by Benjamin Allmon
From Spring 2018
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 ’for twelve o’clock that night so you’ll know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece sitting there by yourself. You have to go by yourself and be sitting there playing a piece. 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.
—the Rev. LeDell Johnson, brother of bluesman Tommy Johnson (1896-1956)
In the history of wandering musicians, few stories capture the imagination like that of the Faustian pact at the crossroads, where one trades one’s immortal soul to the Devil for musical mastery in this world. In recent times it has been attached to bands such as Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and was the subject of a 1986 movie starring Steve Vai and Ralph Macchio.
Perhaps the most infamous—and erroneous—application of this myth is to the country bluesman Robert Johnson, although Robert himself never claimed to have sold anything in his song “Cross Road Blues”, let alone something as noticeable as his soul. Nor did he ever claim to any such pact during his life, and those who knew him best—men like Johnson’s fellow rambling bluesman Johnny Shines—found the whole idea preposterous bordering on slanderous (and a diminution of his talent by ascribing it to some otherworldly force). Indeed, Robert’s deal with the devil was posthumously pinned to him almost twenty years after his death.
The myth is also attached to Tommy Johnson (1896 – 1956), Robert’s predecessor and no relation, as evidenced by LeDell’s quote. If Charlie Patton was the musical father of the Delta Blues, Tommy was the forgotten uncle, and undeservedly so. As ethnomusicologist—and the man who conducted the interview with LeDell in 1966—Professor David Evans said, “For about thirty years Tommy Johnson was perhaps the most important and influential blues singer in the state of Mississippi. He was one of the few black musicians to whom the epithet ‘legendary’ rightfully applies.”
But again, the Devil’s contract was posthumously attributed to Tommy, by his brother no less, who in the same interview claimed to have been pursued by a winged serpent whilst riding his bicycle, and having observed the devil’s baby born to a white woman. As Evans told Barry Lee Pearson in a 1993 interview, LeDell’s tales needed to be taken with a grain of salt. There is no reference in any of Tommy’s songs that he had made such a bargain, and Mager Johnson—another brother—was apparently furious with LeDell for telling the tale, considering it slanderous.
Before judging LeDell too harshly or dismissing him as a superstitious backwoods preacher, it is worth noting that his statements are in line with the world he lived in at the time. In the well-lit world of the Internet Age, it is hard to remember what life was like before you could type anything into a search engine and gain enlightenment, where much of the world was still a mystery. As the narrator says in Stephen King’s The Man in the Black Suit, “In those days before the Great War, most…was woods and bog—dark long places full of moose and mosquitoes, snakes and secrets. In those days there were ghosts everywhere.”
For many in turn-of-the-century America, the supernatural world was never far away; miracles and devil sightings were considered a fact of life, and the melting pot of European, British and African beliefs over the preceding centuries had resulted in a potent brew of mythology. As Ted Gioia states in Delta Blues, “The devil was not an abstraction or a metaphysical construct, and certainly not a myth, but a concrete force, malevolently active, leading people astray.”
LeDell seeing a winged serpent would have been considered by many if not most Mississippians as nothing unusual; indeed, it is likely that most of his congregation would have had similar stories of their own.
If Tommy had indeed told the crossroads story to his brother, it would no doubt have been a calculated exploitation of the very fears most Church-going folks (which is to say nearly everybody) had—here was a man willingly consorting with Evil. It is hard to think of a more effective method of standing out from the dozens of musicians Tommy would have been competing with for that privileged place in the local economy, free from the constraints of sharecropping and manual labour; full-time musician.
If Tommy did indeed tell such a story (LeDell had him telling it upon his return from his first jaunt away from home—where he learned much from Patton—around 1914), he was by no means the only one. N.N Puckett noted this in his 1926 book, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro, a fairly comprehensive catalogue of deals with the devil involving crossroads and stringed instruments.
“Strange to say, playing fiddle or banjo is thought to be a special accomplishment of the devil, and such instruments are tabooed to good church-folk…(S)ome go so far as to say that playing the violin is actually an audacious communication with Satan himself. Take your banjo to the forks of the road at midnight and Satan will teach you how to play it.”
