All this talk of Voodoo and Vodou sacred music has got me thinking about one of the most infamous musicians of all time. Undoubtedly Robert Johnson is one of the most legendary figures in music history. His mythic deal with the Devil at the crossroads catapulted him to musical and Hoodoo stardom. Will we ever know the real truth behind this epic urban legend ?
Blues legend Robert Leroy Johnson burst out into this world on May 8 1911 in Hazelton, Mississippi. By popular accounts he was a mediocre musician who had a hard start in life and then went on to rightfully hold the title of “King of the Delta Blues Singers.”
49 and 61 the Crossroads of Hell?
Magically the crossroads is a location full of infinite possibility. In Haitian Vodou it is the domain of Papa Legba, in New Orleans Voodoo the residence of Papa Lebat, and in Lucumi (Santeria) the crossroads is owned by Eleggua. In Brazil it is the domain of Exu and Pomba Gira. These are all deities responsible for communication, collaboration, opportunity, and power. Clearly anything can happen here be it magic, mystery or mastery. It is what anthropologists call a liminal space, a space of power and difference precisely because it is in between. In many different Afro-Diasporan traditional religions it is a place to leave
offerings and to receive messages. The connection between the power and possibility that lives in the crossroads was legendary long before the famous Blues musician stepped into the scene.
Popular history tells us that Robert Johnson choose the crossroads of 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi to make an offering of his soul. The reality is much likely very different. Catherine Yronwode gives and extensive account of hoodoo practice at the crossroads here, and even presents a theory that it was Robert Johnson’s brother who made that fateful deal . Deals and devils can be a tricky thing. Like most history, the truth about Robert Johnson fateful time at 49 and 61 will probably at best only be speculated at.
That Devil Music
Blues and Jazz have from their inception been characterized as evil or devil music. The prejudice of the time demonized the music, religion and culture of the Afro-Diasporan world. Johnson clearly knew not only quite a bit about the music, but also the religion, culture, and some of it’s tricks too. Robert Johnson’s song “Hellhound on My Trail,” features a line about the gris gris formula hot foot powder. A gris gris formula is a mixture of herbs, spices, and other natural items like bones or crystals used to bring about some kind of magical transformation. Specifically, Hot Foot powder is used in Hoodoo and New Orleans Voodoo to cause someone anxiety, to make them move, and/or to make them feel discomfort.
While his musical prowess and stardom seems to have taken off, Johnson’s personal life was still filled with the “Hot Foot ” of discomfort. He met an untimely death, reportedly by a poisoning in 1938 perpetrated at the hand of a jealous husband. There is even much myth surrounding this as the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation reports one rumor that as he lay dying he was being sought out for a performance at Carnegie Hall. Maybe he learned or bargained for it at the crossroads, but undoubtedly what Robert Johnson left us was a phenomenal legacy of music that was a forefather for the rock and blues sound that emerged decades later from artists ranging from Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones.