Robert Johnson and The Crossroads in African and African American Folklore

It’s a cool October night and blues musician Robert Johnson trudges alone down a dark road in the Mississippi River Delta. His only company is his shadow, cast by the full moon overhead. As he walks he thinks about his sorrow. He thinks about the jeers and the shouts for him to get off stage. He reaches the crossroads of US 61 and US 49 in Clarksdale and falls to his knees. In his misery he lets out a cry that pierces into the night. It is a cry of weakness. Of jealousy. Of fear and the anguish of failure. But he’s not alone. The story goes that on that fateful night the Devil heard his cry and offered to grant Robert Johnson extraordinary musical talent. All he asked for in return was his soul. The Robert Johnson that returned from those crossroads went on to rise to fame as the King of the Delta Blues.

Portrait of Robert Johnson in 1935. One of two surviving images of him.

The story of Robert Johnson at the crossroads has cemented its place in history over the last century by describing the origin of the musical talent of a musician who laid the bedrock for Rock and Roll. In fact, stories of the crossroads play a role in African and African American folklore dating back to Anansi tales in West Africa before the Columbian exchange. A close reading of these illustrates how stories of the crossroads are characterized by the making of decisions, crossing of boundaries, and communion with spirits. Moreover, these experiences at the crossroads sew a common thread between seemingly disjoint stories in order to communicate essential truths about being human.

One avenue in which we might find characters at a crossroads is in an African dilemma tale. These are tales in which the main character is forced to make a difficult decision and the result of the story is left open ended, forcing the listener to develop their own opinions and conjectures about how the story should end. German Archaeologist and Ethnographer Leo Frobenius recites one tale titled “A Vital Decision”, originating from Northwest Africa:

A son is beaten and abandoned by his cruel father after a costly mistake. The boy is then rescued and adopted by a rich man who happens to be searching for a son to be his heir. However, after hearing that his son survived, the abusive father returns to claim him. Feigning resignation, the rich man agrees to concede possession of the boy to his father and escort the both of them home. After some time travelling through the forest, the group reach a crossroads. It is then that the rich man hands the boy a sword and commands that he must choose which man he wishes to be his father, killing the other.

The story ends, leaving the boy eternally at the crossroads. At the crossroads he is forced to choose between familial responsibility and personal happiness. In this case the crossroads are employed to thrust essential questions upon the reader: What would you do if they were in the boy’s place? Is it ethical to murder someone who has mistreated you? Is it more important to be happy or loyal to your family? This literal crossroad at which the boy must make a life-changing decision mimics the metaphorical crossroads that many people face in their lives when deciding what role their family will play in their lives. In a more general sense, this tale demonstrates how the crossroads is used as storytelling device that asks a listener or reader to place themselves at the heart of the conflict and engages them to grapple with the difficult decisions that a metaphorical crossroads presents.

A meeting at the crossroads is often an opportunity for the teller of a tale to signify that the protagonist will have to cross a symbolic boundary to continue down their path. For example, one version of the tale of Robert Johnson’s deal with the Devil quotes the Devil as saying:

If you take one more step in the direction you’re headed… to Rosedale… you are going to have the blues like never known to this world… [and] your soul will belong to me.

This example provides a powerful instance of boundary crossing. The meaning is twofold as Johnson’s step takes him both across the threshold of the crossroads and the path to Rosedale, as well as across the boundary from spiritual security to damnation. As a matter of fact, boundary crossing at the crossroads pops up consistently in African American folklore. We can see this clearly in the story “The Jack-o’-My-Lantern” recorded by Newbell Niles Puckett in Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro, the teller describes the origin of the Jack-o’-Lantern:

Modern Jack-o’-Lanterns

A young man named Jack goes down to the crossroads at midnight and sells himself to the Devil. Once seven years pass, the Devil comes to claim Jack’s soul. However, Jack is ready, and outwits the Devil, forcing him to relinquish his claim to Jack’s soul. After Jack passes on, he arrives at the gates of heaven, but is turned is turned away. His soul then goes to hell, but is again rejected. He is thrown from hell with a chunk of fire, forced to spend eternity wandering the earth as a wisp of fire.

Jack’s profane choice at the crossroads leaves him straddled between boundaries. He is forever stuck between heaven and hell, between life and death, and between the world of the physical and the world of the spiritual. “The Jack-o’-My-Lantern” is the story of a decision made at the crossroads that leaves the protagonist at a crossroads they can never escape.

One particular example of boundary crossing in African American Folklore that deserves additional attention is crossing from the world of men to the world of spirits and gods. This boundary is remarkable as it is inhabited and controlled by the crossroads god Esu Elegbara. Esu Elegbara originates from the religious tradition of the Yoruba of modern-day Nigeria. In the lore of Yoruba descendants post African diaspora, Esu Elegbara is the intermediary in all conversations between spirits and men. In the Haitian Vodou tradition Esu Elegbara became Papa Legba. For any Vodou ritual to commence, Papa Legba must be invoked in order to communicate with the gods. Papa Legba must also be invoked at the end to complete the ritual.

Yoruba Esu Elegbara carving

Papa Legba is such an interesting character as he exists on the border between the physical and the spiritual, providing an interface for people to speak with their gods. While Papa Legba, and the Esu Elegbara derivatives of Exú in Brazil, Echu in Cuba, and Papa La Bas in Louisiana, are tricksters in their nature, they differ from the traditional tale of the Devil or Satan figure at the crossroads as they are not malicious. For these gods, the crossroads is a place for decisions of both good and evil essence. People go to the crossroads to make a spiritual connection with their gods and ask for help. This aspect of crossroads mythology is in stark juxtaposition with the odious “Deal with the Devil” imagery of the common telling of Robert Johnson’s midnight walk. And yet, understanding the crossroads as a location of divine communion in religious traditions descended from Africa helps to inform a closer reading of the crossroads folktales told by African Americans. What if, perhaps, we interpret the dark figure that Robert Johnson met at the crossroads to learn the blues to be Papa Legba instead of the Satan figure of Abrahamic religions? Well, folklorist Harry M. Hyatt did just this in his 1970 book Hoodoo — Conjuration — Witchcraft — Rootwork. He records that the folklore of Robert Johnson’s midnight deal spread in the South in the late 1930s describes Johnson as a practitioner of Vodou. In these stories, the deal he made with the devil was in fact made with Papa Legba. Furthermore, this telling is imbued by the lore of Papa Legba with the implication that Robert Johnson went to the crossroad in search of wisdom and divine guidance. He went to the crossroads to ask for help, this reading argues, not to sell his soul for unearned talent out of jealousy. While both iterations of the story end the same, Johnson returning to town as the best blues artist in history, a nuanced reading informed by African American mythology results in an entirely different conclusion.

There is no way for the world to know exactly what happened during Robert Johnson’s trip to the crossroads. Nonetheless, the folklore surrounding his meteoric rise to Rock and Roll greatness is steeped in the culture and mythology of African and African American lore. A close reading of this and other stories of crossroads reveals how these tales of crossroads are characterized in folklore by the making of decisions, crossing of boundaries, and spiritual communion. Moreover, performing culturally informed readings of folklore helps shed new light on old tales and expand our understanding of the people and culture that produced those stories.

Now all that is left for us to do is listen.

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