In this section from my new book, I uncover neglected source materials from the 1930s and provide new insights into the most famous story in blues history
great informative read ted. in 1998, I was interviewing Eddie Kirkland. he was best known as John Lee Hooker's guitarist from 1949-1962. out nowhere, he started talking about his visit to the crossroads. I sat in silence and awe in that I was hearing a first hand account of this belief, prevalent in the southern African-American culture, that up to this point, I'd only read about.
...here are Eddie's exact words.. "Almost all the people born on those islands, Jamaica and Cuba, held those beliefs passed down from generations. That’s most of their religion. In America, I was taught to worship Jesus. My mother’s people came out of Africa and they brought much of the African religion with them. My dad’s people came from Cuba, and they believed in the same things, root doctors, mojos, and crossroads.
I know what happened. Charley Patton years ago sold his soul to the devil and he lasted 5 years. Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil and lasted 8 years. Stevie Ray Vaughan sold his soul and lasted 6 years. Jimi Hendrix sold his soul to the devil and lasted 6 years. People read up on this stuff and they try it man.
I’m gonna tell you something. I went to the army in 1943. I came out in 1945. I was kicked out and I hurt so bad becauise I wanted to be a service man. I was really angry. I didn’t have nobody, I hadn’t seen my mother since I was 12. I went to Detroit. I went and got me a black cat, got me a big ol’ boiling pot and boiled that cat till the bones just fell offa her. Once you get that bone, you go to the fork in the road for nine mornings. If you can stand what you see for nine mornings, you’re automatically sold to the devil. If I’d a went through with it, I’d a been dead, gone, cause the devil woulda come and got me. What I saw on the first morning at the crossroads, I said, Hell no. I went to a priest who told me to get on my knees for nine mornings and ask God’s forgiveness and you’ll be alright. I did that cause what I saw on the first trip, I knew I wasn’t gonna go through with that.
Stevie was at the top of his life, Jimi was at the top of his life. Robert Johnson was at the top of his life, Charley Patton too. I backed out of that."
Hi ted -great to read your stuff - i have bought your blues book and subversive history and both are informative and insightful. Re the piece on Robert Johnson and in part the imagery derived from landscape that is found in the blues, I once had the inestimable privilege of having a long conversation with Brownie McGee at a post gig party in Dunedin New Zealand. This was way back in the early 1970s. To be honest I didn't know squat about the blues beyond the Peter Green/Clapton/BB King stuff but as I wrote music reviews for the Uni newspaper I got these invitations from to time.
The concert had been promoted locally by a pair of wealthy lawyers and it was in one of their big houses that the party took place. The atmosphere was a trifle odd as the host was keen to both show off his guest - Sonny Terry was tired and stayed in his hotel rather than attend - and equally keen to demonstrate his knowledge of the blues. He got into a conversation with Brownie about the details of his past. It was odd because this guy even had the temerity to correct Brownie's versions of some of these events. It became clear that Mr McGee found this tiresome and he retreated to a piano stool in one corner of the large room. A few of us kids - I was 19 - sort of gathered at this feet and he began to talk to us whilst still holding a sort of more public conversation with his host.
At one point a guy turned up with an ancient Gibson acoustic which he was keen to sort of flaunt to gain Brownie's validation as it were. The old man confided to us that he had several of this model back at his home and that he was "a dollar millionaire". He then offered the man a thousand dollars for the guitar but it became clear that the guy didn't want to sell it. Brownie kind of dismissed him at that point in a kind of "shit or get off the pot" manner - courteous but "don't waste my time or patronise me".
The atmosphere was getting odd as clearly Brownie wasn't interested in pandering to his hosts and again said to us kids that he was touring on behalf of the US State Department and encountered this sort of thing often. He obviously found these rich white folks somewhat patronising and repeated the point that, appearances to the contrary, he was a man of substance and not some kind of old poor black man singing for his supper.
Kiwis were then - before Peter Jackson's Tolkein tourism movies - inclined to manifest a sense of insecurity that whilst they lived in this demi-paradise, the world had largely ignored the place. So foreign visitors were often asked about what they thought of the country. Brownie deflected these questions in a courteous manner, being too diplomatic to offer any view that might court controversy. Apart from which he was on a whistle stop tour and hadn't really "seen" much of the country at all. These queries continued in an ever more fatuous manner - "What do you think of the mountains ?" - sort of thing until one of the hosts asked what Brownie thought of the rivers.
At this point Brownie presented a long disquisition, almost sotto voce, about his relationship to rivers and it became very clear to us kids that he wasn't talking about the Mississippi or the Hudson but dealing more with the imagery of rivers in the blues and in poetry and what those images denoted in a metaphysical sense. Most of the "grown-ups" quickly lost interest - he wasn't speaking in a loud voice - and returned to their conversations with each other. Brownie continued talking to us kids sat on the floor at his feet. He went off almost in a kind of reverie about the poetics of landscape in the blues. He didn't use those terms but that was the center of his meaning. He knew precisely what he was saying and had read the complexities of the room and the different degrees of receptivity in his audience(s) and his tone was definitely "Who feels it knows it".
It was at that point that my eurocentric conception of this music and its denizens took a giant step into the beginnings of the kind of understanding that your piece on Robert Johnson exemplifies. I knew intuitively that what Brownie was saying to us kids was on the same level as the lectures on the Metaphysical poets that I was attending at Uni. The blues never sounded the same since that night.
Wow! I just love the depth of Ted Gioia's research!
