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193 5 Selling It at the Crossroads The Lives and Legacies of Robert Johnson You have an overwhelming mythology here. The whole selling-­his-­soul-­to-­the-­devil thing seems pervasive and sticks with people. — Larry Cohn, producer, Roots n’ Blues series, Columbia Records The Devil’s Business To the extent that the devil remains an active force in the twenty-­ first-­ century blues world, he does so primarily through a series of investments made in the figure of Robert Johnson (1911–38) and the Mississippi Delta crossroads tableau within which Johnson is imagined to have sold his soul in exchange for unearthly talents on the guitar. The range and number of these investments—emotional, capital, intellectual, juridical, legislative—is staggering. They include not just Johnson’s platinum-­ selling The Complete Recordings (1990) and the limited edition Complete Original Masters—Centennial Recordings (2011, at a price of $345), along with homage albums to Johnson, numberless remakes of “Cross Road Blues,” and Eric Clapton’s triennial Crossroads Guitar Festival, but also a handful of documentaries, a feature film (Crossroads, 1986) that helped incite the ensuing mania, several dozen novels and short stories (including Ace Atkins’s Crossroad Blues, 2000), a growing shelf of children’s books, a Mississippi flood of academic and biographical studies, two authenticated, copyrighted photos as well as two others whose provenance and authenticity remain questionable, a U.S. postage stamp bearing Johnson’s likeness from which the dangling (and cancer-­causing) cigarette had been airbrushed, a paternity case prosecuted in the Mississippi courts that established Claud Johnson as Robert’s legitimate heir and instantly transformed him into a royalty-­receiving millionaire , a state-­ sanctioned road sign topped with a trigon of stylized blue guitars marking “the” crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi (the devil is mentioned several times in the resolution adopted by the town’s Board of 194 The Lives and Legacies of Robert Johnson Mayor and Commissioners), and, last but not least, a deluge of “crossroads” knickknacks proffered by the Clarksdale Tourism Commission in the years that followed the sign’s erection, including foam beer sleeves and the sort of moist towelettes used to clean barbecue sauce from sticky fingers. I will have more to say later about Walter Hill’s Crossroads and about Clarksdale’s civic branding of a particular urban intersection; both events help consolidate the contemporary legend of Robert Johnson as a restless, devil-­ haunted Delta phantom, a “James Dean of the blues.” The prelude to that discussion is a frank acknowledgment of how completely Johnson’s legend has come to dominate the conversation about the devil and the blues, so that the devil’s many and various roles in the blues tradition have been obscured. “Was His Greatness Due to Satan?” asked USA Today in 1990 as The Complete Recordings provoked an unexpected sensation. “Speak of Robert Johnson and you speak of the Devil—the two have become so entangled.”1 To some extent this reduction of the blues-­ devil to the status of Johnson’s muse-­ antagonist is the result of broader cultural dynamics. Even as Johnson has loomed large in a post-1960 blues world dominated by English blues-­ rockers and nostalgic white boomers, the specific emotional investments that African Americans have made in that devil figure over the long twentieth century have faded. Although the occasional black preacher warning against the devil’s music can still be found in rural Mississippi , the phrase no longer holds much meaning for the mass of African Americans. The role played by Clara Smith, Sippie Wallace, and the classic blueswomen of an earlier era in conjuring up the devil as a troubling or empowering intimate is all but unknown to contemporary white blues fans; the condemnation that such women risked from their congregations for daring to participate in the world of secular black entertainment has faded from memory, too, in a postmillennial moment dominated by Oprah and Beyoncé, both of whom have fused spirituality, sexuality, and commerce in profitable and empowering ways. With the notable exception of Chris Thomas King’s “Mississippi KKKrossroads,” the blues lyric tradition has relinquished whatever interest it once had in using the devil and his hellish purview to signify on white southern violence, even as rap music, invigorated in the late 1980s by the Nation of Islam’s black nationalist ideology, found in the devil a useful symbol for white malfeasance. In the matter of relationships between men and women, the devil—as instigator of discord and instrument of...


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