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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 [3]

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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