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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

I've Been to The Crossroads

In a previous post about meeting Morgan Freeman at his Clarksdale blues club named Ground Zero, I wrote that the club’s name designates Clarksdale as “ground zero” for the blues – the birthplace. Clarksdale is the site of the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, the crossroads where legend tells us that blues singer, composer and guitar player Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical mastery. The intersection is now marked by two really, really supersized guitar replicas that are bound together in the shape of a cross. Mike and I drove slowly through the intersection, but did not on that trip get out to pay respects. The story of The Crossroads has been told in song and at least one movie. Robert Johnson’s short life is shrouded in mystery, but here’s a short version of what may be true. He was born in 1911 out of wedlock near Hazelhurst, MS, lived for some time in Memphis, but primarily in small Mississippi towns. Johnson began playing guitar as a teenager and then traveled throughout the Delta and over into Arkansas playing his music. One version of the story says that, at one point, he headed up north, met some really great guitar players and honed his style. When he returned to Mississippi – suddenly an exceptional player – there were those who said that he could not have, on his own, improved to such a degree. He must have sold his soul to the devil. Some say that he started the story himself or at least quietly encouraged it because of the aura it lent him. He continued playing throughout the South and recorded in Mississippi and Texas. The last session in San Antonio, not long before his death, provided many of his songs that made him a music legend. His original Crossroads Blues was later recorded by Eric Clapton. Considered by some to be the grandfather of modern rock and roll, it’s been written that “his vocal phrasing, original songs and guitar style influenced a range of musicians including Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers Band, The Rolling Stones, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young, and Clapton who called Johnson "the most important blues musician who ever lived." Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Johnson fifth on its list of greatest guitar players. He was an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – in Cleveland, Ohio. Johnson died at the age of 27, purportedly poisoned by a jealous husband. His burial site remained as much a mystery as most of his life had been. In 2002, researchers located an unmarked grave near Greenwood, MS which was believed to hold the remains of Robert Johnson. A headstone was finally provided for him. . . if, in fact, the earth finally claimed him and not the devil.

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