According to legend, a 15th-century German scholar named Faust sold his soul for power and knowledge. About 400 years later, a similar legend endures, and in American folklore, Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul for great guitar-playing hands and a deep well of blues brilliance.
Now, something's wrong with this picture: Faust is a fictional character—though possibly based on a real person—and Robert Johnson is, or at least was, most certainly a real person. He had a place of birth, a death certificate, two wives, and at least one child from a woman he never married.
On top of saying that he sold his soul at the crossroads, people say he was poisoned, stabbed, and shot. They say he was wild and unkind, that he never used the same name in two different towns, and that he had a distinctive habit of disappearing from a room unnoticed. People say he was chased by hellhounds and died on all fours, foaming and bleeding at the mouth.
In the music world, a release of Johnson's scant 41 recordings 52 years after his death sold more copies than any Delta blues album in history. Bob Dylan sees Robert Johnson's works as a fundamental influence on his own songwriting, and covers of Johnson songs have been hits around the world.
So, where did these stories start, and what has made the legend so enduring? What workings of history and pop culture made "Cross Road Blues" into a song about the Devil—even though the only person Johnson talks to in the song is God? Is Johnson's legend the story of a great musician fated for fame, or the story of a pop culture fantasy gone satanic?
Studying Johnson's life story is like reading a detective novel. Or, maybe more accurately, leafing through a detective's thin manila folder titled "Robert Johnson," looking for clues.
Included in the folder:
(1) Two definitive photographs here and here
(2) A death certificate
(3) Two census records (In these, Johnson's suggested date of birth conflicts—he was 7 years old in 1920 with the last name Spencer, and 18 in 1930. Depending on who you ask, he was born in 1911, 1912, or 1913.)
(4) 41 tracks (a total of 29 songs, some with two takes) produced in two recording sessions in the late 1930s
(5) Several interviews with people who had vague memories of a Johnson they knew 30, 40, or 50 years earlier
The facts about Robert Johnson have been pieced together from there. He was born around 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, after his mother had a brief affair with a father he never met. His mother was broke and often in trouble with the law, and she moved him from place to place before sending him away during his teenage years to live and work with his stepdad in Memphis.
Johnson had an aversion to the harsh, low-paying plantation sharecropping most Black people in the Delta area were forced to do to survive. He preferred to play music and sing, and built his first guitar in a shack he lived in, plucking and strumming three wires nailed to the wall.
By his early teens, Johnson began to travel up and down the Mississippi Delta, staying with different family members, train-hopping (or "hobo-ing") to get around, and playing music wherever he could. Because some saw a career in music as the Devil's work, his family began to joke that the young Robert had sold his soul to the Devil. They said the Devil made him lazy and unwilling to work.
Possibly reacting to criticism from his family, Robert Johnson married a young woman named Virginia Travis in 1929. Now in his late teens, he began to work on a cotton plantation and made plans to settle down. But before he could settle, the travel bug got him again and he went back out on the road with his guitar to play at juke joints—entertainment spots for plantation workers throughout the south—and plantation house parties.
During his prolonged absence, his young wife and baby died during childbirth. When he came back to find her in her hometown, he was shunned by her family. They said his devilish itinerant ways had killed the girl. This quiet musician with a funny eye (a birth defect that made one of his eyes smaller than the other) was said to be possessed.
According to most who knew him, Johnson cared about whiskey and women above all, played music constantly, and talked very little about his emotions.
We can only assume that after the death of his wife and child, Johnson was humiliated, hurt, and devastated. He disappeared for a couple of years, traveling by freight train from town to town and giving different names in different places. He was Robert Spencer, Robert James, Robert Barstow, Robert Saks, and aside from fierce guitar-playing and constant affairs with women, the one common feature of this Robert kid was his odd tendency to disappear silently from a room, his absence only noticed after he was long-gone.
At 20, Robert married a 30-year-old woman. But not before impregnating a much younger one, Virgie Mae Smith, the mother of Johnson's only heir.
The child, Claud Johnson, remembers just two visits from Johnson when he was a little boy. The last time he saw his father, Claud was seven years old. Johnson approached the porch of Claud's house—the home of Claud's maternal grandparents—but was quickly sent packing by the family, still angry at him for abandoning his mother with a baby. As Claud tells it, the family said his father "was working for the Devil" (source) and wouldn't let him near his father.
After the worldwide success of Johnson's 1990 Complete Works release, Claud Johnson became embroiled in a long legal battle over the estate that included juicy testimony from an old family friend who said she saw Johnson getting down in the woods with Claud's mother on a spring afternoon in 1931.
The rambling young man left his second wife nearly as quickly as his first, and ended up back out on the road. In 1936 he scored a record deal through Jackson, Mississippi talent agent H.C. Spier. He recorded a total of 29 songs in two recording sessions that year.
Just like country star Hank Williams after him, Johnson's brush with fame was fast, furious, and addiction-ridden. According to his old friend Johnny Shines, Johnson was constantly drunk and often disrespectful, especially to women. He got into all kinds of bar trouble and pissed off all kinds of people, especially the men whose girlfriends he openly courted as he passed through town.
As he says himself in "Ramblin' On My Mind," "I got mean things on my mind." And hellhounds were chasing him, "blues fallin' down like hail." His music was increasingly intense and tragic, leading producer Frank Driggs to suggest that part of his crazy draw was singing "like he was about five minutes away from the electric chair" (source). His voice had a nasal quaver and his long fingers floated above the guitar strings.
