Saturday, February 23, 2008

Standin' at the Crossroads

Ariel, Meg and Robert Johnson made contracts with the Devil. The results were not always what they had in mind.

Lots of white folks, including me, have embraced the blues as a style of music. Of course the blues is more than that. It's a cultural heritage of the U.S. back when black folks had plenty to sing the blues about. So it's a lasting testament to a way of life for some, and the white folks who play blues are paying respect to it in their way.
When I was first learning to play the guitar, an old black piano player at a bar in my hometown called the Crossroads Cafe (next to the Erie & Lackawanna railroad line a couple of blocks from its crossing with the Pennsylvania and New York Central tracks) told me that to be a real musician, I had to not be afraid to ``bust out,'' and not just play music the way everyone else played it.
Black blues musicians I knew said that to play the blues, you need too have had many women, too much whiskey and too many heartbreaks from both. That's not easy for a skinny white 13-year-old guy. Even so, there was no shortage of advice, usually topped off with the reality that the best blues men (John Lee Hooker, Sun House, Howlin' Wolfe, Lightnin' Slim, Elmore James, B.B. King, and so on) were and are black. (That's not to take anything away from Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Ry Cooder, or Susan Tedeschi and Bonnie Raitt.)
So I among among the many who sought to learn more about the blues and where that music came from. I'll give you some links at the bottom of this so you can learn more too. Anyway, along the way, there was this ever-present and not entirely joking notion that if you want to be a truly great blues musician, you’d have to be willing to sell your soul to the devil. There's a long list of people who have paid such a dear price for something special. Even the Disney heroines Ariel (The Little Mermaid) and Meg (Hercules) sold out.
Maybe the best-known of the blues legends who are said to have made a pact with the devil is Robert Johnson.
Robert Leroy Johnson was born in the Mississippi Delta, right down there in the blue gum country along with the blues that sustained him through his all-too-brief 27-year lifespan. Keith Richards is among many musicians who have said there would be no rock 'n' roll without the blues, and Johnny Winter, Jimi Hendrix, Greg and Duane Allman, Neil Young, John Fogerty, and many others who made it in the world of rock are just a few of a great many musicians whose guitar style, singing style and whole approach to music were influenced by Johnson. Eric Clapton, who has a tribute album of Johnson’s songs in his discography (Me and Mr. Johnson, in 2004), called Johnson “The most important blues musician who ever lived.” And even though Johnson was long dead before there was ever a Rolling Stone magazine, he ranked fifth in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
So, yeah, Johnson had talent. We don't have much to go on. He recorded just 29 songs in two sessions, including 12 alternate takes. And the notion that he knew the devil comes out in six of them. It isn't surprising that the notion that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil (not necessarily the biblical Satan, but more likely the African-voodoo trickster devil Legba). And this is the theme of Crossroads, a short, very good but not widely appreciated Walter Hill movie that features Tim Russ as Johnson, Joe Seneca as his friend Poor Willie Brown, and an Academy Award-nominated soundtrack composed and played by Ry Cooder and performed by him and Steve Vai, who played both parts of a musical duel that I would rather you see and hear than have me tell you about.
( ), (Sonny Terry did the harmonica parts for Seneca). Ralph Macchio (the Karate Kid) and Jami Gertz are in it, and although Macchio didn't actually play the duel with Steve Vai, he did go through the fingering in a nearly accurate note-for-note simulation. (

If you have a little time, take a walk down to the Crossroads yourself and see what this blues is all about. You can get more about Robert Johnson here: