Blues musician Robert Johnson
Blues musician Robert Johnson

The stories and legends of the blues are sometimes wrapped in a cloak of mystery that over time has only grown thicker.  Most people have heard whispered rumors about “hoodoo”, or “voodoo”, and “folk magic” in the American south.  When the name Robert Johnson is mentioned a lot of people who recognize the name also know the legend of his supposed deal at the crossroads.  Those from places outside the American south and living in modern times might not realize the real influence of magic in early blues music.

A VERY simplified way to explain Louisiana Voodoo is as a blend of African religious practices and Catholicism.  Hoodoo is similar but takes a little more influence from the Irish and Scottish slaves sold to the West Indies in the 1650’s.  A lot of the slaves were Irish women who were mated with the Africans until the practice of mating Irish slaves with African slaves was outlawed.  These Irish slaves were largely Catholic but some followed the older pagan religions.  The blending of Celtic paganism and African Vodun seems to be a part of the basis for Hoodoo.  You can also think of the difference as similar to that between Creole (city food) and Cajun (more country food) in the same region of the country.  A scholar in Voodoo, Hoodoo, or Celtic shamanism could probably add a lot more to this or correct some subtleties… We are concerned in this story more about the usage of magic in the blues than in the etymology of the mystical practices.  I simply wanted to ensure the reader had some background as a starting point.

th robert johnson crossroadsThere are a fair share of early blues guitarists legend says learned the art by supernatural means.  Isiah “Ike” Zimmerman, a native of Grady Alabama learned to play guitar going out late at night practicing while sitting on tombstones.  Legend says Ike’s wife was a powerful hoodoo woman.  Then they later moved to Martinsville, Mississippi, he made his home in a place simply called “the Quarters” which sit at a crossroads beside the Boriguard cemetery.  Crossroads are important in many forms of Magic because all four directions meet at one point.  The four elementals earth, air, water, and fire are generally thought to have a corresponding direction.  Rocks, sticks, and dirt gathered at a crossroads are said to have spiritual connections.  In our context the Yoruba people of west Africa believe Legba the trickster rules the crossroads… also known as Papa Legba in hoodoo… those are supposed powerful places.  Even beyond that the crossroads Ike lived near has a special place in history.  You see Ike was the teacher Robert Johnson came across when he left for a year to learn to play guitar.  The local stories tell of them both out in the graveyard late at night practicing guitar.  The songs Robert left us with were filled with haunting images even if you have no idea what he is talking about.  When you understand the meaning behind some of the lyrics the mystical connection is unmistakable.

In the song Hellhound on my Trail, Robert Johnson speaks not only of being pursued by hell hounds but of a form of hoodoo magic known as foot track magic.

The lyrics:

“You sprinkled hot foot powder mm mm mm mm around my door;
all around my door,
you sprinkled hot foot powder
all around your daddy’s door
hmm
it keep me with rambling rider any old place I go.”

The hot foot powder he is speaking of is a powder used as sort of a banishing ritual to make enemies leave town.  Another famous tune of Robert’s Come on in my Kitchen talks about a talisman known as a “Nation Sack” used by women to keep a man true to her.  It contained items which helped a woman magically control aspects of her mans life.

The line:

“Oh She’s gone.
I know she won’t come back
I’ve taken the last nickel from her nation sack.
Better come on in my kitchen
It’s going to be raining outdoors.”

Refers to the practice of keeping some money in the “nation sack” to control a lover’s finances and other aspects of his life.
It should be noted that nation sacks were carried only by women and a male touching them would have dire consequences.
Robert was far from the only Delta musician to sing about magical curses and such.

Blues performer Ma Rainey
Blues performer Ma Rainey

Ma Rainy sings of being magically attacked by a lover’sex with a mystical powder:goofer_dust.cdr

“I began to feel bad,
worse then I ever before;
Lord I was out one morning found black dust all round my door”

The tune probably refers to Goofer dust made with graveyard dirt.

Hoodoo is all over the place in the blues.

Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters sang of using a “John the Conqueror” root to gain power over women.

Movie: 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou' - 2000
Movie: ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’ – 2000

It’s not just the spells and curses filling the blues.  Robert was not the first or only blues musician to have made a supposed Faustian pact.  Tommy Johnson (no relation) fictionalized in the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou was another.  The very song Crossroads Blues is rumored to be cursed and if you look at the history of those who have recorded it, there is good reason to think so.

