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The ghost at the crossroads…

One of only three photos known of Robert Johnson - he was a bit of a charmer!

One of only three photos known of Robert Johnson – he was a bit of a charmer!

 

I love a ghost story. And a legend. And music.

So it was inevitable that while in the American south on holidays, I should go in search of the ghost of Robert Johnson.

We found his grave – all three of them .. and the crossroads where he sold his soul to the devil. Three or four of them.

There are many variations on the legend of the musician meeting the devil at the crossroads and as many songs that tell the tale, accompanied by haunting guitar riffs of wild fiddle playing.

The legend didn’t start with Robert Johnson – but for me, it is all about him…

Robert Johnson was born in 1911 (there is some dispute over his actual birthdate). He was of a generation of musicians who may not have invented the Blues – but they certainly gave it form and substance. This was the era of Son House and Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson… but the greatest of all was Robert Johnson.

He was a rogue and a drinker and a womanizer. He never settled down – living as an itinerant musician… mostly with women he met along the way.

He is said to have gone to a crossroads somewhere in Mississippi to sit in a graveyard. There he met the devil – who taught him to play guitar.

In Clarkesdale Mississippi, there is a crossroads with big blue guitars which claims to be THE crossroads. But I prefer to think is was somewhere in the middle of nowhere - where there are no diners or cars or Laundromats - just a man and his music and the rich red earth of the delta.

In Clarkesdale Mississippi, there is a crossroads with big blue guitars which claims to be THE crossroads. But I prefer to think is was somewhere in the middle of nowhere – where there are no diners or cars or laundromats – just a man and his music and the rich red earth of the delta.

Certainly his fellow musicians noted the astonishing speed with which he went from a mediocre harmonica player to an extraordinary guitarist.

If you’ve never heard him play – listen to this.

The recording technology of the era is hard to get past – but listen to enough, you forget the tinny sound and hear what lies underneath. Only 29 of his songs were ever recorded, but these recordings have influenced musicians from Keith Richards to Kurt Cobain, Eric Clapton to Led Zeppelin.

church 1

This is one of the churches that lays claim to being Robert Johnson’s burial place. I don’t think it is – but it is in a dirt poor southern town, where I guess anything that brings an extra dollar or two into the community is very important.

The truth of the matter is that Robert Johnson did vanish from time to time. A popular belief is that he was hiding from jealous husbands – or in jail. Either would seem reasonable, given the type of man he was. But what if there is another story…

What if disappeared because he met the great love of his life… the love that inspired the music he brought back. Those songs were like nothing heard before – and way ahead of their time.

While wandering around the graveyards and crossroads of Mississippi – a story began to form in my head. The story of a woman whose love of music and the blues brought her to the delta – and whose love was strong enough to break the barriers of time…

Maybe it wasn’t the devil Robert Johnson met at the Crossroads… What if…

This graveyard is still in use today, and is next to another of the 'real' crossroads. This is where I can see a ghost from the past - or from the future, falling in love with a man and his music.

This graveyard is still in use today, and is next to another of the ‘real’ crossroads. This is where I can see a ghost from the past – or from the future, falling in love with a man and his music.

People often ask me where my ideas for my novels come from – well, this is my answer.

Maybe one of these days you’ll see a book on a shelf somewhere – and it might be called the Ghost at the Crossroads.

Not for a while – there are other stories I have to tell first…

But maybe…

“And I went to the crossroad, Mama, I looked east and west. I went to the crossroad, baby, I looked east and west Lord, I didn’t have no sweet woman, ooh well, babe, in my distress,”

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4 Responses to The ghost at the crossroads…

  • Loved this, Janet – wonderful post and great photos. It’s a story that’s intrigued so many people – crops up recently in Nick Cave’s stupendous ‘Higgs Boson Blues’. Looking forwards to your version!

  • That is so cool! I look forward to one say seeing a book about a blues musician. Thanks for introducing Robert Johnson to me. I’m listening to his track right now.

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Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence Finalist for The Wild OneColorado Romance Writers Award of Excellence Finalist for The Wild One
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