Louis Menand’s literary approach to the era masks some analytical fuzziness.
The Devil, the Delta, and the City
If you’re looking for the “Crossroads” where legendary Delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil, the first thing you do—or I did—is get completely lost. You ask your GPS to help, and somewhere past Tunica, Mississippi, approaching Clarksdale, you find yourself rattling through endless stretches of cotton fields on a country lane that winds up a creek and a dead end. “This cannot be the place,” my traveling companion says with admirable understatement, so we make a U-turn, get back on the highway, and within minutes we’re there.
Atop a garish pole at the corner of Highway 322 and N. State Street in Clarksdale are three stylized guitars to mark the spot. It would be easier to find if this were still known as the intersection of Highways 49 and 61 (Bob Dylan made the latter famous), but we’re here all the same. My companion pulls to a stop, and I get out, cross the road, and dutifully gather a plastic sandwich bag of dirt as a kind of souvenir or, better still, relic. While reverent, I do not linger, or get on my knees and weep. There is traffic, after all.
I am aware of no overwhelming desire to be a martyr to blues music, as we like to think Robert Johnson (1911-1938) was in his short life. For that, I am grateful because, as I am to learn later on, some people contend that Robert Johnson might not have sold his soul to the Devil, after all. Back in the 16th century, Doctor Faustus made such a deal, and some say the violinist Paganini (1782-1840) did, but who really knows? These are legends, and they have their charm, especially for impressionable people like me who become obsessed with blues music and, tracing it to its roots, pay homage to the greats. I was on a musical pilgrimage, of sorts, when I was dodging the trucks at Clarksdale’s Crossroads, which started in Memphis and led down to New Orleans.
And the more I have learned about that most American of musical forms, the more I have to think there is something fitting, if not actually symbolic or metaphorical about finding myself at that dead end in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. Hundreds of us have made this journey, physically or in our listening—or reading—and our imaginations. We’re all searching for Robert Johnson, who has been the subject of a string of biographies, podcasts, two movies, and endless speculation. He is “pure legend,” as the film director Martin Scorsese puts it, and for all the words written about him, we don’t really know very much, and much of what we think we know might not be true.
Robert Johnson was by no means the first of the great Delta blues singers—Leadbelly was born in 1888, Charley Patton in 1891—and Son House (1902-1988) remembered “Little Robert” as an annoying kid who hung out at juke joints around Robinsonville, Miss., near present-day Tunica. There he insisted on playing the guitar but didn’t know how. Then he disappeared. A few months later, the pest showed up again, and “when the boy started playing,” House said, “all our mouths were standing open.” Johnson had mastered the instrument, and it was House who said that Johnson “must have sold his soul to the devil” to have improved so much in so short a time. Some of Johnson’s songs (“Hellhound on My Trail,” “Me and the Devil Blues,” and of course, “Crossroads”) seemed to support the notion.
But killjoys and party-poopers offer more prosaic explanations for the improvement in Johnson’s abilities. They point out that he had learned to play the piano before ever taking up the guitar and was an accomplished harmonica player, which suggests that he had some musical ability already. They also report that—during those months when Son House hadn’t seen him—he lived with a guitarist named Ike Zimmerman, some 250 miles away in Beauregard. For more than a year, he studied with the older and more accomplished musician, and they sometimes practiced their instruments in the local graveyard, where it was quiet and they would be left alone.
This, plus the fact that the blues was considered “the Devil’s music,” contributed to the legend that generations of blues, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts have cherished. That Johnson died young—at 27, the same as Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse—and under mysterious circumstances also contributed. Despite only two recording sessions and a total of 29 songs (and 13 “alternative takes”) he was a huge influence on Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Johnny Winter. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, released in 1990, has sold more than a million copies.
Clapton calls Johnson “the most important blues musician who ever lived.” This might be the case, but why that would be so is revealing, all the same—and for reasons that even those of us who are fans might find uncomfortable, if not cringe-y. While he was a capable Delta blues guitarist, adept with the slide and by some accounts using four different tunings when his contemporaries relied on one, Johnson might not have been the trailblazer we like to think. Even the belief that the dusty plantations of the Mississippi Delta that produced him and most of the others gave birth to the blues is undergoing some revision.
