Whiskey, Death, and the Devil: The Crossroads of Robert Johnson (Part 1)
Was this legendary blues man killed by a jealous husband and a poisoned bottle of whiskey? And what about that crossroads story?
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The life of Robert Johnson has been shrowed in mystery for more than half a century, ever since his music came back on the scene at the beginning of the 1960s. With the long absent recordings now back in the limelight and British artists like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards being influenced by his lyrics and riffs, stories started to surface about the blues legend. Stories about deals with the devil. Talk of the tremendous talent that he may have received supernaturally. His death at the hands of a jealous husband. And a life spent rambling across the South playing juke joints, seducing women, and drinking whiskey.
So who is the real Robert Johnson? I'll take a look at some of the legends and will help piece together a more accurate picture of the man and the source of his legends and of his personality. He met many crossroads in his life.
In this episode you'll hear:
- The poisoned bottle
- The many myths and legends
- Robert's music returns
- A trip down to Clarksdale
- The human vs the legend
- Hazlehurst and Charles Dodds Spencer
- The Mystery of Noah
- Robert's life in Memphis
- Julia, Dusty and the plantation
- Diddley bow and his first guitar
- Robert Sacks
- Virginia and the first crossroad
- Son House and the origin of a mythic tale
- A variety of crossroad legends
- Was Robert as bad as Son House says?
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Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.
SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE JUKE
Just outside of Greenwood, MS it was a wild Saturday night at the Three Forks juke and two bluesmen were keeping the crowd dancing and partying. Taking a break, two of the men, Rice and Robert headed outside to take in some air. That's when Rice saw his buddy being handed a half-pint of whiskey a woman Robert had been seeing. The wife of another man, who just happened to be there that night. Rice slapped the bottle out of his friends hand, saying "Man, don't ever take a drink from an open bottle. You don't know what could be in it." To which his friend said, "man, don't even knock a bottle of whiskey out of my hand." Receiving a second bottle, he took a swig and headed back in for another set.
When Robert’s new friend Honeyboy showed up around 11 PM, Robert was slung over in a chair, with people urging him to have a drink of liquor so he could get up and play again. But Robert Johnson would die a painful death. His friends say he crawled on the floor in so much pain he howled like a wolf, before he finally passed away.
THE UNKNOWN GENIUS
I don’t know if there is any other musical performer in history with more mystery and misinformation around him than bluesman Robert Johnson. The story you just heard of his death is an amalgamation of several accounts of his last days on earth. Elements may be true, others may not.
The challenge I set for myself was a difficult one. Digging through all the myths to try to tell the real story.
The problem with researching his life is that most of the stories about him are oral and sadly memories are faulty, egos may get in the way, and some people just can’t resist spinning a great story.
Another problem, as you will hear, is that Robert didn’t do a lot of speaking himself. He tended to let his music do the talking.
Mostly a regional performer, his music was mostly unheard for around 20 years, until his song Preachin’ Blues made its way onto a 1959 compilation from Folkways Records called The Country Blues. Two years later, John Hammond of Columbia Records, a one time vocal supporter of Johnson’s music pushed his record company to release King of the Delta Blues Singers - a 16 song album featuring a strong collection of Robert Johnson’s recordings including Cross Road Blues, Kind Hearted Woman Blues, and his biggest success during his lifetime Terraplane Blues. Hammond was looking to take advantage of the revival of folk music in the early 60s and one of the people he sought out when reviving Johnson’s music was Bob Dylan. It wouldn’t be long before Eric Clapton would be inspired across the pond and soon the British Invasion was blasting back Robert Johnson riffs and lyrics.
THE PROBLEM WITH RESEARCHING ROBERT JOHNSON
So when I decided to head to Mississippi to learn more, I wondered if finding the real Johnson was even possible. My starting point would be the same path most people take - a trip to Clarksdale in search of the crossroads, where Robert is said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his incredible skills on a guitar. I also headed down to Rosedale, another area Johnson mentions in his songs, but I found little to go on. And then I went to one of the three spots said to be his final resting spot.
But to be honest, a short trip to the Delta was not going to get me what I needed, so I started researching online. I got lost in conflicting legends, scraps of hearsay, tons of opinion, I was getting annoyed by all of the embellishments and inconsistencies.
Then I bumped into a brand new biography of Robert Johnson called Brother Robert written by Annye Anderson, someone who lived with Robert for a time, believing she was his half-sister.
