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What Did Robert Johnson Encounter at the Crossroads? (Part 1 of 2)
I share a section from my new book 'Music to Raise the Dead'
Below I’m sharing another section from my new book Music to Raise the Dead as a free gift to all readers on Substack.
Each chapter can be read as a stand-alone article. The pieces all fit together, but every section answers a single question. I believe these are the most significant questions about music, focusing on its potential as a transformative force in human life.
The section below describes how a forgotten ancient tradition in music—celebrated in the Derveni Papyrus, the “oldest book in Europe”—survived into our own era. Even commercial music styles reflect its influence, although the originators of these genres had no way of knowing this alternative musicology. The Derveni Papyrus wasn’t even officially published until 2006, but it was part of a larger worldview that never really disappeared.
Here I show how many mysteries in popular culture—especially the story of blues legend Robert Johnson’s famous midnight deal with the Devil—are suddenly made clear once you grasp this hidden tradition.
Click here for more on Music to Raise the Dead—with links to the sections I’ve already published on Substack.
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What Did Robert Johnson Encounter at the Crossroads? (Part 1 of 2)
By Ted Gioia
A reader got upset at me when I published the introduction to this book.
I couldn’t possibly deliver on my promises, he said. I was destroying my credibility by making such ridiculous claims. And I can’t say I blame him. I was promising a lot—a whole hell of a lot.
That’s a pun, by the way. Because we actually go to hell and back in the course of this book—we do it several times. And that’s just the start of our itinerary.
I also claimed I’d share, in these pages, a secret musicology not taught at any music school. It’s thousands of years old, with deep roots all over the world, and contains more powerful information about songs than anything found in those harmony or orchestration textbooks.
And it got crazier. I also insisted that heroic quests originated in musical performances—and that musicians are the prototype for all those heroes in today’s adventure stories. Without these musicians, you don’t have Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker and all the rest.
Songs not only provide transformative tools for these kinds of adventures, but actually create the road for the hero’s journey. And that is especially true for what we call the vision quest, those undertakings made with the goal, not of external reward, but wisdom and personal transformation.
That’s a lot for music to do. Can it possibly be true?
But let’s start by asking the biggest question of them all…
How do you change your life and put it on an entirely new course? According to conventional wisdom, personal transformation might come from your education, or a powerful philosophy, or a spiritual conversion, or something of that sort. But can it really be built on something as insubstantial and intangible as a song?
That seems unlikely. But the accumulated evidence in the preceding pages has now made clear that musical sources for the hero’s quest exist as far back as we can trace, and are found in every part of the world. We’ve examined a remarkable convergence in sources as seemingly isolated from one another as the Derveni papyrus, the lore of Siberian shamans, the yukar epics of Japan, the Mwindo Epic from Africa, the Songlines of Aboriginal Australia, the Orphic myths of Native American communities, and the bardic traditions that flourished throughout Europe.
Even more striking, our deep dive into biology and neuroscience in chapter three told us the exact same story to an uncanny degree, but written in the language of clinical studies and peer-reviewed data.
But one key question remains: Is any of this relevant in contemporary times?
Does this linkage between songs and heroic adventures possess any genuine significance for music today? Perhaps ancient Greeks believed a hymn of Orpheus could take them to another world. Maybe the credulous in Siberia placed trust in a shaman’s drum as a conveyance to a magical realm. But surely this has no bearing on the commercial music business of modern times? Songs nowadays are mere entertainment, or in some contexts serious art, but never part of a life-changing quest.
Or are they?
We will now see that, even in the midst of the money-driven record business, we repeatedly encounter a different way of music-making. For a start, musicians feel, almost instinctively, that their gifts were meant for something larger than selling tunes, at a fraction of a penny per stream, in the digital economy. Fans, just as instinctively, feel that their favorite songs are transformative in some vague way.