These are footnoted accounts of other’s research, but Puckett goes on to relate a firsthand account of the contract as explained to him by a New Orleans conjurer:
“If you want to make a contract with the devil, first trim your fingernails as close as you possibly can. Take a black cat bone and a guitar and go to a lonely fork in the roads at midnight. Sit down there and play your best piece, thinking of and wishing for the devil all the while.
“By’ and by you will hear music, dim at first but growing louder and louder as the musician approaches nearer. Do not look around; just keep on playing your guitar. The unseen musician will finally sit down by you and play in unison with you. After a time you will feel something tugging at your instrument. Do not try to hold it. Let the devil take it and keep thumping along with your fingers as if you still had a guitar in your hands. Then the devil will accompany you on yours. After doing this for a time he will seize your fingers and trim the nails until they bleed, finally taking his guitar back and returning your own. Keep on playing; do not look around. His music will become fainter and fainter as he moves away. When all is quiet you may go home.
“You will be able to play any piece you desire on the guitar and you can do anything you want to do in this world, but you have sold your eternal soul to the devil and are his in the world to come.”
LeDell, Tommy and all the other bluesmen of the early Great Migration were products of a religious and superstitious upbringing and environment where they were told there were ghosts everywhere, and the place where the barrier between the two worlds was thinnest was the crossroads. Turn left and have this life. Turn right and have this one. It is where two worlds, two futures, intersect, and at such a place anything is conceivable.
In the same year that Puckett’s book was written and two years before Tommy Johnson recorded his haunting blues, a film about the archetypal bargain with the Devil was released; Faust.
An adaptation of Goethe’s 19th century tale of the ambitious Dr Faustus and his deal with Mephistopheles (Satan) for access to all knowledge, the soul-selling story is much older than Goethe. It originates in 6th century Turkey’s apocryphal legend of Theophilus, an ambitious priest who makes a bargain with the Devil in exchange for power through a bishopric.
It is in Europe (particularly in the south-east) where we see even more rituals associated with the crossroads that pre-date those in America. Charles Leland’s 1892 Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune-Telling outlines a number of practices, many associated with burying esoteric items in order to receive a vision of one’s future husband, determine whether one is pregnant and, somewhat more in keeping with taboo acts, the place where Slavonic witches would have “Parties which meet to spin, always by full moonlight on a crossroad.”
Musicians who played stringed instruments fared little better in the Church’s estimation in Europe than they did in America. The reputation of the great violinist Paganini (1782 – 1828) was besmirched by the rumour that he had sold his soul to Satan in exchange for his formidable talents (a three octave reach across four strings, phenomenal speed, and the ability to perform an entire concert from memory, with no sheet music). His tall, gaunt and vaguely devilish appearance – possibly attributable to Marfan Syndrome – only served to enhance the myth.
Before him, English minstrels of the 13th century would, according to cleric Thomas de Chabham (c1160 – c1233/6) in his Penitential, “Transform and transfigure their bodies with indecent dance and gesture, now indecently unclothing themselves, now putting on horrible masks.” Their Russian counterparts, the skomorokh, were described in the Primary Chronicle—a history of the Kievan Rus from 850-1110—as devil servants. Finally, in the home of the minstrel, France, they were described by the medieval cleric Honorius as “The ministers of Satan; they laugh in this world; God shall laugh at them in the last day.” In the estimation of Church and State, wandering musicians were considered beyond salvation.
Perhaps the earliest reference in Europe we see to the crossroads phenomena was the compita – crossroads – of ancient Rome. But the compita’s musical significance goes back many centuries prior to Rome itself. In the countryside villages, the compita was an important meeting place, a place where travellers stopped and exchanged news with villagers, where harvests were held and these harvests became the catalyst for a festival known as the Compitalia. At these events, musicians would gather and songs were sung. A style of song emerged known as the fescennina, which was a means of gently roasting another in song. Naturally fescennina could become quite heated and undoubtedly started fights. But music became an integral part of the Compitalia. Another feature of this crossroads festival was the leaving of gifts at the crossroads to the Lares Compitales—the Gods of the Crossroads— presumably because this was where they resided, at the crossroads between worlds.
It is in Africa that we see perhaps the most explicit reference to the crossroads being the gateway between worlds, and of the deity who resides there. It is not surprising that these stories originate in a region from which many were taken as slaves to the New World, and many of the American crossroad myths can trace their roots to these stories.
The Yoruba, a tribe living in what is currently Nigeria, have a number of stories about the crossroads, but instead of Satan one finds Esu, the trickster god who interprets man’s wishes and desires and conveys these to the Father…but by virtue of Esu’s chaotic nature, these deep desires may not come true in the manner one hoped.
Esu came to America through the slave trade, and remained in black consciousness under one his many names (Eshu, Elegba, Papa Legba etc) for centuries…much later Puckett meets his New Orleans root doctor who tells him the same tale Tommy is reported to have told LeDell…neither of which mention “Satan” as such but a “dark man”; many ethnomusicologists and researchers feel that the dark man at the crossroads is Esu, not Satan.
Esu was said to walk with a limp, because of the unevenness of his legs due to his having one foot in the world of the gods and the other in the world of humans.
The following is from Sixteen Cowries: Yoruba Divination from Africa to the New World, by William Russell Bascom, as told to him by Salako, one of the last Ọ̀yọ́ diviners, in 1951. It tells the story of Esu, and describes his role as intermediary between the Father and humans.
He met the Father where he was carving.
If Father took time, he accepted it;
And he helped him and he stayed with him for sixteen years.
When the others (deities) came they stayed about eight days and then left,
And some stayed four days and left.
Esu did not leave; Esu learned how the Father made hands;
He learned how to make feet,
How he made mouths, how he made eyes.
Esu learned it all.
Afterward Father said, “All right,” he said, “Go and sit at the crossroads;
He said, “Everyone who is coming to see me,
He said, “If he does not give you something,
He said, “Do not let him pass.
He said, “Do not let him come.”
Esu went and sat down at the crossroads.
Everyone who was coming to Father would give Esu something.
It is impossible to read this passage and not be reminded of the covenant, Christianity’s doctrine that all who would come to God must come through Jesus. But it also bears remembering that the crossroads symbology predates Christianity, and, indeed, monotheism. In ancient Greece, marker stones commemorating Hermes, the messenger god, were erected at crossroads…just as in post-Hellenised Rome it was Mercury, and before that, the Lares Compitales. The Indian god Bhairava, guardian of the boundaries, has statues at crossroads on the subcontinent. This ascription of importance to the crossroads is an ancient practice indeed. As Led Zeppelin knew, the song remains the same.
As Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues author Elijah Wald said in a 2004 interview, cultures need myths.
Is the appeal of the crossroads myth that it offers people the hope that one day, given the chance and choice, they will be the masters of their universe, it will be their turn, and if the price is high well so be it, because the lay-by’s killing them anyway? Only people desiring something better than the present conjure up such stories of rapid assumption of power, and until you’ve been really poor, and really hungry, you don’t know how important it is to have that power, whose other name is of course Freedom. Freedom of choice; that is all a crossroads is, the place where you pick your path and live with the consequences.
“Cross Road Blues”, the song that has Robert sinking down in despair along with the sun, never explicitly states what it is feeding into the dread growing inside him. Some believe it is a reference to the crooked deal about to go down at midnight with Old Nob; for others of a less fanciful turn of mind he is simply expressing the fears of a black man finding himself caught by nightfall in unfamiliar surroundings during an era where it was all too easy to get oneself lynched for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But perhaps it is something else Robert fears, and may explain why the crossroads has for so long exerted its hold over humanity—the responsibility of choice, the weight of that freedom heavy upon him, driving him to his knees.
Because when you live a rambling life, there comes a point in every journey where the choice is not just one of left or right, but life or death.