- Preaching Blues1
Introduction: At the Cross-Roads
A camera pans across the sultry Mississippi Delta. A lonely road appears, intersected by another. A weary black man enters the frame, carrying an old suitcase and a guitar, while a tortured voice rises on the soundtrack, singing,
I went to the cross road, fell down on my knees. I went to the cross road, fell down on my knees. Asked the Lord above, “Have mercy. Save poor Bob, if you please.”
For viewers/listeners who remember Robert Johnson’s 1936 recording of “Cross Road Blues,” this performance is eerily familiar—the guitar playing rings with authority and with greater clarity than ever, yet something about the voice seems a bit amiss. It gradually dawns on the viewer/listener that this voice must not actually belong to Robert Johnson, the great bluesman with whom “Cross Road Blues” is indelibly linked. The camera pans again, to another figure playing a guitar in silhouette from whence the voice appears to emanate. The silhouette emerges from darkness to reveal . . . John Hammond Jr. [End Page 113]
The foregoing describes a sequence in the documentary The Search for Robert Johnson (1992). The first response to this description might be to ask “Why would John Hammond Jr., a white man and son of the famous entrepreneur of black music, John Hammond Sr., be attempting to channel the ghost of Robert Johnson in a setting related to one of Johnson’s best-known songs?” The documentary does not answer this question, but Hammond (as the titular protagonist) does reveal another ghostly preoccupation in his “search” for Johnson: the ceaseless iteration of the trope of the bluesman’s soul, and a quest for the means by which this soul is sold to the Devil in exchange for supernatural musical prowess (for an analysis of media representations of the Johnson myth, see Schroeder 2004).
When approaching the subject of the connection between early recorded blues and religious practices of the circum-Caribbean, Robert Johnson might appear to be the obvious place to start: after all, no blues artist now seems more haunted, no other artist is so associated with the Devil, and no one else wrote a song about the “cross roads” that evokes both the sin/salvation dualism between sacred and secular musics in the early-twentieth-century African American South, as well as certain well-known West African trickster figures. Yet sometimes what seem to be obvious leads don’t lead very far. What if Johnson’s deals with the Devil were sleight-of-hand interpretations, fed by the desires of white blues scholars in the 1960s who were looking for a good story? What if the desperate conclusion of “Cross Road Blues” suggesting that Johnson is losing his struggle with the Devil (he sings “I’m standin’ at the cross-road, babe, I believe I’m sinking down”) were merely fortuitous, created by the exigencies of recording direct to disc? What if, from Johnson’s perspective, losing a struggle with the Devil weren’t such a bad thing after all? And, what if Johnson’s connections with sacred music were far weaker than many of his contemporaries?
Then, I guess, one would have to start over again. Elijah Wald’s recent book, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (2004), performs an exemplary job of revisionist debunking (many of the preceding questions are raised in his book). In some respects, Wald follows in the footsteps of Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues (1981) and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s Chasin’ That Devil Music (1998). As will become evident, much of this essay is a response to issues debated in Wald’s book. That I end up disagreeing with—or, perhaps more accurately, seeking to modify—some of his assertions is not intended as a criticism to this fine work, which is an excellent introduction to Johnson’s music and its reception. The debunking of Johnson’s involvement with the supernatural has entered a boom period in the new millennium with, in addition to Wald, the publication of Schroeder (2004) and Pearson and McCulloch (2003). While both of these books share a focus on...