Also, Mr. Gioia says: "That’s the milieu in which Robert Johnson came of age—a society where you purchased magical potions at drugstores on Main Street."
Has anything changed? Half of the "content" on my internet TV in "The Hour of the Wolf" is selling such "magical potions" on the new Main Street of our lives . . .
A superb piece of work, Ted! I had the immense honor of meeting Mance Lipscomb at a private party in Cameron, Texas, just a year or so before his death. He played as a guest of the host, a local dentist and blues fan who had made a set of custom dentures for Mance. Mance was a compelling performer even then, and was so generous with his time and attention. Throughout the evening, he insisted that although often billed as a "bluesman", he was instead, a "songster". I believe it too, because the music he played displayed a link to musical traditions that presaged the blues as we know it.
At one point in the evening, I asked Mance if he knew Lightning Hopkins. Oh yes, he assured me, he knew him well. I then asked whether they had ever played together. Mance replied, "Yes, but Lightning would only play the piano when we were together." I asked why. Mance grinned, "Cause he didn't want his head cut, man!"
A photo of Mance Lipscomb, from that night:
thank you I just became a paid subscriber and love your stuff; will be giving gift subcriptions to my friends soon and buying the book; it is wonderful to see a great writer write about this stuff and the creator economy....I teach young journalists at Lehigh University and you will become part of my teaching on Artificial Intelligence and the Creator economy
anyone reading our post regarding the creator economy needs to take a look at the honest broker...he really understand the major changes we are going through
When I read your first article on Robert Johnson and the devil I was already thinking of Exú and the prejudice against pagan religions (specially when they come from black people).
Exú is not the devil, he's a kind of an African Hermes. A messenger and a bridge between the living and the spirits.
On rereading this piece, it struck me that the desperate right-wing war on “woke” — and on African-American and Indigenous history and culture in general — is very much rooted in a fear of this ancient form of enlightenment. And the distorted forms of religion and society it tries to pitch as a “traditional” alternative are no such thing but represent the latest eruption of a kind of missionary rationalism whose mission has always been to stamp out genuine traditional wisdom.
Abe said, “Where do you want this killing done?”
God said, “Out on highway 61.”
—- Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited
I guess the Mississippi blues went all the way upriver to Duluth, Minnesota
"When you come to a fork in the road, take it." - Yogi Berra
Thanks Ted! Wonderful!
Well-written and well-researched! Like many readers, I need to revisit Johnson's recordings.
As a child in Quincy, Illinois, I would sneak into the restricted back rooms of the public library. I remember happening across all five volumes of Hyatt's hoodoo texts, covered in dust and obviously languishing unread. That library is in another building now and I doubt that the volumes survived the move.
What a great article! I can barely restrain myself from getting all metaphysical here. I'm at a loss of words for my admiration for Prof. Gioia's recognition of the value of the previous research he cites and for re-conceptualizing and applying it to a new way for us to understand the power of music. I have long felt some of what he laid out was inherent in music and song but the depth and breadth to which he opens it up to a more comprehensive understanding of its impact was not anything I could have come close to defining. Very powerful and enjoyable read. I almost hate to say this, but . . . it was mind bending. Can't wait for more.
Fascinating piece. I now need to relisten to my Robert Johnson collection again and hear it through this theological/cultural understanding.
Thanks. Music and musicians need to understand so much more of this. And of course it goes far deeper than music alone. Much appreciation for those troubadours who have been able to take us in such a journey of understanding.
The oldest tale in Europe is The Smith and the Devil. Selling you’re soul for power.
This post might be off base, but I hope it may enrich this already very rich discussion. I believe we're examining the art of Robert Johnson from the lense of Northrop Frye's Archtypal Criticism. Frye "rescued" literary criticism from evaluating, good art vs. bad art. He focused criticism on the common elements of the human imagination, how these elements are expressed by the artist in the art work. So the purpose of literary criticism became to elucidate how certain common elements of the human imagination are configured in a book, or song, to say more than the mere sum of the elements, universally. These common elements have been with us since we evolved from the slime. They come from the worldwide trans-cultural human experience of the Cosmic Archetypes: hot-cold; day-night; light-dark; wet-dry; sweet-sour; Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring; soft-hard; smooth-rough; thunder, lightening, the tides and floods. The cycles of Sun and Moon... a pursuit of the bright goddess by the large golden hero, until she's overtaken; the movements of the constellations. The Cosmic Archetypes are the essential language of the imagination and therefor of all art. Frye's hypothesis is that "just as there is an order of nature behind the natural sciences, so literature is not a piled aggregate of 'works,' but an order of words" (Anatomy 17). This order of words (cosmic archetypes) constitutes criticism's conceptual framework, its coordinating principle.
The recurring primitive formulas Frye noticed in his survey of the "greatest classics" provide literature with an order of words, a "skeleton" which allows the reader "to respond imaginatively to any literary work by seeing it in the larger perspective provided by its literary and social contexts" (Hamilton 20). Frye identifies these formulas as the "conventional myths and metaphors" which he calls "archetypes" (Spiritus Mundi 118). The archetypes of literature exist, Frye argues, as an order of words, providing criticism with a conceptual framework and a body of knowledge derived not from an ideological system but rooted in the imagination itself. Thus, rather than interpreting literary works from some ideological 'position' — what Frye calls the "superimposed critical attitude" (Anatomy 7) — criticism instead finds integrity within the literary field itself. ...Whew, put that in yer pipe and smoke it.