One of the most recognized tales in American folklore has Mississippi roots. The story has many names, including “The Delta Legend,” “The Deal with the Devil,” and “The Deal at the Crossroads,” among others. Yet each tells a similar story that centers on a midnight meeting between a frustrated guitarist and Satan himself at the intersection of two highways—the Crossroads. In exchange for mastery of his instrument, the musician was willing to sell his soul to the Devil. The guitarist stood at the Crossroads and played his instrument until Satan arrived in the form of a black male. The musician presented his instrument to the mysterious stranger, who tuned it, played some chords, and handed it back to its owner. A musical covenant had been reached, and the guitarist now possessed the ability to play any tune he desired. However, his soul belonged to Satan.
Scholars disagree over the origins of the Crossroads myth. Some maintain that the story originated in Africa, with Satan representing an African trickster deity such as the Dahomean Legba or Yoruba Eshu. This interpretation places the tale in a broader cultural context and elevates the musician to spiritual status. Other folklorists argue that the tale possesses many Western elements and reflects slavery’s impact on African American life. Regardless of its precise origins, the myth has become most associated with early twentieth-century bluesman Robert Johnson.
Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in 1911 and played harmonica with local bluesmen Willie Brown and Charlie Parker as a teen. Johnson yearned to play guitar like his idol, Son House, but possessed little feel for the instrument. In fact, Brown and Parker ridiculed his picking skills, and other bluesmen refused to play with him. Johnson left the blues circuit for months but reemerged with an unmatched proficiency on the guitar. His drastic improvement in such a brief period created suspicion that Johnson had gained his talent as a result of a deal with the Devil, and his songs encouraged such speculation. Although Johnson recorded only twenty-nine songs, many dealt with the dark themes of isolation, frustration, and personal loss. In particular, he sang of the “hellhounds” that constantly pursed him, and his most famous song, “Crossroads Blues,” told the story of his experience with Satan at the lonely junction of two highways.
The legend of Johnson’s Faustian pact increased after his 1938 death and continues to inspire countless musicians. The fact that Johnson is known as the King of the Delta Blues Singers and has sold millions of albums worldwide strengthens beliefs that Johnson bartered his soul for fame, because his renown came only after he joined Satan in death. Other musicians, most notably Tommy Johnson, are also associated with the Crossroads myth, which constitutes an integral part of American folklore that demonstrates the often inseparable line between the secular and the sacred in southern culture. Clarksdale, Mississippi, claims the junction of Highways 61 and 49 as the intersection of the Crossroads myth.
- Peter Guralnick, Searching for Robert Johnson (1998)
- Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch, Robert Johnson: Lost and Found (2003)
- Jon Michael Spencer, Blues and Evil (1993)
- Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (2004)