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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Robert Johnson at the crossroads

Bluesman Robert Johnson remains one of the most fascinating characters in American history. The southern bluesman playing hot guitar licks on a steamy stage in a roadside tavern filled with sweaty gamblers and loose women is an iconic image of American lore and one Johnson helped create in his short lifetime. Perhaps because his tale is so southern and so gothic, but the legend of Johnson selling his soul to the devil to learn how to play guitar remains as alluring today as in the past. Songs like A Hellhound On My Trail only fueled the rumors even though the lyrics don't discuss any deals with the devil. (For a good site analyzing Johnson's lyrics, visit The Robert Johnson Notebooks.) The Mudcat Cafe delves deeply into the question of Johnson and any pacts he struck.

A man named Julio Finn wrote a book titled: The Bluesman The Musical Heritage of Black Men and Women in the Americas. Finn adds the factor of voodoo to the equation, "It is doubtful whether Johnson could have written the lyrics of songs with out having been initiated into the cult…the symbolism involved in them is highly complex and of a nature which makes it highly improbable that they were simply things he 'picked up'(215)." With voodoo given credence, Finn provides an intuitive insight of Johnson's psyche and artistic sensibility.
Delta Haze has a terrific site dedicated to Johnson. Johnson's life and music are the stuff of legend. But there is a side of his story, the side that wrote songs like Hellhound On My Trail, more appropriate for this site.
Those who saw Johnson play may have also heard the rumors. Like anyone possessing extraordinary talent and skill, jealous peers circulated vicious rumors about Johnson. In fact, it was the great Son House who stated "He sold his soul to play like that". snip Johnson's choice of instructor did nothing to slow the Legend from spreading. This instructor, Ike Zinnerman, supposedly learned to play the guitar at night sitting atop tombstones in old country churchyards. In southern black communities it was a well-known notion that one could go to the crossroads and sell one's soul to the devil.
I suspect the same thing about many at the highest levels in Washington too. The National Park Service maintains Trail of the Hellhound for those interested in the blues.
When blues musician Robert Johnson wrote "Hellhound On My Trail" he conjured the archetypal image of a bluesman, outcast from proper society and stalked by personal demons. On our trip through the Lower Mississippi Valley we will learn about the blues and the local musicians who catapulted this art form to international prominence.


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