Did Blues Legend Robert Johnson Sell his Soul at the Clarksdale Crossroads?

1930s Delta blues legend Robert Johnson (Image: via Wikipedia; Delta blues legend Robert Johnson)

Robert Johnson is a 1930s musician who’s ranked fifth on Rolling Stone’s list of Greatest Guitarists of All Time. He’s also credited as being a master of the blues. Many of the biggest names in music history cite him as a major influence on their careers and, according to the legend, we owe it all to a deal with the devil.

The story goes that on a moonless night, a young Robert Johnson ventured down to a crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, not far from the Dockery Plantation. As he approached, so did another figure. The Devil took Johnson’s guitar, tuned it, played a few songs, and handed it back. Only then was be bestowed with a musical talent that was considered otherworldly. And as Johnson’s reputation grew, so did the story.

The famous Clarksdale Crossroads in Mississippi (Image: Joe Mazzola; Clarksdale Crossroads, Mississippi)

Later, blues idol “Son” House would remark on Johnson’s incredible ability, saying, “He sold his soul to play like that.” At the time, the story was often taken literally, and many believed that Johnson truly had made a deal with the Devil in return for the abilities that would make him famous.

Trace the story back, however, and you’ll find that selling your soul at a crossroads on a moonless night actually stems from a West African folk tale. According to the legend, the deal was originally struck with the roads’ guardian spirit. Over time, the influence of Christianity turning this spirit into Satan, the Devil.

The Devil's Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi (Image: via Google Street View; the Devil’s Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi)

Precisely which crossroads Johnson was at when he made his supposed deal is highly debated, but one of the likely contenders is the Clarksdale Devil’s Crossroads at the intersection of Desoto Avenue and State Street. There’s also the Dockery Road and Old Highway 8 intersection near Dockery Farms, as well as the intersection of Highways 1 and 8 in Rosedale.

The source of Robert Johnson’s talent, however, isn’t the only aspect of the legendary musician up for debate. No less than three locations claim to be his final resting place: the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City, the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church outside Greenwood, and the Payne Chapel near Quito.

Delta blues pioneer Robert Johnson's alleged grave site (Image: Courtland Bresner; one of Robert Johnson’s alleged grave sites)

Though it’s thought that, due to poverty, Johnson was likely buried in a pauper’s grave or potter’s field, the location of his official gravesite remains unknown. The burial grounds mentioned above each have a marker inscribed with his name, though his grave is thought to have been unmarked. It’s also unclear how he died, at the age of 27. One account says he drank poison from a whisky bottle. Pneumonia and syphilis have also been put forward. To date, research has yet to uncover the whole truth.

Johnson had spent most of his career as a travelling musician, playing for tips and busking on street corners. Though he only recorded two sessions, one in 1936 in Room 414 of San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel, and another in 1937 for the Brunswick Record Corporation, his legacy will forever live on. At its heart is one of his most famous songs, “Me and the Devil Blues”, in which the Devil comes knocking on his door.

A victim of the beast? Visit the mysterious gravestone of Lilly E. Gray, marked by the number 666.

 

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