What I loved about her book was that she actually gave a warm human side to Robert. Her detail of Memphis and the way Robert acted really added a dimension to the story that I thought had been missing.
But I couldn’t help but feel the prose was a little bit too pollyannaish. I felt like I was being given a counter balance to the other extremes, but that the middle was missing.
Plus, some of her statements weren’t quite right. She said he was tall and slender, but he’s described by others as being about 5’8” tall. She also seemed a little too eager to challenge researchers who had put him in a bad light - albeit one of these researchers had taken liberties Robert’s royalty claims and sending her and Robert’s sister Carrie into a long drawn out battle that they eventually lost when Claud Johnson emerged out of nowhere to claim those rights as Robert’s son.
I half recorded my episode, but I just couldn’t fathom releasing something that I felt had so many holes.
And then, I found a book that was extremely well researched and while I can’t vouch for all of its findings and speculations, it helped me piece together some of the facts I’d been missing, verified some of my assumptions, and caused me to toss away others.
And this book also had a human side, but it didn’t shy away from showing some of Robert’s scars when it needed to. And what it did, is what a good biography should do - it gave all of the facts it could conjure up and let me reach some of my own conclusions about who the man was. And surprisingly, it even had some definitive answers to some of the legends and myths.
So I took my writings and revised them with the new information that is relevant and I now present to you, the story of a man who did face several crossroads in his life and we’ll look at each one.
OUT OF STRIFE COMES JOY
Born May 8th, 1911 or at least as far as oral tradition goes, Robert Leroy Johnson entered what must have been a very stressful world for his mother Julia.
Married to Charles Dodds in 1889, the couple had spent nearly two decades raising their 10 children in the southern Mississippi town of Hazelhurst, when a sudden event would occur that would break the family apart.
It started in 1908, Charles a successful carpenter and barber shop owner got into an altercation with a white neighbor named Joseph Marchetti. Two cuts of a knife according to Robert’s sister Carrie, led to Charles fleaing to Memphis, where he changed his name to Charles Spencer. A divorce from Julia soon followed.
Not long after that, Julia was evicted from the Hazelhurst property by the same Marchetti family when she couldn’t pay her taxes on the property. With so many mouths to feed, she was moved to nearby Mangold Plantation where she roomed in a saddlebag home with a romantic interest named Noah Johnson.
While we know Noah was a lumber camp worker, there isn’t much of a history of him than that. Robert was born out of wedlock and wouldn’t get the chance to know his father. Julia soon left him and began moving from plantation to plantation working as an itinerant field hand. Changing plantations was no easy task for any black person in those days. If you needed to move on, you had to do so when the boss wasn’t looking and this usually required midnight escapes. Julia had to do that with a boatload of children to manage - and soon she started sending some of the children north to Memphis, to live with Charles.
Having made it all the way to Helena, AK on the banks of the Mississippi, she ran out of luck finding work. Her last resort was to find her ex-husband in Memphis and see if he could give them shelter. And this is how young Robert came to be in Memphis - the home of America’s first black millionaire Robert Church, Beale Street, the Orpheum and Palace Theaters, W.C. Handy, and plenty of musical influences, from jug bands to country to jazz to blues.
Contrary to the depictions of Robert being an illiterate and poor country farmhand, his formative years were actually spent living just blocks away from a vibrant center of black culture - in a town where truency was not tolerated.
But it wouldn’t be Julia who would raise him - it would be her ex-husband Charles Spencer, who had recently remarried and had the means to support young Robert. With his mother gone at age 2, Charles Spencer would become “daddy” to Robert. And his sister by blood, Carrie would watch over her younger brother, walking him to school, and foster his growing love for music.
And then there was Charles' son Charles Leroy Spencer. Nicknamed “Son” he too helped young Robert learn about music. The two would sit at the piano, with Son playing a boogie woogie melody while Robert thumped along on the bass notes. Even the elder Charles had a love of music. A fan of Fiddlin’ John Carson, he had played country and blues on his fiddle all the way up until he married his current wife Molly. She thought of blues as the devil’s music and so he gave up playing.
There is no doubt Robert had heard the term “devil’s music” before. There was a strong belief among religious people in the south that doing anything but glorifying God with music was the devil’s work. But while Robert had plenty to shield him from that line of thinking while living in Memphis - what seemed like a happenstance meeting would change his world forever.
