It was 1930 in Robinsonville, Mississippi, and 19-year-old Robert Johnson, an aspiring blues musician, was hanging out at a juke joint where Delta blues legends Son House and Willie Brown were playing to a packed house. Between sets, Johnson dared to pick up one of the musicians' guitars and play his own stuff, but the crowd wasn't having it.
"He started to play it and be just noising the people, you know," recalls Son House in "ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads," a Robert Johnson documentary on Netflix. "And the folks, they'd come out and say, 'Why don't some of y'all go down and make that boy put that thing down, he running us crazy!'"
The club owners tossed Johnson out of the Robinsonville juke joint and that was the last that anybody heard of him for a full year. Johnson simply disappeared from the Delta.
Then one night, while House and Brown were playing another gig in Banks, Mississippi, in walks Johnson with a guitar case strapped to his back. House elbowed Brown and pointed mockingly at "Little Robert."
"Boy, now where are you going with that thing?" House asked Johnson. "To noise somebody to death again?"
But this time, something was different. Johnson took out his instrument, a regular six-string guitar fitted with an extra seventh string, something neither House nor Brown had seen before. But that wasn't the only new thing.
Johnson had acquired an insane skill level and unusual technique, strumming a series of rapid-fire chords that made the guitar sound almost like a piano — a piano with three hands playing it.
How could this kid, who was lousy enough to get kicked off the stage in Robinsonville, return just a year later as the most talented blues guitarist in the Delta? To the stunned crowd in Banks, Mississippi, there was only one explanation — Johnson had made a deal with the devil.
Down at the Crossroads
To God-fearing black folks living in the 1920s Deep South, the blues was clearly "the devil's music." It lured away good men and women to the juke joints, where they would dance and drink and share unholy affections. So it would've made perfect sense that Johnson's unearthly talent was bestowed by Satan.
In fact, Johnson wasn't the first blues musician who reportedly honed his skills with help from the Prince of Darkness. An earlier guitar hero named Tommy Johnson — who is not related to Robert Johnson, but grew up in the same Mississippi county — was rumored to have gone down to the crossroads and had his guitar tuned by the devil himself. (A biography of Tommy Johnson includes an interview with his brother who says Tommy personally told him the story of this meeting.)
In the Coen brothers movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" a character named none other than Tommy Johnson tells his traveling companions that he just sold his soul at the crossroads for some wicked new guitar skills.
"Oh son, for that you traded your everlasting soul?" asks the witless Delmar.
"Well," replied Tommy. "I wasn't using it."
When the same soul-selling story was told of Robert Johnson, he did little to dispel the rumor. In fact, he may have cultivated the devilish connection. Of the 29 songs Johnson recorded before his untimely death at only 27 years old, there were "Cross Road Blues," "Hellhound on My Trail," "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Up Jumped the Devil."
The Real Education of Robert Johnson
Steven Johnson — singer, a preacher and vice president of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation — has a far more earthly explanation for how his grandfather Robert transformed seemingly overnight from an awkward amateur into the guitar-playing genius who has inspired generations of world-famous musicians, including Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.
"I suggest that people step outside of the myth and try to understand the talent," says Johnson in an interview. "Just because Michael Jordan was as great as he was on the court, does that mean that he sold his soul to the devil? No, he practiced. And he practiced twice as hard as everybody else."
By Steven's calculation, his grandfather's mysterious absence from the Delta music scene stretched for closer to three years, not just one. And he spent those years back in his hometown of Hazelhurst, Mississippi, learning at the feet of guitar great Ike Zimmerman.
Robert had returned to Hazelhurst looking for his biological father, Noah Johnson, but found Zimmerman instead. Zimmerman would take Johnson out to the local cemetery at midnight to play to the tombstones and departed spirits.
"No matter how bad you sound out here," Zimmerman says in the Netflix documentary, "nobody is going to complain."
The cemetery story is probably apocryphal, but it added to Johnson's reputation as a haunted soul. The real apprenticeship with Zimmerman was likely far more ordinary. Steven Johnson says that he met Zimmerman's daughter, who was only a little girl when her father opened her home to young Robert.
"She said, 'Your dad was at our house so much that I thought he was our brother," remembers Steven. She asked her dad, "Is RL [that's what they called Robert] our brother?' 'No, he's not your brother,' Ike said. 'He's just a musician and good friend of mine.' He would be there constantly."
And the practice certainly paid off. On his recordings, Johnson was "simultaneously playing a disjointed bass line on the low strings, rhythm on the middle strings, and lead on the treble strings while singing at the same time," Eric Clapton admiringly recounted in his autobiography, according to Vanity Fair. It sounded like several people were playing at the same time. Johnson's fingerpicking style set the template for the blues.
What Really Happened at the Crossroads
Robert Johnson had a tough life. He was moved from house to house as a boy and abused by his stepfather. As a young man, he married his sweetheart, Virginia, who died in childbirth with their baby. Johnson found and lost other loves before taking to the road full time and earning a reputation as a hard-drinking womanizer. The husband of one of Johnson's mistresses is believed to have poisoned him to death at 27. Johnson remained obscure until a re-release of his album "King of the Delta Blues Singers" in 1961.
But when Steven Johnson listens to his grandfather's music, he doesn't hear a callous heathen, but the voice of a man who wanted to do better and be better, but who was weighed down by painful memories, sin and pride. Even the song "Cross Road Blues," which casual listeners might think is a retelling of Robert's fateful midnight meeting with the devil, means something much different to Steven.
"I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees," sings Johnson in his eerie and cool voice. "Asked the Lord above, 'Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please.'"
"Does that sound like a man who was making a deal with the devil?" asks Steven. "He was at a crossroads in his life. And that's what my grandad did at the crossroads. He was searching and trying to do good."
Learn more about Robert Johnson in "Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson." by Tom Graves. HowStuffWorks picks related titles based on books we think you'll like. Should you choose to buy one, we'll receive a portion of the sale.
Originally Published: May 8, 2019