The Call of the Crossroads

By: Amelia Cox

crossroads

The Crossroads is now obviously a tourist attraction.

“The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band is one of the most prolific depictions of the devil in American music, but it is not the first instance of a musical devil, by far.

Robert Johnson, a talented blues guitarist from Mississippi, is even more famous for the supposed deal with the devil he made at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61.

The legend has it that Robert Johnson was a less than talented musician, and his gift for the blues appeared seemingly overnight, and was unexplainable if not for some supernatural help. Robert Johnson went from playing small dive bars to recording albums, becoming the inspiration for people like Eric Clapton and bands like the Rolling Stones. Though very little is known about Robert Johnson’s short life, which was cut short at the age 27 when he was poisoned by a man whose girlfriend Johnson was having an affair with; his music and its origin myth have had enduring fame, making any new information and extremely rare images hot commodities.

The legend of the crossroads have invaded popular culture, especially as part of a major story arc on Season 2 the television show Supernatural; where the Mississippi crossroads is a summoning site, created by Robert Johnson himself, for a demon who trades talent for souls, but the newly talented only has so long before the hellhounds come to collect the soul.

Another interesting layer of Robert Johnson’s story is his very early death at the age of 27. The Curse of 27 is a legend in the music industry that the most talented musicians only live to the age of 27. The most famous members of this “club” include Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and, most recently, Amy Winehouse. Robert Johnson could be the first victim of this curse, his talent for the blues making him more than qualified. And though there seems to be no other evidence, beyond the common denominator of Robert Johnson, connecting his deal with the devil to the Curse or to suggest that it led to his death at 27, maybe that just happened to be the time his contract was up. Perhaps other musicians who die at 27 simply have the same deal with the devil that Robert Johnson has. Or it’s a pretty incredible coincidence.

This memorial is at one of Robert Johnson's possible gravesites.

This memorial is at one of Robert Johnson’s possible gravesites.

Robert Johnson’s legacy lives on through his music. Some of his popular songs pay homage to his alleged connection with the devil: “Me and the Devil Blues,” “Hellhound On My Trail,” and “Cross Road Blues.” And though his life and death remain largely a mystery, Robert Johnson’s influence on music and folklore live on.

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7 thoughts on “The Call of the Crossroads

  1. When we first started discussing cross roads in class, Supernatural was the first thing that came to my mind. Obviously the show pulled a lot from the folklore surrounding Robert Johnson, but it’s interesting how they play with it. Those who make deals are given a certain time frame to live and are hunted down by hellhounds when their contract is up (as was said in the blog post). What’s interesting is that the devil can change the time frame depending on how important a soul may be (for Dean, one of the main characters, he was given a year instead of the usual 10, or at leas I believe that’s how long it was), and what’s interesting is that the characters show extreme paranoia once it comes close to their time to die. They know their death is coming and they can hear and see the hellhounds following them, when no one else can see them. It makes me wonder if Robert Johnson made his songs about the devil the closer and closer he got to dying. “Crossroad Blues,” “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” and “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil” were considered recorded in 1936, while “Hellhound On My Tail” and “Me and the Devil Blues” were recorded in 1936. Johnson died in 1938, so it makes me wonder if he was suffering from the same fear of his approaching death by creating these songs. It would be interesting to know how he acted near his death to see if it matched what Supernatural showed.

  2. I would like to comment on the sub-idea of this story, the Curse of 27. As I have previously stated, I do not believe in ghosts or theories about ghosts or death, but the Curse of 27 is an anomaly to me. Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendricks all died at the same age, and all had the same problems with drugs and rock and defiance of the world. I find this coincidence fascinating and makes me wonder.

  3. Usually, when I experience a series of similar, strange events like those that characterize the 27 Club, I dismiss them as pure coincidence or a case of over-identifying. No matter how many times I try to rationalize the 27 Club in my brain, however, I still cannot seem to wrap my mind around it.
    Additionally, I wanted to comment on a brief point you made above – the fact that Robert Johnson’s fame skyrocketed after his death. This seems to be a frequent occurrence in the lives of famous artists, musicians, etc. Why does the value of someone’s work change so drastically after their death? Certainly, it is more valuable because nothing like it can ever be produced again. Is it that factor alone that changes the seeming quality of work in a buyer’s mind? To me, it seems that art is art whether the artist is living or dead.

  4. I think you’re absolutely right, Bailey. It’s the same with visual artists, there works become so much more valuable after death precisely because they pioneered a style or were so unique that there work is unreproducible. As for The 27 Club, I think that the “lifestyle” catches up with people as they age, and perhaps those who died at age 27 happened to be the extremely famous musicians. I don’t know the statistics for musicians who died at 26 or 28, but I’d be curious to see if they were similar.

  5. When we first read this in class, I first, like a lot of people in class I believe, thought about the show Supernatural. In the episode called “Crossroad Blues,” it starts out in 1930 with Robert Johnson making a deal with a demon to become the greatest blues guitarist that ever lived. Eight years later, while playing at a bar, he hears sounds outside and leaves, running and hearing dogs chasing after him – the hellhounds. The rest of the episode includes others making deals with demons for various reasons, like for talent or to save a loved one’s life. It makes me wonder if the other victims of the “27 club” had also made deals with demons for their talent, as they all were extremely successful and talented and died at such a young age.

  6. As I started reading this, and talking about it in class, the only thing I could of think of was Supernatural. What I really wanna know is when did he come to fame? If he was 17, that would have given him his 10 year contract with a demon (or Crowley when thinking of SPN). You also mentioned the song titles “Me and the Devil Blues,” “Hellhound On My Trail,” and “Cross Road Blues.” That is EXACTLY what Supernatural showed, and for the most part, they try to make everything as real as the supernatural can get. I think it would be really awesome if Robert Johnson’s life followed the timeline depicted in SPN, and if other really did try to contact a crossroads demon. Do you have any information of anyone else trying that or if the other artists you mention ever passed that crossroads? That would be really freaky if they did.

  7. The whole ” a demon trades talent for soles” thing made me thing of a research project I did last year. It actually really scared me so I decided to change my topic. I was planning to do a paper on this topic but after reading up on it, I got nervous. Basically, from what I had read I’ve come to learn that this “trade” has become popular among current/very popular artist. One video in which a woman named Melissa Ford blatantly said “You literally have to sign your name in a contract in blood with the devil”. That was one video, among many that actually supported/confirmed the demon “trading talents for soles”. I am still kind of scared when it comes to this topic so I don’t really want to say too much else.

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