Many of these fans couldn’t even begin to describe the deepest meanings of their lives or outlook on the world without talking about their musical preferences. Genres (punk, hip-hop, country, etc.) actually become lifestyles. Yet, when the dividing barrier is breached between these two topics, namely music and the larger potentialities of human existence, the most typical response from outsiders is mockery and ridicule.
Take one example: When San Francisco couple Franzo and Marina King turned their small jazz club into a temple, many treated it as a joke.
During its early years, I heard many jazz bros laugh at the “Church of John Coltrane,” where a minister conducted services with a tenor sax in hand, and scripture readings were interspersed with jam sessions. But more than fifty years later, those jazz-driven services are still flourishing, even as everything else has changed in the music world.
It’s now the oldest jazz venue in the San Francisco area. During that time, hundreds of nightclubs have come and gone. Only the Coltrane Church remains.
And it’s hard to say that John Coltrane himself would have disapproved. In one of his final interviews, a journalist asked the saxophonist what he planned to be doing in ten years time. Coltrane replied that he hoped to be a saint.
And don’t they name churches after saints?
Those who dismiss this as a crazy fluke, ought to consider the path taken by Alice Coltrane, a brilliant musician in her own right, who was both the saxophonist’s soulmate and bandmate. Jazz fans expected her to continue her husband’s legacy after his death, and she did precisely that—but as a spiritual vocation. She became a swamini and set up her own ashram, where she played music for worship and ritual.
Alice Coltrane continued to make recordings, but you couldn’t find her new music at record stores. It was distributed on cassettes that circulated privately among fellow travelers on her spiritual path. It was a great rarity when she undertook a ‘pure’ jazz project, such as her 2004 collaboration Translinear Light, made with her son Ravi Coltrane. But even here, the quasi-sacred aspect was palpable in the song choices, mostly traditional hymns and original works with mystical titles.
At this stage, you could still call Alice Coltrane—or Turiyasangitananda, if you used the Sanskrit name she had now adopted—a jazz musician, and the music media hardly considered any other way of referring to her. But it would be more precise to view her as a conductor (in the double sense of the word explored in chapter two) for others in a larger journey, something we might aptly call a transformative quest.
If anything were more absurd—at least, from an outsider’s perspective—than a “Church of John Coltrane” it would be a “Church of Hip-Hop.” Hip-hop, according to conventional wisdom, has nothing to do with spiritual quests. After all, it is filled with references to sex, violence, crime, and a host of other raw topics you don’t sing about in church. But Kurtis Blow, the first rapper to get a major label deal and score a gold record, saw it differently.
Blow became an ordained minister and started delivering impassioned raps about salvation at his Hip-Hop Church.
Once again, this seems like an anomaly. But a host of other rappers, from MC Hammer to Kanye West, have followed the same path—and found that many of their listeners were willing to travel it with them.
Academic musicology might have a hard time grasping how songs serve as a springboard to transcendence, but devoted music fans—and note how easily we apply terms of devotion to listeners of various genres and styles—immediately grasp that their cherished music is supposed to change their lives, not just provide a soundtrack in the background.
I could give countless other examples—but it would take a whole book even to scratch the surface of this momentous topic. Just consider the thousands of classical composers, from Bach to Stockhausen and beyond, who wrote sacred music, and the wide range of contexts in which these works have been used for metaphysical purposes beyond the range of entertainment or concert hall aesthetics.
Indeed, the more you probe into this subject, the more you realize that the spiritual tradition of the quest is not at the periphery of our musical culture, but has always been central to it. You might even say that the quest created our music culture. Secular music emerged only slowly, and with painful steps, eventually separating itself from spiritual pathways, but at a tremendous cost. And it has never lost the marks of its origins in this transcendent journey—nor should it.
Let’s now turn to the blues.
I’ve chosen it as the focal point of this chapter, because for many music historians it represents the rise of secular themes in African-American music. It’s the last place you would look for transcendence.
