Robert Johnson and the Devil at the Crossroad
Even the facts of Robert Johnson's life are confusing. He was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi on or around 8 May 1911 and died 27 years later on 18 August 1938 at Three Forks, near Greenwood, Mississippi; even at a time when life expectancy was shorter, Johnson’s was a short life.
He was a blues singer-songwriter and musician. He was just as likely to perform other people’s songs, as he was his own, sang songs by everyone from Bing Crosby to Blind Willie McTell and Jimmie Rodgers to Lonnie Johnson. Robert, like many others, performed the songs that earned him money, songs his audiences requested.
Sometime in 1935 he went to H.C. Speir’s store in Jackson Mississippi; like many of his contemporaries, he wanted to record. Speir was a scout for the ARC record label and by late November 1936 Robert was in San Antonio to record the first of his twenty-nine sides. His landmark recordings in 1936 and 1937 display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that has influenced later generations of musicians.
We have only hearsay as to precisely how he died. It is believed that Johnson was playing a juke attached to The Three Forks Store near Greenwood, Mississippi. According to David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards he was poisoned at the store, He got so sick that he had to be taken the three miles into Greenwood where he died. The supposition is that he had an affair with the wife of the owner of the Three Forks, and it was he that poisoned Robert. On the death certificate there was some information that points to the fact that Johnson may have been born with congenital syphilis. According to a doctor it is possible that he had an aneurysm caused by the syphilis and his love of drinking moonshine
Johnson's shadowy and poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend. One Faustian myth says that he sold his soul to the devil at a local crossroads of Mississippi highways to achieve success. As an itinerant performer who played mostly on street corners, in juke joints, and at Saturday night dances, Johnson had little commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime. In ‘Cross Road Blues’ Robert is singing of man’s need to make choices, and the fundamental choice between good and evil.
Cross Road Blues?.. Let's listen that song:
Hey, isn't this tune familiar? Just listen at Cream with Eric Clapton playing "Crossroad" back in 1968
After the reissue of his recordings in 1961 Johnson got recognized as the King of the Delta Blues. His work reached a wider audience and is credited by many rock musicians as an important influence. Eric Clapton has called Johnson "the most important blues singer that ever lived."
Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first induction ceremony, in 1986, as an early influence on rock and roll. In 2010, David Fricke ranked Johnson fifth in Rolling Stone magazine's "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time".