The chief killjoy and party-pooper here is a second-generation blues guitarist and singer Chris Thomas King, born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1962, whose own recordings have sold more than 10 million copies and won him a Grammy. An actor as well as musician, King played a character named Tommy Johnson—based on Robert—in the Coen brother’s 2000 movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” King argues—most notably in his 2021 book The Blues: The Authentic Narrative of My Music and Culture—that the 12-bar musical form we call the blues, with its characteristic bends and b5 “blue notes,” did not emerge from the plantations of the Delta at all. The blues was being played in New Orleans at least 20 years earlier and, King contends, migrated from the city to the country, and not vice versa.
The first blues players were not illiterate, downtrodden farm workers at all, who turned their field hollers into an art form, but sophisticated, often educated, men and women in New Orleans who had taken music lessons and could read music. Some of them came from middle-class families who took their children to performances at the French Opera House in the Vieux Carre. (King also argues that the word blues itself derives from the French “bleu,” evoking a sense of the risqué rather than of misery and heartache.)
Of course, some New Orleans musicians—Sidney Bechet, for example—did not read music, so the story is complicated. Tracing the origins of any musical genre is a fool’s errand. This is certainly the case with one like that which was shaped at least in part from New Orleans, with ingredients from West Africa, the Caribbean, Civil War-era marching bands, France and Italy, spiced up by what Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) called “the Spanish tinge.” (That’s why it is often called a gumbo, though I will resist the temptation to do so.)
The generation of New Orleans musicians who would be associated with the emergence of jazz—Bunk Johnson, Kid Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Freddy Keppard, and Louis Armstrong—remembered hearing Buddy Bolden (1877-1931) playing what they called “blues” and even “blues for dancing” in the public parks of the city as well as dance halls before the turn of the century. Morton heard a neighbor, a Creole woman named Mary “Mamie” Desdume, from a family of Spanish-speaking Haitian immigrants, playing “Mamie’s Blues” when he was a boy. (“She hardly could play anything more,” Morton said, “but she really could play this number.”)
“There has always been a coterie of New Orleans patriots who claim that blues arose in that city’s red-light district,” Elijah Wald writes in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, citing Morton’s recollection of hearing Mamie Desdumes “in his childhood.” Whether the genre began in New Orleans and spread to the Delta, or vice versa, “by the time the first rural guitarists and singers began recording in the mid-1920s, blues had been a major pop style for over a decade,” and, Wald writes, “all of them would have heard and been influenced by the polished work” of vaudeville and tent-show blues singers such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Memphis Minnie. (Memphis Minnie, for what it’s worth, was not from Memphis, but New Orleans.)
Dr. Michael White, a clarinetist who plays and composes New Orleans blues and jazz, points out that the first 12-bar blues ever published was credited to Tony Maggio, a Sicilian violinist who emigrated to New Orleans and heard “an elderly negro with a guitar” singing on the New Orleans levee. Maggio asked the man what the song was called, and he said, “I Got the Blues.” Maggio tried to transcribe what he heard and then performed the number with his five-piece orchestra. What he composed “with the purpose of a musical caricature,” to his “astonishment became our most popular request number.” That was in 1908.
Nobody who has looked into the subject seems to dispute the fact that Robert Johnson idolized Lonnie Johnson (1889-1970), a New Orleans guitarist and singer. Robert liked to tell people the two were related, and no wonder: Lonnie, who came from a musical family, took formal music lessons, and learned to play the violin before he took up the guitar, was a musician of great sophistication and subtlety. He was also an elegant, understated vocalist. His records found an audience in the Delta, where farm workers owned victrolas, and aspiring musicians like Robert Johnson, who could rarely afford pianos, were able to buy second-hand guitars. Those who couldn’t afford guitars fashioned their own from cigar boxes, gourds and wires, and whatever other materials were at hand.