Even the clichéd opening of so many blues songs (I woke up this morning…), focuses on the day-to-day, however depressing, instead of otherworldly experiences. And the subject matter of the blues, much like hip-hop a half-century later, is a litany of sins and vices, with every one of the Ten Commandments getting trampled upon, sooner or later, with scandalous persistence. This wasn’t just an abandonment of the sacred music tradition, but its total renunciation—or so it seems.
The worldview of blues music was the exact opposite of the spiritual. That’s how the story is usually told—and for a good reason. Blues records sold well because they offered a strident alternative to sanctimony and religiosity. They told about real life, and with all the gritty details.
But as soon as we peer into the inner life of the blues, its apparent secularism and modern ways start to disappear. In so many instances, its earliest exponents in rural America performed spiritual music as well, and not just any kind of religious music—rather, fervent and quasi-apocalyptic songs that repeatedly describe spiritual quests to another world.
Charley Patton, the first star of the Delta blues, could sing of booze and sex, but God and the Devil played just as prominent a role in his music. His first hit record “Pony Blues” established the secular Delta sound as a money-making proposition, widely imitated for decades to come, but at the very same session, Patton adopted the pseudonym “Elder J.J. Hadley.” Under this different name, Patton recorded “Prayer of Death, Part 1” and “Prayer of Death, Part 2”—which deal with a trip to the afterlife, where we meet a conductor on “the other shore.”
It’s uncanny how much this resembles the ancient mythologies we’ve examined in previous chapters. But surely Charley Patton—raised on a Mississippi plantation without access to a telephone, radio, or even electricity—wouldn’t know about the Orphic hymn of death announced in the Derveni Papyrus. (Patton, however, was part Cherokee, and might have heard the Orphic myths about visits to the realm of the dead that circulated in that Native American community—and which James Mooney documented in 1902, when Patton was approaching his teen years.) Nor would he have known about the Egyptian Book of the Dead or Hesiod receiving a conductor’s baton from the Muses.
For him this worldview is filtered through Christianity, but it’s revealing that he singles out the aspects of that creed which evoke mystical journeys to other realms. And we see the same thing in the subsequent leaders of the Delta blues movement.
Son House was so obsessed with his early dream of becoming a preacher, that decades later he would still interrupt his nightclub blues performances to testify to audiences—often singing “John the Revelator,” his account of a transcendent world beyond our own. Here he drew on the most mystical and visionary of the New Testament texts. He performed it as an a cappella number, almost certainly because he felt that the sinful guitar was not a suitable accompaniment for this otherworldly kind of music-making.
Skip James, the next great Delta blues performer, even quit music entirely in the 1930s and moved to Texas where he worked in his father’s ministry and Bible school. My friend Steve Calt spoke to James about his conversion experience, which led the reformed bluesman to abandon the guitar. The main Christian theme that obsessed him was a notion of “God as a scourge of death.” Calt was amazed at how James took this notion so literally.
A host of other blues stars—Reverend Robert Wilkins, Rube Lacy, Reverend Gary Davis, and others—followed a similar career path. Gospel music was actually launched as a genre by reformed blues musician Thomas A. Dorsey. You might almost assume that playing the blues was training for mystical experiences involving another life.
These otherworldly connections were hardly limited to Mississippi, but can be found in every other regional blues style across the American South and Southwest. I have often heard experts argue forcefully that the blues originated in Texas, not Mississippi, but here we see the same pattern. The first superstar of Texas blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson, also recorded gospel songs at his debut session, adopting a pseudonym (Deacon L.J. Bates) for this music, much like Patton had done. And my favorite Texas blues artist, Blind Willie Johnson—one of the greatest exponents of slide guitar techniques, now emulated all around the world—really never recorded secular music. All his songs were spiritual, visionary, and transcendent. People call them blues, and they sound like blues, but their apocalyptic fervor is overwhelming. No, I can’t prove that Blind Willie Johnson was in a shamanistic trance when he recorded his songs, but listen to them yourselves and make up your own mind.