Robert Johnson’s death is reported in various ways but the story always includes a painful, lonely ending.

Hound Dog Taylor
Musician – Hound Dog Taylor

Hound Dog Taylor recorded a version of Crossroads with his band the House-rockers.  He soon reported horrible dreams of being chased by wolves.

He died a painful death of cancer while awaiting trial for the attempted murder of one of his band members.

Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded Crossroads on a live album in 1976 at the Fox theater in Atlanta.  Most of you know about the bands’ October 20th, 1977 plane crash that took the life of Ronnie Van Zant.

Crossroads_2013_CD_Cover_0 claptonEric Clapton recorded a fantastic version of Crossroads with his super group Creem.  For years his life was marred by drug and alcohol addiction.  In the late 80’s his life was turning around for the better.  In 1988 his record company released a box set retrospective of his music called Crossroads.  3 years later his young son Conner fell from an open window in a New York high rise and fell 53 stories to his death.

The Allman Brothers had played a version of Crossroads in live sets since the band formed.  October 29th, 1971, Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash at a crossroads in Macon, Georgia.  November 11, 1972, Berry Oakley, bass player for the Allman Brothers died in a motorcycle crash less than a mile from the site of Duane Allman’s death.  Greg Allman seemed to recognize the “Crossroads” connection in the song Melissa

‘Crossroads will you ever let him go?
Or will you hide the dead man’s ghost?’

led-zeppelin
Led – Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin were born from the blues.  Jimmy Page and Robert Plant spend the first afternoon talking about forming a band together while listening to Robert Johnson albums.  Crossroads found its way into Zep’s live set on a regular basis.  Jimmy Page’s fascination with the ‘dark side’ of the Delta blues combined with his occult studies probably helped with the rumor that Zep had made a pact with the powers of darkness.  The story goes that John Paul Jones was the only one who would not bargain his soul.  John Bonham’s death from alcohol poisoning along with several other tragedies involving the band members and their families helped cement the story deep into rock legend.

Kurt Cobain is rumored to have played a version of Crossroads for friends and was supposedly considering it for recording.  Kurt put a shotgun to his head.

While the Doors did not record a straight cover of Crossroads blues, they did a version of their own as Jim sang “Woke up this morning, got the crossroads on my mind.”  It sounds a bit creepy.  Jim died of a heart attack.

guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn
Guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn

Stevie Ray Vaughn’s song Long Way From Home has the line:

“It really does not matter
I hear it all the time.
I’m standing at the crossroads.
’bout to move on down the line.”

Stevie Ray’s story is the one that chills me to the bone.  If you know what you are looking at it will you as well.  The very last song he played was at the Alpine Valley music theater on August 26th, 1990.  He jammed with Eric Clapton on the Robert Johnson song Sweet Home Chicago.  You might be thinking it would be creepier if Crossroads were his last jam.  Perhaps if he had sang those lyrics “Tell my friend Willie Brown, I’m standing at the crossroads I believe I’m sinking down.” Well, Stevie did not have to call out to his friend Willie Brown to tell him about ‘sinking down’.  Jeffery William Brown was the pilot of the helicopter Stevie died in.  Willy Brown died right there with Stevie Ray.  While Stevie Ray made it to 35, a lot are not so lucky.

Another aspect of the legend is that Robert Johnson’s deal ended when he was 27 years old.  At that time the devil would return to claim his due.  The following artists also died at 27, known as members of the “27 Club”, fate or perhaps Papa Legba took them to their grave a bit too early.

  • Robert Johnson
  • Jim Morrison
  • Janis Joplin
  • Kurt Cobain
  • Amy Winehouse
  • Brian Jones (Rolling Stones)
  • Alan Wilson (Canned Heat)
  • Kristen Pffaf (Hole)
  • Less Harvey (Stone the Crows)
  • Ron “Pigpen” McKerman (the Dead)
  • Peter Hamm (The Stooges)
  • Gary Thain (Uriah Heap)
  • Pete De Freitas (Echo and the Bunnymen)
27 club
Some faces of the ’27 Club’

The list goes on for days… Most of those in the list had some ties to the blues.

papa legba
Papa Legba awaits you at the crossroads

I am sure it’s all just some strange cosmic coincidence, but to me the echoes of Hoodoo and Papa Legba still seem loud and clear.

– Doug Ward

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