. 27 2012 07:45 PM
Tom Rubino

I always thought that the Robert Johnson story was interesting because its one of those examples where African Spiritual practices really intersect with mainstream American Pop culture. As several people have noted before me, the crossroads is symbolic in West African spiritual practices as an intersection between the world of the living and the ancestors. The Bakongo Cosmogram is symbolic of this : http://www.nps.gov/ethnography/aah/aaheritage/lowCountry_furthRdg4.htm

Johnson's music offers a few other glimpses into African spiritual practices surviving in the United States well into the 20th century; he mentions a "nation sack" in "Come on in My Kitchen", and a mojo in "Little Queen of Spades".

Regardless, thanks for a great show, I'm glad you ended it leaving us listeners not quite knowing what happened to Robert, or what it all meant. Really brings home how much we've all lost, not just to Jim Crow and segregation, but to history in general.

Apr. 26 2012 04:53 PM
Ryan from Raleigh NC

I don't know if my last comment showed up.

But is "Death letter Blues" the story of Robert Johnson coming back to find his wife dead?

Just an observation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdgrQoZHnNY

Apr. 25 2012 01:50 PM
Ryan Freeman from Raleigh NC

Hey guys,

I really love your show. I thought this might be an interesting addition. This whole story talks about how these myths and stories of music make their way across the whole of the community and are attributed to different folks.

As soon as you bought up the part about Robert Johnson's wife dying and him having to come home to see her it immediately, it reminded me of this fantastic song "Death Letter Blues" by Son House. Much like the song "Cross Roads" it hints at a common blues theme.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdgrQoZHnNY

Apr. 25 2012 01:47 PM
Pete from NZ

Looking at the picture here, where I come from we call that a T-junction.
Y'all can wait all night for Devil to come but he ain't putting in no appearance at no T-junction.
Y'all want a crossroads, y'hear?

Apr. 25 2012 02:54 AM

Dating back to ancient times, people have always enjoyed in shrouding the lives and deaths of musicians, artists, writers, etc. in mystery and turn it into folklore or even inspire conspiracy theories.

The different versions of Robert Johnson's reason for his unique playing and his death, kind of remind me of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain and how they all died at the same age and under circumstances that have an official explanation but you also can find various alternate truths and versions of their death floating around amongst those who follow their lives and work more closely.

I believe the various stories tell us more about the story teller and what they want to believe.
Inspiration is what artists are supposed to give us and some are just very successful in that.

One more thought:
Robert Johnson was a honest, genuine and original musician, dating back to a time as recorded music just began to influence masses of musicians far away from the original recordings.
Some music scholars argue that it took away from the originality of local music, which used to sound more regional and uniquely distinct, before records and traveling became more common.
I am so grateful we have old recorded music of any genre, but it also contributed to a diminishing of original aspects until todays internet connecting just about everybody on earth.

Apr. 24 2012 02:58 PM
Lynae Zebest` from San Francisco, CA

I enjoyed this show, but I was a little frustrated that the topic of "the devil at the crossroads"--which originally sounded like the primary subject of your story--was largely ignored. Cory Hutchinson above posted some great info on this topic. Here's a link with more: http://www.luckymojo.com/crossroads.html

I think it's most important to note, here, that in the Tommy Johnson story, it was never mentioned in the interview that he had sold his soul, or that the "black man" was the devil with a capital D, aka Satan. I'm afraid that a lot of Eurocentric presumptions are at play when most listeners/readers hear Tommy Johnson's tale.

(The same could also be said for the "Br'er Rabbit" tales and other folklore and myths from the African Diaspora that have been filtered through a Eurocentric lens.)

Apr. 24 2012 02:31 AM
Peter from Delaware

This story is not about fact, but about myth. Here's still another account: what Robert Johnson means and why we're fascinated in him.

Schroeder, Patricia. Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture. New York: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Apr. 23 2012 10:21 AM
D.S.

I really liked this story too. I concur with Cory Hutcheson. What about investigating connection with the Yoruba diety Eshu, god of the crossroads? Yoruba belief systems show up in many African-descendant traditions in the Americas. I suspect that many of the traditions that Cory pointed to might be linked to Eshu too.

Apr. 22 2012 07:32 PM
Chamblee54 from http://chamblee54.wordpress.com

Thank you for this. It inspired a blog post, http://chamblee54.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/crossroads/.
While listening to this, and some other Robert Johnson radio shows, I was editing pictures from the Library of Congress. The other shows dealt with technical issues with the Johnson recordings. While I was listening, I was altering the way people looked in the Peoria IL of 1938. Is it real, or is it Memorex?

Apr. 21 2012 02:12 AM
Jun from San Diego

First time I heard about the Crossroads myth was when I watched "Crossroads" with (Karate Kid) Ralph Macchio. Great movie, unfortunately not very well known.

Apr. 20 2012 04:26 PM
MartyF

An interesting connection: John Hammond's son, John P., hosted the 1991 UK television documentary "The Search for Robert Johnson", detailing the life of the legendary Delta bluesman, Robert Johnson. Early in his career John P. performed delta blues music.

Apr. 20 2012 09:22 AM
Bri2k from Pittsburgh, PA

Thank you for delving into one of my favorite blues stories! I found this podcast absolutely riveting! I read about slowing Robert Johnson's songs down 20% and I tried it with some audio editing software. It seems to me slowing it down 10% instead was much more realistic. For an added ghostly touch, I set playback to echo which gave me goosebumps!

Great work on this episode, Radio Lab!

