Eighty years ago today, Robert Johnson went to the great Juke Joint in the sky.
Johnson allegedly went down to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil, in return for fame fortune and rock and roll stardom – all be it a good two decades before the invention of rock and roll.
As an itinerant performer who played mostly on street corners, in juke joints, and at Saturday night dances, Johnson had little commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime.
Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, near Greenwood, Mississippi, of unknown causes. This making him one of the first members of the ‘Dead at 27’ club. Several differing accounts have described the events preceding his death. Johnson had been playing for a few weeks at a country dance in a town about 15 miles (24 km) from Greenwood.
According to one theory, Johnson was murdered by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he had flirted. In an account by the blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnson had been flirting with a married woman at a dance, and she gave him a bottle of whiskey poisoned by her husband. When Johnson took the bottle, Williamson knocked it out of his hand, admonishing him to never drink from a bottle that he had not personally seen opened. Johnson replied, “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.” Soon after, he was offered another (poisoned) bottle and accepted it. Johnson is reported to have begun feeling ill the evening after and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days his condition steadily worsened. Witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain. The musicologist Robert “Mack” McCormick claimed to have tracked down the man who murdered Johnson and to have obtained a confession from him in a personal interview, but he declined to reveal the man’s name.
After the reissue of his recordings in 1961, on the LP King of the Delta Blues Singers, his work reached a wider audience. Johnson is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly of the Mississippi Delta blues style. He is credited by many rock musicians as an important influence; the blues and rock musician Eric Clapton has called Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived.”
The movie Crossroads was released in 1986 American coming-of-age musical drama film inspired by the legend Robert Johnson. Starring Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca and Jami Gertz, the film was written by John Fusco and directed by Walter Hill and features an original score featuring Ry Cooder and Steve Vai on the soundtrack’s guitar, and harmonica by Sonny Terry. Vai also appears in the film as the devil’s guitar player in the climactic guitar duel.
Eighty years on, the legend and the myth continues.