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A TROUBLED CHANGE
By the time Robert Spencer, as he was known then, reached 8 years old, he must have grown quite used to having a loving and supportive family around him. He had a thirst for knowledge and enjoyed his time at school.
Strolling along one day with his sister Carrie, she suddenly stopped in her tracks. Who was that she saw? That was her and her little brother Robert’s mother Julia walking down the street towards them. Having not seen his mother since he was 2, it is hard to know if he would have recognized her at all. Everything he knew about life was with the Spencer family - his family.
It seems that three years earlier, Julia had married a young sharecropper named Will “Dusty” Willis and Dusty was needing some help on the plantation. And Julia had come fetch young Robert.
Ripped from the only family he really knew and the city he had grown accustomed to, he was taken to a rural plantation in Arkansas about 30 miles southwest of Memphis, near Horseshoe Lake.
And if Robert had education and music on his mind, his world was about to be turned upside down.
21 year old Dusty was a farmer - he saw no need for education. And he and Julia had bonded over religion and both believed it was the devil’s music.
Dusty’s ego must have been bruised by this 8 year old boy who could read and write and who quickly learned that he hated farming. Robert still received an education, but now it was in a rural school where you were educated just enough to help you become a better sharecropper. Still Robert would read when he could - a habit he carried with him throughout his life. Missing the people he called his real family, he would sometimes disappear for long spells, only to be found with the Spencers in Memphis.
AN OLD FRIEND
It would be his sister Carrie that would be his saving grace. In 1926, she moved from Memphis to Robinsonville, MS where the family had settled in 1920, she had a boyfriend in the area and was happy to be closer to her mother and brother Robert.
Carrie still saw that love of music shining in the 15 year old boy, and so she was determined to help him find his way back to it. He had crafted a diddley bow - a primitive guitar like instrument - on the side of a barn. She wanted him to take it a step further, so she helped him build a homemade cigar box guitar.
Robert practiced and practiced. And soon, the two siblings had saved up enough money to get Robert a used guitar - albeit missing two strings. Robert drove people crazy playing that 4 string guitar until finally he had earned a dime and could afford to buy the other two strings.
By this time, Robert was doing anything he could to avoid being in the fields. Many times he would just disappear to Memphis.
The relationship with Dusty deteriorated - with shouting and physical altercations occurring frequently. But this didn’t stop Robert.
Having recently learned that Charles Spencer was not his biological father, Robert soon started going by several names, including Robert Spencer, Robert Johnson, and Robert Sacks, but the one name he hated more than any was when someone would call him “Little Dusty.” But whatever you called him, his playing was starting to grab attention and it would be a friendship with a seasoned bluesman named Willie Brown that would get Robert dreaming of life as a guitar player.
THE FIRST CROSS ROAD
Starting to venture out into the juke joints, Robert started becoming a regular at the Clack Grocery Store which doubled as a juke on weekend evenings and it was there that he would meet the love of his life, 14 year old Virginia Travis. A whirlwind affair ensued and within a few months, 17 year old Robert had put aside his guitar and promised life as a musician for life as a sharecropper with a new bride.
By all accounts it was a happy and loving relationship. By the summer Virginia was pregnant. When she was close to delivering the baby, the first real mystery of Robert Johnson’s life would begin.
It was decided that Virginia would head off to be with her family and Robert would wrap things up at the plantation and would be there in a few days.
But complications occurred with the birth, Virginia fought but she and the baby would both lose the battle that night. Robert was nowhere in sight.
When Robert did arrive, the family was horrified to see him walking up with a guitar slung across his back. Had Robert sacrificed his own wife and child by running off to play the devil’s music?
Up to this point, Robert was known to be quite friendly with the bottle. His sister Carrie’s boyfriend noted that Robert drank corn whiskey like other people drank Coke. But it wasn’t until after the death of Virginia, that his drinking would be accompanied with a heavy dose of blaspheming.
THE CROSSROAD LEGEND
In 1970, following on the success of the release of a set of Robert Johnson songs on an album called King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1961, a second set was released. And on November 22, 1970, the New York Times wrote an article about the release of the album called “He Sold His Soul To Play That Way.”
The quote comes from an interview that a man named Pete Welding conducted with Johnson’s contemporary and rival Son House, back in 1966.