Bri2k

Apr. 20 2012 08:12 AM
Geoff

Nice work. But I have to say the speculation about how/if Robert Johnson died is a bit of a stretch.
Honeyboy Edwards, who died this year, long told the tale of RJ's death, which was well witnessed. You might check "The World Don't Owe Me Nothing," his transcribed autobiography.

Apr. 19 2012 05:52 PM
John from London

Thanks for debunking this great folk story. Any other much love music-myths you want to trash?

Apr. 19 2012 01:08 AM
Josephine from Shanghai

I hope you checked out Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero, cause there isn't much else out there: Anyway, Great show, keep them coming!!! And again thanks for bringing light to the South's positive influences:)

Apr. 18 2012 03:05 PM
Tony from Lincoln, NE

The legend has European roots going back even farther. Stravinsky used the Russian version in his 1918 piece Histoire du Soldat, and ultimately it traces back to the German legend of Faust.

There's also the cheesy 1986 Ralph Macchio vehicle, which is almost worth enduring just to hear Ry Cooder and Steve Vai on the soundtrack.

Apr. 18 2012 11:13 AM
Anthony Green from Phoenix, AZ

The Tupac hologram used by Dr. Dre at Coachella this weekend creeped plenty of people out. Johnson's debut at Carnegie Hall is equally eerie and totally fits with the mythology.

Apr. 18 2012 12:36 AM
Mario Morfin from Toronto, ON.

This is an AWESOME story. I am a music fan since I can remember. Those songs made me cry, before I could speak English. The lyrics, now that I understand them, do not add to the feeling, whatever it is. It comes from the soul.

Thanks for making this podcast, I am a big fan.

mm

Apr. 18 2012 12:26 AM
mitch from Sydney, Australia

Hey Luke from Cambridge, ma. (last comment)

Read the about section of the Radiolab site where you will discover ....."Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience." - voila this podcast is right on!

I personally really enjoyed hearing more about the myth of Robert Johnson. Music history is awesome and your podcasts on the theme of music (Jad i detect you are behind this) are my favourite. I'd love to hear from on the great composers if you can find a cool angle.

Thanks Jad/Robert. Love you guys.
Mitch

Apr. 17 2012 08:29 PM
AJ from SoCal

Amazing story. Mythic, spooky, and a nice change from the usual science-related podcasts. It shows that Radiolab can dive into almost anything!

Apr. 17 2012 08:15 PM
Kerim Akyuz from Amsterdam, Netherlands

I LOVE these kinds of podcasts. Haunting, sad and it sticks with you for a long time.

Apr. 17 2012 04:16 PM
Gabrielle from Iowa

I just want to say how excited I was to see that this was the newest short. Ever since I was young I have always felt a deep pull towards folk music and the blues of the deep south, but since then I had moved away from it. Listening to this podcast brought me back to my youth in a way that I haven't been able to access in quite a long time.

Apr. 17 2012 03:48 PM
grandpa from west coast

that was used in the movie "Oh Brother where art Thou'

Apr. 17 2012 02:46 PM
Cory Hutcheson

This was an amazing and beautiful story, guys. I'm a big fan of the music of and folklore surrounding the blues. And hearing Robert Johnson's voice in that ghostly recording really resonated.

I did notice that you veered away from looking into the folklore of the crossroads in favor of really uncovering the story of the two blues musicians involved (which is totally understandable, and was absolutely great, especially the interview with Tommy's brother!). But I wanted to share a few indications that the crossroads story does not originate with these two musicians, and instead appears in several different folkloric accounts predating the emergence of the Robert/Tommy version:

• The multiple incidents of crossoroads conjure recorded by Harry M. Hyatt between 1935-1939 (read more here: http://www.luckymojo.com/crossroads.html), which would have pre-dated the “creation” of this story as described in the Radiolab short
• The numerous incidences of crossroads as places of healing, particularly by trading things like a wart or a sty to a mysterious stranger, in Southern and African American folklore (which can be found in Hyatt’s work, the work of Vance Randolph, and the work of Newbell Niles Puckett).
• Puckett’s description of the crossroads ritual as an origin for folk hero Jack, which was published in 1926 and states:
"Various legends are in vogue among the Negroes to account for the origin of this creature. One illustrating the common theme, was told me by a root-doctor last summer. Jack sold himself to the devil at the crossroads one night at twelve o'clock. For seven years all power was given to him to do as he pleased, but at the end of that period his soul belonged to the devil." [This eventually goes on to tell the story of Jack-o-Lantern, but the crossroads portion of it is given here as illustration of my particular point]
• Zora Neale Hurston’s 1931 article on African American folk magic, which has the following item in it:
"How to Have a Slick Hand with People.
On the dark moon of any Friday night, dress yourself in black. Sit flat in the fork of a cross road at exactly twelve o'clock and sell yourself out to the devil. After which you shall have power to do anything you wish to do (“Hoodoo in America,” 392)"
• The appearance of crossroads in European folk magic (such as that found in Charles Leland’s Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune-telling, published in 1891, long before the legends being described in the blues tales)

Again, it makes total sense to me that you went the direction you did, but I wanted to make sure someone pointed out that the story of the crossroads definitely predates the blues musicians' version.

Thanks, as always, for an AMAZING show! You all do such a great job!

All the best!

Apr. 17 2012 11:33 AM
Luke from Cambridge, ma

It might be an interesting story, but where is the science part? This is all music history, which is boring to me.

Apr. 17 2012 11:18 AM

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