What was Robert Johnson's crossroads like?
September 24, 2019 9:38 PM   Subscribe

Doing background for a short story, and I'm trying to learn more about what the crossroads of Hwy 61/49 in Clarksdale, MS would have been like in the early 30's when Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul there. Any way to know if it was on the main drag, what landmarks might have been around it, if it was at all lit, etc?
posted by mermaidcafe to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a map of Clarksdale from 1935 if you want to go with that location. You can line things up against a modern map pretty easily using the railroad line as your guide, and see that the civic part of the city was to the north, while the purported location is on the other side of the tracks right at the southern edge of the grid.

(I'm fairly sceptical of attempts to pinpoint a location: Mississippi's rural roads are a kind of messy hybrid of the kind of PLSS-driven N-S/E-W straight lines you see in the Midwest and ones more driven by the landscape, so it's not as if there are true crossroads every mile, but there are enough of them. Clarksdale's grid is kinda wonky that way.)
posted by holgate at 12:02 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you haven't already, read all in Elijah Wald's amazing book about Johnson: Escaping the Delta/Robert Johnson.

There isn't any particular crossroad. In West African folk tradition the trickster figure of myth - Eshu in Yoruba language, Eleggua as he is called in Cuban Yoruba, Legba in Haitian Vodoun, and Papa La Bas in American Hoodoo - - resides at crossroads and opens the door to the Other World. Blues singers often referred to "the crossroads" as a foil to the restrictions of Church life (i.e. marriage)

Wald's thesis is that Johnson (who was considered a weak guitarist by older singers such as Charlie Paton and Son House) was the first Delta blues singer to learn his music by listening to records of other more popular blues singers. He went away for a few years, carefully listened and copied licks from top selling gramophone blues records, and when he came back on the scene he blew everybody away with his uncanny skill at playing guitar in several different styles and tunings, something nobody else in the Delta did at that time. Rather then say "I learned by listening to records" the crossroads myth explained Johnson's astonishing new guitar skills.
posted by zaelic at 12:46 AM on September 25, 2019 [14 favorites]

@zaelic I’ll check that book out! Right now I’m just working on a purely fictionalized retelling.
posted by mermaidcafe at 7:01 AM on September 25, 2019

You could also get some general impressions from cartoonist Robert Crumb's depiction of the crossroads myth (scroll down), and his classic wordless strip of an American crossroad over the decades.

Both those articles may also have additional material relevant to you; I've not looked at it in depth.
posted by snarfois at 7:15 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this is helpful (or even news to you), but possibly the most acclaimed version of Johnson's life is the unfilmed screenplay, Love in Vain by Alan Greenberg. Three part series on the decades-long quest to film the script.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:57 AM on September 25, 2019

There is also the Netflix doc "Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads". Around the 20:00 mark is where the crossroads description comes in, there is some footage and a fictionalized animated version. However it seems to be all generic or invented, but may help you.
posted by jeremias at 10:17 AM on September 25, 2019

Also, if you're just looking for atmosphere and period details, you should check out Eudora Welty's WPA photos of Mississippi in the 1930s.

They appear to be property of the Missisiipi Department of Archives and History, I didn't look too hard, but they don't seem to be online. However, the MDAH does have this digital archive page with plenty of photos that you can do some digging into.
posted by jeremias at 10:28 AM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

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