Friday, August 24, 2007

Robert Leroy Johnson: The Crossroads

A good friend of mine is a huge history buff, and he will often take vacations that are historically oriented. He has been to various Civil War sites throughout the South and has traveled to several states to explore historical battle scenes (for example, Custer's “last stand” at Little Bighorn).

He and I have ventured on several historical tours of Dallas. Though I was unable to attend the Bonnie and Clyde tour with John Neal Phillips, we signed up with several tours seeing the sights of downtown Dallas, Deep Ellum, Oak Cliff, and the famous (or infamous) JFK/ Lee Harvey Oswald excursions. That will have to be for another day.

Besides history, I love a good autobiography especially one shrouded with mystery. There is something about reading people’s lives that intrigues and fascinates me. Whether someone is famous and well-known (most will be if you are reading a book about them) or any everyday person that I meet on the street, I love listening to their stories which often become windows into their souls. You can learn so much about a person if you take time to listen to them.

So is the life of Robert Leroy Johnson. His life and music remain a mystery even to this day. Because we do not have much information about Johnson, what we do have are people who have some knowledge about this mysterious person. Though Johnson pops up on the life radar at the Leatherman Plantation in Robinsonville, MS, birth certificates have surfaced showing him being born in Hazleurst, MS, on May 8, 1911. Johnson was the 11th child of Julia Major Dodds. Because Johnson was the offspring of an extramarital relationship, this created tension within the home when Julia was forced out of the home to work in various plantations.

Johnson’s death is even more puzzling. Some have said that Johnson died from pneumonia probably caused by complications with syphilis. Others like “Honeyboy” Edwards disagreed noting that Johnson was poisoned to death by a man who was seeking revenge on Johnson who was having an affair with his wife. “Honeyboy” Edwards avowed that he took Johnson to a home in Baptist Town, a suburb of Greenwood, MS, where it was claimed that Johnson was crawling around on all fours, hissing and barking like a dog. Several days later he died at that home.

One of the most interesting facts about Johnson is the tale of how he met the devil at the crossroads who bestowed upon him the gift of playing the guitar in return of his soul. My friend recently took a trip through Mississippi to visit several of the historic places around Johnson’s life. Clarksdale 61/49 intersection has been proclaimed as the historical marker for the crossroads largely because Clarksdale is the home of several great blues artists like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.

Some have suggested that the actual crossroads is located south of Clarksdale between Cleveland and Ruleville. It is told that Johnson visited the well-known guitarist, Charley Parker, at the Dockery Plantation located on Highway 8. When my friend visited the area, he went to the Dockery Plantation and discovered the Dockery Road. It is said that the crossroads is located at old Highway 8 (which runs parallel to the new Highway 8) and Dockery Road.

(Dockery Plantation in the background)

Does not look like the crossroads I would have imagined. Maybe the film “O Brother Where Are Thou?” has skewed my image. There is no longer an intersection. It appears that a field has taken over old Highway 8 and now the crossroads has become a T shape.

Much of this info is taken from John Hammond’s “The Search for Robert Johnson” (The Search for Robert Johnson) and Soul Patrol (Robert Johnson).

Cross Road Blues

Written and recorded by Robert Johnson (1936)

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees Asked the Lord above "Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please"Yeoo, standin' at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride Ooo eeee, I tried to flag a ride Didn't nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by Standin' at the crossroad, baby, risin' sun goin' down Standin' at the crossroad, baby, eee, eee, risin' sun goin' down I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin' down You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown That I got the crossroad blues this mornin', Lord, babe, I'm sinkin' down And I went to the crossroad, mama, I looked east and west I went to the crossroad, baby, I looked east and west Lord, I didn't have no sweet woman, ooh well, babe, in my distress


Martijn van der Velden said...

Hi Donald, I was just reading your story, thank you for writing this, very interesting to read.
I located the Dockery plantation where Robert Johnson would have sold his soul in exchange for becoming a great guitar player and I found a somewhat weird image on Google streetview, right where the pact was supposed to be made. You can see on the following link: , it looks like Robert Johnson's soul is still hanging out there! Strange isn't it?

Thanks for the blog Donald.

Best regards,
Martijn van der Velden

LP said...

As a side note, I believe the intersection of old Hwy 8 is actually a little further south than the photo you have posted on what is present day Walker Road.