In the late 1930s, music producer John Hammond heard Johnson's work. Hammond, a powerful figure from the East Coast music scene, was planning a huge concert at Carnegie Hall called "From Spirituals to Swing," which featured African-American music—then called "n**** music"—of many genres. Robert Johnson was on the bill to play at Carnegie Hall. As one of countless rumors has it, the moment that he received the message down in rural Mississippi was the moment he passed into the next world.
Violence, disease, and poverty are competing explanations for why Johnson died so young. One of Johnson's girlfriends, Queen Elizabeth "Bet" Thomas, says he was stabbed in the back on a bridge in Quito, Mississippi. She also believes he was possessed by the Devil, and says he beat her up badly, which has spawned an additional rumor that the killer was Bet Thomas' father taking revenge on Johnson. (Source)
But a friend, Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards, a Delta blues singer who used to perform with Johnson, says they were together the night that Johnson was poisoned in a bar in a place called Three Forks, outside of Greenwood, Mississippi. The killer was either a lover of Johnson's, or her husband, taking bitter revenge after discovering their affair. According to Edwards, Johnson was sick for two days before dying alone in bed at home, unable to call a doctor because he didn't have insurance. (Source)
Finally, decades later, someone uncovered medical records suggesting that Johnson died of a combination of syphilis and pneumonia. On his death certificate, the notes suggest syphilis. (Source)
People were digging up Robert Johnson's medical records decades later because decades later, people were even more enamored with the bluesman and his legend than they were in the 1930s.
John Hammond, the producer who never got to bring Johnson to Carnegie Hall, produced an album of Robert Johnson's music in the early 1960s, bringing Johnson's brilliance to a new audience of hippies, leftists, and British rockers who had recently been turned on to the blues. Johnson's music was sharply sad and noticeably mysterious. And so was his story.
Some have suggested that in the 1960s, white artists imitated an idealized and somewhat stereotyped version of the Delta bluesman. Johnson's songs were mostly about women and ramblin', and his itinerant lifestyle and mysterious legend became part of a forming rockstar prototype. Like Kurt Cobain in the 1990s, the ideal rock star in the 1960s was a mysterious, tragic young person with addiction problems and inexplicable charm.
The ideal rock star lived hard and died young.
Johnson fit the bill for this new, fantastical vision of the mythical, authentic singer-songwriter. As Patricia R. Schroeder puts it in Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture, the "people who heard the music tended to romanticize the long-forgotten artist, that ghost from the past come back to haunt us with his wrenching music." (Source)
Or, in the words of reckless rock star Keith Richards, Johnson "was asking for trouble and didn't mind saying so. In all of his records, the man's asking for trouble all the way down the line. All his deals with hellhounds and the b----es—one of them will get you." (Source)
Richards, himself now bordering on legendary status as an aging member of the Rolling Stones, understood that sex and the paranormal are great ingredients for myth-making. Johnson gave the impression of being both folksy and original, both possessed and carefree. Robert Johnson was the new "cool."
The long-since-dead Johnson was set up for more than just a period of coolness in the heyday of the hippies. He had become associated with a type of legend that dates back literally thousands of years: the so-called Faustian bargain, which conjures an image of a desperate individual who will give anything—including their soul—to gain knowledge or power.
Blues musician Tommy Johnson had the same story told about him before Robert ever did. And centuries before, Italian composer and violinist Niccolo Paganini had an almost-identical story told about him: a combination of surreal talent and odd behavior, not to mention a "dark" and shrewd look helped the same story stick to the talented violinist.
If anything, the Johnson myth is livelier today than ever. In the 1986 film Crossroads, a fictional film based loosely on Robert Johnson and Tommy Johnson's stories, the guitar-playing hero plays a Niccolo Paganini song on the electric guitar during a musical showdown with one of his competitors. Multiple new books and films dissect and theorize about the myth and the reality behind it.
People can't stop trying to trace the path of Robert Johnson, and along the way, new voices keep popping up that attest to his supernatural abilities on the guitar and his strange personality, alternately sweet and tortured, there one minute and gone the next.
As a result, "Cross Road Blues" is a beacon of fascination for everyone who wants to harp on the paranormal side of Johnson's story. Although the lyrics sound more like a story about giving your sinful soul to God, they have been held up as Johnson's confessional about his night at the crossroads with the Devil.
Some people believe that the real "crossroads" for Robert Johnson was the crushing death of his first wife. Others believe that the crossroads was a literal crossroads where the singer once stood in fear of racist violence, trying to hitch a ride. Still, others think Johnson went down to the Deep South during his time of personal crisis and made a real pact with a hoodoo Root Doctor, giving his soul to this pagan African belief system viewed by some as a satanic religion.
It should be clear by now that Robert Johnson's life story's like a choose-your-own-adventure for scholars, fans, and self-made blues experts, now more than ever.
If you want to see an exotic myth about the long-gone blues singers of the Mississippi Delta, you can. If you want to see a heroic story about a poor genius raised on plantations and targeted by violence, racism, and poverty to the point of death, it's all you. If you want to see a bona fide deal with the Devil that led to some of the greatest blues recordings of all time, that story is well-documented and accessible.
Johnson's story becomes the story of the South, the story of hoodoo, the story of the deep Delta in the days of legal segregation, and the story of the blues itself.
As Martin Scorsese put it in his foreword for Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, "He was pure legend." And that's what makes him so powerful today. His legend, and to some extent, the music itself, can become what his audiences desire, imagine, and hope for.
Without the Faustian legend of Robert Johnson, "Cross Road Blues" might be an important snippet of blues history and music culture. But with all the mythology surrounding it, "Cross Road Blues" is more like a drop of dried blood on a glove in a murder mystery. It's a piece of a larger puzzle that will never be fully put back together.
And it's the mystery, rather than the facts, that make the whole sordid story so delicious to listeners.