Looking through the quotes of Son House, his stories tend to shift and evolve over time. And the story of a fateful night in a Robinsonville juke is no different. At its most basic, the story goes that young Robert used to come into the juke he and Willie Brown were playing in. When they would take a break, Robert would start messing with their guitars, trying to play. Son admitted “little Robert” was a decent harmonica player, but he was so bad on guitar people were asking him and Willie Brown to stop the boy from playing.
Robert ran off to Arkansas, leaving his mother and father behind and no one heard from him for six to eight months. Then he came back and said “I want you to see what I learned.” He was suddenly a virtuoso on guitar, easily mimicking Son’s style and improving on it with a style that no one had ever heard before.
There are several other variations of this story and no mention of a deal at the crossroads with the devil. But add his 1966 quote “He sold his soul to the devil to get to play like that” and suddenly you have an evolving legend.
Robert probably didn’t help matters by writing a variety of devil themed songs.
The idea of the crossroads was not a new concept. Beyond the concept of the Faustian bargain in the middle ages, references in Shakespeare and the Hoodoo religion - which Robert would have been exposed to in Memphis, Jeremiah 6:16 says “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls."
This Bible passage wasn’t quite the sell your soul to the devil concept that we hear in Robert’s legend. But Robert grew up surrounded by religious people in both the Spencer and Willis households. In her recently published book Brother Robert, Annye Anderson - Charles Spencer’s daughter by his second wife says that Jeremiah chapter 6 verse 16 was a verse she heard many times around the house. It speaks of a crossroads, but more as a place where you choose hope and salvation.
And if you read the lyrics of Cross Road Blues written by Robert Johnson, nowhere in the story is Satan mentioned. In fact, the lyric feels closer to the Biblical passage than it does to some demonic bargain. Robert seems to be down on his luck and looking for a ride that he can never seem to find. Robert’s lyrics always related the hardships that black people faced in rural Mississippi.
There are three big issues with Son House’s stories. First, Robert was gone much longer than 6-8 months, second he didn’t go to Arkansas, and third Robert wasn’t some little kid, nor was he a bad guitar player. Others that knew him said he was playing out on the street and in house parties and was established as a good player. In fact, he spent some of his time teaming up with Willie Moore, an accomplished player who had toured with W.C. Handy. Robert could also play piano, jew’s harp, and pump organ.
And while it is true that his time away helped take his playing to the next level - it wasn’t because of a deal with the devil. And he actually didn’t leave with the intention of improving his skills - he was on another mission. The search for his identity and his father Noah Johnson.
Coming up in the conclusion of The Crossroads of Robert Johnson. We’ll find out where Robert really went during those months away from Robinsonville and how a tombstone, rather than an intersection on a direct road may have been the place where Robert developed his incredible playing skill. We’ll also dive into Robert’s days of rambling, and we’ll start to see the seeds of his increased womanizing and drinking, learn which whiskies were his favorites. And finally, we’ll seek out his gravesite and the real story as to what eventually took his life. That’s next time on Whiskey Lore.
Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life, LLC
Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush
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Man do I love research, and this story has so many juicy tidbits to it - so much so that I didn’t want to short change it...so alas a second episode. I’ve put links to my resources out on the show notes page, in case you want to dig into some of the many variations of the story that are out there. You might even see Son House and hear Honeyboy Edwards in some YouTube videos.
And until next time, cheers and slainte mhath
- Best resource: Up Jumped the Devil by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow (Amazon commission)
- Brother Robert by Annye C. Anderson (Amazon commission)
- Tracing the Crossroads Legend by Jim O'Neal (Living Blues Magazine)
- He Sold His Soul to Play the Way He Did by Greil Marcus (New York Times)
- Mississippi Man Named Sole Heir to Blues Legend by Rick Bragg (Chicago Tribune)
- Robert Johnson: New York Times Overlooked Obituary by Reggie Ugwu (New York Times)
- Bluesman's Estate Settles After 62 Years (Save Wealth)
- Language of the Blues: Passagreen (American Blues Scene)
- Wikipedia: Robert Johnson
- Wikipedia: Sonny Boy Williamson II
- ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads (Directed by Brian Oakes) (Netflix)
- Son House talks Robert Johnson (YouTube)
- Honeyboy Edwards: The Robert Johnson Story (YouTube)
- Wikipedia: King of the Delta Blues Singers
- Wikipedia: King of the Delta Blues Singers II
- Biblia: Jeremiah 6:16
- Cross Road Blues by Robert Johnson (YouTube)