And then we come to the greatest of blues artists, Robert Johnson. Here we find elements of the vision quest that are so intensified and emphasized—almost to an extreme—as to defy attempts to treat his work as secular or market-driven in any conventional sense of those words. Not that blues scholars haven’t tried to do just that. In fact, many have worked long and hard to cleanse his music of these visionary elements. You might even say that the urge to secularize and demythologize Robert Johnson has been the single most dominant goal of blues scholarship in recent decades.
That’s no small task—the songs of Robert Johnson are permeated with these otherworldly elements. And his biography is even worse, from the viewpoint of those attempting this secularized cleansing. In fact, the most famous incident in Robert Johnson’s biography is the one they would most like to erase.
This story—the best known tale in the entire history of blues music—tells how Johnson obtained his legendary skills as a guitarist by making a deal with the Devil at a crossroads at midnight. I’ve found that even people who know little or nothing about the blues, are still aware of this story. It has been commemorated in books, documentaries, Hollywood movies, and tourist attractions.
No one knows where the crossroads are located, but that hasn’t stopped people from promoting various locations as the place where Johnson made his infamous deal. Visitors to Clarksdale, Mississippi can even see a pole at the intersection of Highway 61 and Highway 49 where the transaction took place. It’s a shame that this intersection didn’t exist at the time Johnson was learning guitar, although that hasn’t prevented the Clarksdale crossroads from generating significant tourism dollars for the city.
But over in Rosedale, Mississippi, residents will assure you that Johnson met the Devil at the intersection of Highways 8 and 1. Others would like to believe that the deal was done at the crossroads south of Dockery Farms near Cleveland, Mississippi. And I’m sure sly tour guides have offered many other even less likely locales to enthusiastic visitors over the years, later laughing over the easy dollars procured from credulous blues fans.
I can hardly blame scholars and serious fans from treating such shallow marketing of blues music with scorn. But many have gone beyond that useful critique, instead deciding to reframe events of the 1920s and 1930s as if Robert Johnson and other such artists were workaday commercial performers and entertainers in the secular world.
To do this, they need to ignore overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They close their eyes to the fact that these complex and sometimes troubled individuals operated in a surrounding culture and community permeated with a larger mythos of transcendence, salvation, and spiritual questing. They want to secularize life stories that simply can’t be secularized.
As a result, Elijah Wald, in his book Escaping the Delta—the most influential attempt to demythologize the Robert Johnson story—looks at this larger mythos and asks people to “get over the cliché.” He insists that the crossroads story offers few insights into blues music, and instead reflects the “romantic leanings” of Johnson’s “later, urban white listeners.” Barry Pearson and Bill McCulloch go even further, accusing “conspirators” of promoting an absurd story, built on “romantic distortions” and “blustery generalizations.” Patricia Schroeder, another scholar who has focused on this subject, confidently asserts that the crossroads mythology was “created from 1960s rebelliousness and nostalgia.”
Can it really be true that the crossroads story reflects a 1960s mentality, built on the overheated imagination of white music fans? Even at first glance, that seems implausible. The 1960s was a time of secularization, and few people were less interested in religious explanations of music than the young music fans of that era. In contrast, Mississippi during the 1930s, when Johnson developed into a guitar hero, was a place where superstition and spirituality were dominant cultural forces, and exerted a profound impact on musical practices.
Virtually every major blues musician from Mississippi lived out the consequences of this conflict in their day-to-day lives. Howlin’ Wolf was traumatized by his mother’s denunciation of him after he embraced sinful blues music. When Charley Patton showed up at his sister’s home with a test pressing of his record, she refused to listen to it, convinced that this 78 rpm disk was a source of evil. B.B. King found that even his performances with a gospel singing group were suspect—ministers would sometimes cancel the gig simply because a guitar was part of the show. These were hardly examples of “1960s rebelliousness and nostalgia,” but signs of a genuine culture war that accompanied the rise of blues music in the South. Blues musicians were on the front line of the battle.