Lonnie Johnson never caught on the way Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and others did during the great Blues Revival of the 1960s and not just because, a generation older, he died in 1970; his recordings, unlike Robert Johnson’s, simply did not sell. Soft-spoken and well-dressed, he was a dignified gentleman, and for that reason did not meet the expectations of the young, generally well educated, white people who made up the Blues Revival audience.
Chris Thomas King, who has studied the mythology of the blues, finds it offensive, and understandably so. Folklorists dating back to the Brothers Grimm, he says, believe they are unearthing “the culture of preliterate people.” John Lomax and his son Alan, credited with the rediscovery of such Delta blues musicians as Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, came to Mississippi and found exactly what their “pseudoscientific racism,” as King characterizes it in his book, told them to expect. They found the songs of what, in an interview, King calls “preliterate, primitive people who couldn’t read music.” The contribution of more sophisticated New Orleans musicians was “removed from the narrative” because it “didn’t fit the plantation mode.” And in this, of course, the white folklorists were working from the same assumptions, acknowledged or not, as the later audience for Blues Revival records and live performances. They were white and educated, with certain expectations of the musicians they—quite literally—patronized.
Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, from the Delta but associated with Chicago blues as well, “used to dress up to play their gigs,” King says.
But they discovered that to get gigs with the young white college crowd, they had to put on overalls, tie a bandana around their neck, and sit on a bale of hay. Even B.B. King had a hard time catching on, because he dressed well and traveled with a big band with a horn section. He used to talk about picking cotton back in the Delta, when he hadn’t picked cotton in fifty years. An actor puts on a costume, like the Lion in the ‘Lion King,’ but when the play is over, the actor can take off the costume. But the blues musician was never allowed to take the costume off. The more ‘primitive’ they acted, the more ‘authentic’ they were, and the white audiences wanted the ‘authentic’ experience.
In the most famous photograph of Robert Johnson—there are only four we know of—he is well dressed, in a three-piece suit accessorized with a pocket square and a fedora. Ironies abound. The white college crowd in this country that bought Delta blues records and went to performances by the musicians learned about it by way of the British invasion. Most of them seem to have been introduced to American blues as played by the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Peter Green, and Eric Burden and the Animals, et al., and they found they liked it. And the thousands of these new fans who flocked to concerts by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and the rest of them—in the same decade as the Civil Rights movement with which they sympathized and identified—had no idea of the extent to which they were unwittingly perpetuating the same condescension that Chris Thomas King finds so offensive.
Dr. Michael White, who teaches Spanish at Xavier University in New Orleans, finds it “racially disturbing,” too. “To this day, when I perform, you can tell by the questions people ask and the comments they make that they assume none of them can read music,” he says. “They think Louis Armstrong couldn’t read music, although there are manuscripts of his music that he has transcribed in his own hand. You saw this at work at the old Cotton Club where the musicians were all black and they performed for audiences that were all white—and this was in Harlem. The first time I was to play at Carnegie Hall, the producer told us to ‘dress down,’ which we didn’t do. We wore tuxedos. I mean this was Carnegie Hall. These beliefs take hold and they persist.”
My own theory about Robert Johnson’s continued importance has as much to do with when his recordings were first released, and those who heard him at the time, as it does with his merits as a musician, as significant as they were. The first Robert Johnson recordings, on King of the Delta Blues Singers, were released in 1961. That’s when Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, John Mayall, Peter Greene, Long John Baldry, and other Brits (as well as Bob Dylan in this country) were in their teens, learning their instruments, and getting serious about their musical careers. There’s no doubt he made a profound impression on them, as he did on his contemporaries.
I still have my relic from the Crossroads, in a pill box on a bookshelf. Half of its dirty contents were given to a guitarist friend, and I plan to safeguard what is left. Maybe Robert Johnson did make a deal with the Devil. There’s really no compelling evidence to the contrary. Just because he took music lessons doesn’t mean he did not draw on all the resources available to him to become the bluesman he wanted to be and as he is remembered today. It takes forever for serious musicologists to learn the facts about a question such as this, and the Devil, after all, is in the details.
Alan Pell Crawford is the author of How Not to Get Rich: The Financial Misadventures of Mark Twain.
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