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197 I Playing for the Haints Ike’s Protégé and Crossroads Folklore ’Twere profanation of our joys To tell the laity our love. —John Donne, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (1633) Sell Self to the Devil To the extent that it is sourced in his recorded output, the devil legend that has attached itself to Johnson is grounded almost entirely in three songs, spread out across a pair of recording sessions in November 1936 and June 1937: “Cross Road Blues,” “Hell Hound on My Trail,” and “Me and the Devil Blues.” (A fourth song, “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil),” makes no reference to the devil apart from the title.) I discussed “Me and the Devil Blues” earlier in this study, reading it as an irreverent and essentially comic provocation, a manifestation of Johnson’s cocky, hipsterish “young modern” sensibility. Although “Cross Road Blues,” as blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow has noted, makes no mention of either the devil or a crossroads pact in which a soul is mortgaged in exchange for musical prowess, both popular and scholarly interpretations quickly veer from the lyric particulars of the song into a body of folklore sourced, to varying degrees, in Europe, Africa, and the American South. Within such an interpretive framework, “Cross Road Blues” is then understood to signify on the ritual elaborated in the folklore, and “Hell Hound on My Trail” is read as a companion piece: a cry of panic as the devil, in canine form, threatens to claim the soul that he has earlier purchased. This last point deserves to be clarified: as suggestive and surcharged with terror as they are often imagined to be, neither “Cross Road Blues” nor “Hell Hound on My Trail” offers anything like a full-­ frontal rendering of the devil-­ at-­ the-­ crossroads tableau that waxes so large in the folklore. This becomes apparent when we encounter a song that does vividly render that tableau: “Crossroads,” a 1957 recording by Cousin Leroy, a Georgia-­ born blues singer: 198 The Lives and Legacies of Robert Johnson Well I walked down . . . by the crossroads There to learn how . . . play my guitar Well a man walked up. . . . “Son, let me tune it” That was the devil . . . that was the devil Oh Lord now Oh well now Sho nuff now Oh Lordy now Well my mama . . . told my pappy Just before . . . I was born I got a boychile . . . yes, he’s comin’ Gonna be a rolling stone Gonna be a rolling stone Oh well now Sho nuff now Alrighty now [Play the guitar!] Oh well, oh well my baby Walked up to my door Will you tell me . . . where did you learn? Well I walked down . . . by the crossroad That’s where I got my lesson That’s where I got my lesson Oh Lord now Sho nuff now Alrighty now3 Leroy Rozier (1925–2008), born the same year as B. B. King and audibly influenced by Muddy Waters, was a minor figure in the blues—as much of a mystery as Robert Johnson—until an article in Living Blues (2012) filled in a few details.4 He spent most of his life in south-­ central Georgia, below Macon, although his sixteen-­ odd recordings were all made in New York City. “Crossroads,” which was released in 1960, three years after the recording date, is notable for several reasons. First, it’s a touchstone for what Robert Johnson could have done but didn’t do, twenty years earlier in “Cross Road Blues”: speak directly about a crossroads transaction with the devil, rather than saying nothing about the devil or the (presumed) transaction . Second, the timing of the song’s release, one year before a previously Ike’s Protégé and Crossroads Folklore 199 unreleased alternate take of Johnson’s then-­ obscure song was included on King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961), makes clear that Rozier was drawing directly on the folk tradition for his imagery, not capitalizing on a roots-­ music trend. This distinguishes him from the many blues and rock artists, beginning with Cream in 1968, who have covered Johnson’s composition and, in the long aftermath of Hill’s Crossroads and The Complete Recordings, fed the blues audience’s hunger for gothic themes. What folklore, precisely, was Rozier drawing on? Several core elements of the crossroads pact show up in his song. A musician in search of instrumental mastery goes to a crossroads; a devil figure approaches, asks for the musician’s guitar, and tunes it...


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