According to the revisionist narrative, this embarrassing tale about the crossroads gained credence because of a 1966 interview with Robert Johnson’s mentor Son House—who told journalist Pete Welding that Robert Johnson “sold his soul to the devil to play like that.” This passing comment has caused much discomfort among blues writers, and I’ve even heard grumbling that Welding never shared a tape recording of the interview, implying that he might just have made the whole thing up.
But around that same time, Harvard-trained blues researcher Dr. David Evans encountered an even more detailed crossroads story while researching Tommy Johnson, a blues guitarist of that same era—unrelated to Robert Johnson, but apparently another Delta musician who had made a deal with the Devil. According to Johnson’s brother, Rev. LeDell Johnson, there was a specific way these transactions were made:
He said the reason he knowed so much, said he sold hisself to the Devil. I asked him how. He said, “If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ’fore twelve o’clock that night…..A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned how to play anything I want.” And he could. He used to play anything, don’t care what it was. Church song. You could sing any kind of tangled up song you want to, and I’ll bet you he would play it.”
During the subsequent controversy over the crossroads mythos, Evans clarified that this account had been offered voluntarily by Reverend Johnson, and wasn’t the result of leading questions or any attempt to solicit deal-with-the-devil stories. This was the blues musician’s actual account of how he learned guitar, according to the unprompted testimony of his brother.
But how can you take this seriously?
When I first started researching Robert Johnson and his crossroads tale, I also was skeptical. At that point, my view was that the story circulated because it offered a striking marketing angle, and probably had little or nothing to do with Robert Johnson himself. To clarify my thoughts on this matter, I reached out to the greatest living expert on Robert Johnson, a man in Texas named Mack McCormick—who had worked for many years on an unpublished Robert Johnson biography, and had tracked down numerous people who had known the famous blues musician personally.
McCormick was a brilliant thinker—one of the smartest commentators on music I’ve ever met—but was notoriously secretive and eccentric. He also had a strange writer’s block that prevented him from turning his thousands of pages of field notes into publishable manuscripts. Word-of-mouth among music writers was that McCormick knew all the details—more than anyone else who had ever researched Robert Johnson—even if he could never finish his long-awaited book. Yet if you gained his trust, he could provide extraordinary information, drawing on years of field trips and investigative work throughout the South and Southwest.
I was fortunate to have gained that trust, and now I hoped to lay my worries about the crossroads to rest. Wasn’t this whole story, I asked, “the fanciful work of an over-heated imagination?” To my surprise, McCormick took me to task.
“All this stuff sounds strange to us,” he responded. “But in the black community of that time, there was a clear distinction between God’s music and the Devil’s music.” Based on his fieldwork, McCormick estimated that as many as sixty percent of African-Americans in the Delta, during that period, would have connected blues music with the Devil. “We need to be cautious,” he told me, “before we impose our modern, skeptical perspectives on this situation.”
I pushed back—arguing that even if people in the community considered blues music in that manner, surely Robert Johnson would have known better. He wouldn’t have accepted this superstitious dismissal of his entire life’s work. How could he? He was a blues musician—so how could he possibly have such a low opinion of the blues.
Once again, McCormick disagreed sharply. “My gut feeling is that Johnson spread the story himself,” he explained. “It’s a good story. It catches people’s attention. To some degree, Johnson created his own legend—not just this one, but several other legends too.”
Then Mack continued:
When I went to New Orleans in the late 1940s to visit some record collectors, they told me that same story. You need to remember that almost nothing had been published on Robert Johnson at that time. A little bit had been written around the time of the Spirituals to Swing Concert, and a couple of record reviews had appeared, but they were full of mistakes. Yet these record collectors had heard about Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil. I subsequently heard the same story within the black community. The fact that the same story circulated among these two groups—groups that had very little contact with each other—impressed me. It suggests that the story had deep roots, probably linking back to Johnson himself.
