II. I Got a Big White Fella from Memphis Made a Deal with Me: Black Men, White Boys, and the Anxieties of Blues Postmodernity in Walter Hill’s Crossroads
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231  II I Got a Big White Fella from Memphis Made a Deal with Me Black Men, White Boys, and the Anxieties of Blues Postmodernity in Walter Hill’s Crossroads Ain’t too many left that play the real deep blues. There’s John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins—he have the Texas sound, and Texas blues is very, very good blues—and let’s see, who else? Ain’t too many more left. They got all these white kids now. Some of them can play good blues. They play so much, run a ring around you playin’ guitar. But they cannot vocal like the black man. —Muddy Waters (1981) The Problem of Succession Blues fans of a certain age may remember Crossroads (1986), a Hollywood feature film about a Mississippi blues pilgrimage that stars Ralph Macchio as Eugene “Lightning Boy” Martone, a sulky but determined Long Island guitarist, and Joe Seneca as Willie Brown, an irritable old harmonica player and former sidekick to Robert Johnson. The film has had a troubled critical reception, to put it mildly. (My chief intent here is to make a case for its importance as a prophetic register of the way blues culture has developed in our time, even while acknowledging its aesthetic weaknesses.) Released at a cultural moment marked by widespread public anxiety about the generative connection between Satanic worship and heavy metal music, the film struck many as an anachronistic piece of romantic fluff: a southern-­fried interracial buddy flick, Karate Kid (in which Macchio had starred two years earlier) crossed with a wily, bluesed-­ up Uncle Remus telling tales of bad old Mississippi . The titular crossroads, drawn from the blues’ hoariest mythology, was evoked in the film’s sepia-­ toned opening sequence. Johnson, suited, a guitar slung over his shoulder, strides into the intersection of two parched gravel highways as the tracking shot rises and hovers above him; there’s a blasted leafless tree up ahead, stubbled cotton fields stretching away on all sides. Cut to a side shot of Johnson, gazing anxiously over his shoulder as though cringing inwardly at thoughts of the devil who has already—we’re led to imagine—purchased his soul here on some prior occasion. Or is about 232 The Lives and Legacies of Robert Johnson to purchase it? Willie, we learn in another sepia flashback, took the same shortcut to fame and fortune and found neither—which is why, haunted by nightmares and with Macchio in tow, he is so keen to escape from his high-­ security rest home in New York City (he murdered a fellow musician many years ago in a dispute over pay) and head on back down to the crossroads, hoping to steal his soul back. The film is rich in gothic implication early on, but by the time Macchio and Seneca reach the conclusion of their one-­ week road trip, the devil of the crossroads has been bodied forth, without sepia distancing, as Scratch, played with dapper elegance and a wicked grin by Robert Judd, an African American stage actor. Waving off Willie’s objections, Eugene, callow as ever, snorts, “I don’t believe in any of this shit anyway,” as he accepts Scratch’s challenge of cutting heads with Jack Butler, a heavy-­ metal shredder played by real-­ life heavy-­ metal shredder Steve Vai. Eugene, seemingly overmatched, wins the battle in an unexpected reversal, saving Willie’s soul into the bargain. As the film ends, the two men—old and young, black and white—stroll off into a bright new day, one that slowly fades to sepia, casting them into the past even as they chatter happily about Chicago, the blues, and the future that awaits them. Shot on location in the Delta in the spring and summer of 1985, Crossroads was released the following year and did poorly at the box office; the prevailing tone of contemporary reviews was derision. “The Karate Kid comes to know his mojo in the calamitous ‘Crossroads,’ ” sneered a reviewer in the Washington Post. “[The film is] a misbegotten mishmash with Ralph Macchio as a Julliard guitarist who exorcises a bedeviled old Delta blues man. . . . Macchio has got all the soul of a Spaghettio.” The Toronto Star mocked the “laughably mythic concept” at the heart of the film—the idea of making a crossroads pact with the devil in exchange for musical prowess —as “half-­ baked mysticism passed off . . . as authentic blues folklore.” Ry Cooder, a roots music standard-­ bearer and the film...