Most people today excluding serious music and particularly blues afficinados have no idea who Robert Johnson was. He was an African American blues singer songwriter and musician dubbed king of the Delta Blues.
He produced and performed a number of marvelous blues songs that have influenced generations of musicians. He is ranked as one of the top 5 guitarists of all time. But his talent came to him very suddenly - too suddenly as per those who knew him. Legend and Lore has it that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent.
Meeting with the Devil at the Crossroads
A 'vision' relayed by Henry Goodman
The man stands up, tall, barrel-chested, and black as the forever-closed eyes of Robert Johnson's stillborn baby, and walks out to the middle of the crossroads where Robert Johnson kneels. He says, 'Stand up, Robert Johnson. You want to throw that guitar over there in that ditch with that hairless dog and go on back up to Robinsonville and play the harp with Willie Brown and Son, because you just another guitar player like all the rest, or you want to play that guitar like nobody ever played it before? Make a sound nobody ever heard before? You want to be the King of the Delta Blues and have all the whiskey and women you want?'
That's a lot of whiskey and women, Devil-Man. ...'I know you, Robert Johnson,' says the man.
Robert Johnson, feels the moonlight bearing down on his head and the back of his neck as the moon seems to be growing bigger and bigger and brighter and brighter. He feels it like the heat of the noonday sun bearing down, and the howling and moaning of the dog in the ditch penetrates his soul, coming up through his feet and the tips of his fingers through his legs and arms, settling in that big empty place beneath his breastbone causing him to shake and shudder like a man with the palsy. Robert Johnson says, 'That dog gone mad.'
The man laughs. 'That hound belong to me. He ain't mad, he's got the Blues. I got his soul in my hand.'
The dog lets out a low, long soulful moan, a howling like never heard before, rhythmic, syncopated grunts, yelps, and barks, seizing Robert Johnson like a Grand Mal, and causing the strings on his guitar to vibrate, hum, and sing with a sound dark and blue, beautiful, soulful chords and notes possessing Robert Johnson, taking him over, spinning him around, losing him inside of his own self, wasting him, lifting him up into the sky. Robert Johnson looks over in the ditch and sees the eyes of the dog reflecting the bright moonlight or, more likely so it seems to Robert Johnson, glowing on their own, a deep violet penetrating glow, and Robert Johnson knows and feels that he is staring into the eyes of a Hellhound as his body shudders from head to toe.
The man says, 'The dog ain't for sale, Robert Johnson, but the sound can be yours. That's the sound of the Delta Blues.'
'I got to have that sound, Devil-Man. That sound is mine. Where do I sign?'
The man says, 'You ain't got a pencil, Robert Johnson. Your word is good enough. All you got to do is keep walking north. But you better be prepared. There are consequences.'
'Prepared for what, Devil-man?'
'You know where you are, Robert Johnson? You are standing in the middle of the crossroads. At midnight, that full moon is right over your head. You take one more step, you'll be in Rosedale. You take this road to the east, you'll get back over to Highway 61 in Cleveland, or you can turn around and go back down to Beulah or just go to the west and sit up on the levee and look at the River. But if you take one more step in the direction you're headed, you going to be in Rosedale at midnight under this full October moon, and you are going to have the Blues like never known to this world. My left hand will be forever wrapped around your soul, and your music will possess all who hear it. That's what's going to happen. That's what you better be prepared for. Your soul will belong to me. This is not just any crossroads. I put this X here for a reason, and I been waiting on you.'
Robert Johnson rolls his head around, his eyes upwards in their sockets to stare at the blinding light of the moon which has now completely filled tie pitch-black Delta night, piercing his right eye like a bolt of lightning as the midnight hour hits. He looks the big man squarely in the eyes and says, 'Step back, Devil-Man, I'm going to Rosedale. I am the Blues.'
The man moves to one side and says, 'Go on, Robert Johnson. You the King of the Delta Blues. Go on home to Rosedale. And when you get on up in town, you get you a plate of hot tamales because you going to be needing something on your stomach where you're headed.'
Significance of the Crossroads
In voodoo or Hoo doo, 'a form of African American magical spirituality, in order to acquire facility at various manual and body skills, such as playing a musical instrument, throwing dice, or dancing, one may attend upon a crossroads a certain number of times, either at midnight or just before dawn, and one will meet a 'black man,' whom some call the Devil, who will bestow upon one the desired skills. In the Vodou tradition, Papa Legba is the lwa of crossroads. See: Crossroads Mythology Wikipedia
Johnson died at the age of 27 in 1938. The circumstances of his death are suspicous and believed to have been violent, the exact whereabouts of his earthly remains are also in question.