I still had many questions, but it was now clear to me that assertions about the crossroads story as the work of 1960s white rock fans were patently false. How could that hypothesis possibly be true if McCormick had learned about Robert Johnson’s deal with the Devil back in the 1940s?
A few months later, I found a previously unpublished transcript of an interview with Robert Johnson’s friend and fellow guitarist David “Honeyboy” Edwards in the archives of the Library of Congress. It wasn’t even listed in the catalog, just thrown in with other papers from the Mississippi Delta research project from 1941-42.
In this document, even older than McCormick’s first fieldwork, Edwards declares that his friend Robert Johnson was caught up in the “Devil’s business.” More confirmation of the crossroads story came later from Willie Mae Powell, Edwards’ cousin who was dating Johnson—who said that the transaction took place “at a fork in the road” at midnight. These weren’t fans, but people who had close personal ties to Robert Johnson, and they were all telling the same story.
The evidence was irrefutable as I now saw it. There were no more grounds for skepticism. But, frankly, I should have reached the same conclusion just by paying close attention to Robert Johnson’s recordings, where the mythos had been laid out in song after song.
Johnson didn’t leave behind much music. He had few opportunities to make recordings, and all of his surviving work comes from separate two-day sessions in 1936 and 1937. You could listen to his entire output in less than two hours. But even in these few tracks, he returns again to all the familiar imagery of the quest—the troubled journey where dangers lurk on every side—and his dealings with the ruler of the Underworld, eerily reminiscent of ancient accounts of the hero’s journey exemplified in Orphic narratives and ritual.
No amount of cleansing and reinterpretation can secularize songs such as “Cross Road Blues,” “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Stones in My Passway,” “Me and the Devil Blues,” and “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil).” Even if you had never heard the infamous crossroads myth, you could piece together almost every ingredient in it from these troubled and troubling performances. And it’s now clear to me, after years of additional research (shared below), that if you want to understand what these songs actually mean, you would do well to ignore 1960s pop psychology or new millennium revisionist blues research, and dig much, much more deeply into the past.
* * * *
The crossroads shows up in three separate places in Plato’s accounts of the afterlife. In the Gorgias, Plato describes a “Meadow at the Crossroads,” where one path goes to the Isles of the Blessed, while the other leads to a prison of punishment and retribution. The imagery recurs in the Republic, where we are told that the virtuous person departs to the right and ascends to the heavens, while the rest must travel to the left and downwards, where they pay a “tenfold penalty for each injustice.”
Socrates assures us that this isn’t just idle speculation. His source is a soldier who was killed in battle, and twelve days later was placed on the funeral pyre—where he revived, to the shock of onlookers, and gave his account of what he had seen and heard in the world beyond. . . .
James Mooney documented in 1902: See, for example, James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1902), pp. 252-254.
God as a scourge of death: Stephen Calt, I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues (New York: Da Capo, 1994), p. 179.
demythologize the Robert Johnson story: Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 266.; Barry Pearson and Bill McCulloch, Robert Johnson: Lost and Found (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), p. 38; Patricia R. Schroeder, Robert Johnson: Mythmaking and Contemporary American Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), p. 40.
a 1966 interview with the Robert Johnson’s mentor Son House: Pete Welding, “Robert Johnson: Hell Hound on His Trail,” Down Beat Music ’66, pp. 73-76, 103.
David Evans encountered an even more detailed crossroads story: David Evans, Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 115.
McCormick took me to task: This and below from author’s interview with Mack McCormick, October 21, 2005.
Edwards made clear: For David “Honeyboy” Edwards’ 1942 comments on his friend Robert Johnson, see Folder 4 of the Lomax – Fisk University files relating to the Coahoma County project, at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Willie Mae Powell is quoted in the documentary The Search for Robert Johnson (1992).