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Letting the Devil Tune Your Guitar

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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. And Robert Johnson experts Tom Graves, Elijah Wald, David Evans, and Robert “Mack” McCormick help bring us a step closer to the real human at the heart of this tale. Plus, 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

Comments [5]

Basilio Georges from Jackson Heights, NY

As a guitarist re-investigating the blues I thought I knew about as a teenager, I enjoyed this show when I listened to it a few years ago. However, since hearing the show the first time, I read many of the books on Robert Johnson referenced by the producer and director. I have to say that the myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads is greatly over-hyped in this program, and dwells more on a superficial legend surrounding the life of Johnson, due to his quick ability to learn guitar, singing and performance techniques, and to quickly gain prominence as a performer in rural Mississippi. If you really read the books, especially the one by Elijah Wald, you will not find facts affirming this myth, but facts about how Johnson actually developed. There does not seem to be anything in the tune "Crossroads" or other repertoire that could not have given rise to the legend. It appears to be a romantic and dark interpretation of how someone so young could become so good, and a misdirected theory as to why he might have died so young. Additionally, someone producing the show could have looked into African based religion in the slave communities of the Americas and done some research on Santeria's Elegua and the "crossroads" idea, which is comes from African-based cultures. African-based religions like Santeria are not about black magic. Elegua is an orisha, the Lord of the Crossroads of life. Elegua can both help things go smoothly or put obstacles in one's way, but Elegua is definitely not Mephistopheles.

Sep. 16 2017 01:15 PM
Kim Johnson from Trinidad & Tobago, W.I.

I enjoyed the program on Robert Johnson. I find the indeterminacy of his story provides the perfect ending. Without detracting from that, however, I’d like to add another layer.

The idea of a musician selling his soul to the Devil in return for virtuosity was not invented by the Robert Johnson mythology. Niccolo Paganini (27 October 1782 – 27 May 1840), considered the greatest violin virtuoso of all time, was believed to have sold his soul to the Devil in return for virtuosity.

The idea partly grew out of his genius and his almost-unnatural abilities, which can seem to come from somewhere outside of a limited mortal, but it was also inspired by his bohemian lifestyle.

With the case of Robert Johnson, the blues was long considered to be the Devil’s music. That is the Christian side of the mythology, which morphed with an African side, which views the crossroads as the haunt of Esu of the Yoruba nation or Legbara of the Aradas, the trickster-god who is also the deity of communication between the worlds of the living and the dead, the mortals and the immortals. That the crossroads is the haunt of Esu lies deep in African-American sub-conscious, much deeper than merely a moment at which an important decision must be made. It is the portal between different worlds, where the deities and the ancestors can be encountered, even if their loss of West African culture has them substituting the Devil for Esu or Elegbara.

In Haiti Elegbara, the Vodun deity of the crossroads is known as Papa Legba and wears an undertaker’s clothes. It is significant that that strain of West African religion is what endured in the Delta. Papa Legba is, as Robert Johnson was, notably mischevious and sexual, because Sex is the counterpoint to Death. In his temporal avatar Esu is manifest as Brer Rabbit or Anansi, the trickster-hero, who has counterparts in Hermes and Loki.

Thus Robert Johnson’s deal with the Devil is a confabulation of Christian and West African mythologies in an American context.

Nov. 18 2015 06:15 PM
D Johnson

I am from Clarksdale, MS (the birthplace of the blues). This was a great story. By the way, Rat, the owner of the Riverside Hotel has died...I believe that he died earlier this year. The hotel is still there.

Dec. 03 2013 08:57 AM

Did you stay at Rat's hotel in Clarksdale? If you missed him you missed a huge part of this story, the man owns the hotel that used to be the colored hospital, Bessie Smith Died there. Muddy Waters used to stay there too.

Dec. 02 2013 03:17 PM
Bill Chaloupka from Las Vegas

Thanks for the great piece on Robert Johnson. If you get to San Antonio, TX, you can visit the hotel where many of those surviving 28 songs were recorded. It's the Gunter Hotel, which is in the older part of downtown and has been remodeled into quite a fancy joint. There's a small display on Johnson in the lobby. I asked a staffer what room the recordings were done in (nowadays, you can also check Wikipedia - it's room 414), and the staffer was happy to tell me, perhaps proud of the building's bit part in cultural history. The room is in use as a hotel room now, but it was being made up, so I was able to stick my head in the door and see it. A thrill.

Nov. 30 2013 04:08 PM

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