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Bluesman at 100, ever at a crossroad

Decades after his death, reverence and debate still swirl around the legendary bluesman who supposedly made a deal with the devil.

May 01, 2011|Randy Lewis

CLARKSDALE, MISS. — The intersection of DeSoto and State streets here doesn't look like anything special.

On the southeast corner of the roads is H Town Custom Wheels. Across DeSoto to the west is Beer & Bud Mart, which faces a Church's Chicken stand. Immediately to the east of that are the Delta Donut shop and Abe's BBQ, the latter noting its service to residents and visitors since 1924.

Yet this is the focal point of one of the towering legends of 20th century popular music -- the original intersection of Highways 61 and 49, the place where seminal blues musician Robert Johnson is said to have arrived one midnight to seal a deal with the devil, trading his soul to become the greatest blues musician in history.


Actually, there are at least three such crossroads around northern Mississippi, any of which might be the one Johnson had in mind 75 years ago when he wrote his signature song "Cross Road Blues" -- and that's only relevant to those who are remotely likely to believe in such things.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, May 03, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Robert Johnson: In the May 1 Arts & Books section, an article about blues musician Robert Johnson and the centennial of his birth described Steve LaVere as a historian, Johnson authority and lawyer who championed his music and worked to establish the rights of Johnson's son, Claud, as the legitimate heir to his estate. LaVere is not a lawyer.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 08, 2011 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 3 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Robert Johnson: A May 1 article about blues musician Robert Johnson and the centennial of his birth described Steve LaVere as a historian, Johnson authority and lawyer who championed his music and worked to establish the rights of Johnson's son, Claud, as the legitimate heir to his estate. LaVere is not a lawyer.

The only sign of anything out of the ordinary today at the crossing of 61 and 49 is a triangular traffic island with a tall pole atop which are three identical oversized replicas of a blue electric guitar -- not, by the way, the type of instrument Johnson played in the 1930s.

But whether his reputation was the outcome of a supernatural bargain or simply natural-born talent combined with patience and practice, Johnson remains the man most broadly considered the preeminent bluesman of all time, a reputation that grows only more solid as the 100th anniversary of his birth in Hazlehurst, Miss., approaches on May 8.

Consider that during his lifetime, his biggest-selling recording, "Terraplane Blues," sold about 5,000 copies. When the "King of the Delta Blues Singers" LP surfaced in 1961 with 16 of his songs, it sold around 20,000 copies. Since its 1990 release, a two-CD box set of all his known recordings has sold 1.5 million copies. That's despite detractors who have suggested his reputation is over-inflated.

"Robert Johnson to me is the most important blues musician who ever lived," said Eric Clapton, who helped turn a generation of rock fans on to Johnson playing an amped-up version of "Crossroads" with the English power trio Cream in 1968. "I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice."

References to the supernatural in songs such as "Cross Road Blues," "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Hell Hound on My Trail" have only enhanced the mystery surrounding Johnson's seemingly overnight transformation from a competent guitarist and singer to the music's most powerful proponent before his death at 27 from poisoning by the jealous partner of a woman.

Hundreds of musicians from the famous to the obscure have recorded his songs over the last half-century since Johnson's own recordings first surfaced in a major way. Dozens of tribute albums have been recorded, and books, plays and films have been made about his extraordinary life, much of it shrouded in uncertainty.

The question is why. Johnson was just one of hundreds of African Americans struggling to eke out a living playing music in rural Mississippi in the early part of the last century, the only alternative for many to the backbreaking labor harvesting cotton in acre after acre of fields that still cover this part of the state.

Even a partial list of the music greats who emerged from Mississippi is imposing: Muddy Waters, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Son House, Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Junior Lockwood. And then there are blues-influenced rock and R&B giants including Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke. That cultural richness is the reason the Grammy Museum just announced that it has chosen Cleveland, Miss., as the site for its first facility away from its home in Los Angeles.

Before Johnson came along, others were playing the Delta blues. Artists such as Patton, Brown and House were major influences on him. But Johnson's hauntingly expressive, high-pitched voice, the sophistication of themes and lyrics in his songs and a technical mastery of the acoustic guitar that still has musicians scratching their heads in wonder all helped elevate him above his musical predecessors, peers and descendants.

One of those peers, 96-year-old David "Honey Boy" Edwards, will take part in a major centennial tribute to Johnson and his music coming up Thursday through May 8 in Greenwood, Miss., the town of about 15,000 where he is buried.

Even that core piece of biographical information wasn't confirmed until about 10 years ago. That site is now marked with a stately tombstone at the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church about three miles north of Greenwood.

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