“If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a crossroad is. A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he’ll tune it”
– Tommy Johnson (1896-1956)
I had the good fortune of backing up the last original Delta Bluesman David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards at BB Kings at Times Square NYC (now gone). Picking his brain in the dressing room was almost as much a privilege as performing with him that night. Honeyboy is known for traveling with and hanging out with Robert Johnson back in the 1930s. At one point I asked Honeyboy if he thought Robert sold his soul at the crossroads for musical success as the legend states? Honeyboy looked at me as if the question was foolish, said something about your soul not being something you can sell . . . but his eyes said something different! Honeyboy did tell me to look into the lyrics of Robert Johnson because within them will be the key to the Voodoo Blues.
Horned Head Dresses and Cowtails
Makin’ Music on a Sheep-Skin Covered Gumbo Box
The blues is ultimately derived from African music. West African slaves were brought North America beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492 and continued until between the 1800s. They arrived with their indigenous music and religious beliefs along with drums, stringed instruments, wind instruments, and various vocal styles. These were the Griots, singing stories of wealth and praise of Kings and Queens and magic and folklore.
The music consisted of drumming, hand-clapping, and improvised call and response singing. Extra devices such as rattles and bells were attached to instruments and individuals to create a complex polyrhythmic groove. Simultaneous melodies known as polyphony was present in parallel thirds, fourths or fifths. Some vocalizing consisted of whooping or sudden falsetto which we can hear in the styles of Pre-War Delta artists like Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Skip James, and Peetie Wheatstraw.
African music was always participative. Group situations such as religious ceremonies, farming, building or just partying offered plenty of opportunities for making music. This can be traced to the field hollers and work songs of the delta. Eventually drums and horns were banned by slave owners. This became known as the Black Codes and also prevented slaves from congregating. Without indigenous instruments and freedom to gather and worship they were reduced to voice and body percussion called ‘patting juba’. Later they were allowed to use Civil War instruments like snare and bass drums along with flutes and thus the music of drum and fife corps was created. This meant when not playing traditional European songs for white entertainment, slaves could reestablish their musical identity in private.
Goin’ Where The Southern Cross The Dog
The Black Codes, with the exclusion of ‘patting juba’ and the drum and fife bands, ultimately dealt the death blow to the marriage of African polyrhythms and what became prewar delta blues. This along with the fear and repression of African slaves, customs, and beliefs, gave way to the matrix of Vodoun religions. Voice masking is a vocal technique consisting of deep-chested growls, false bass tones, strangulated shrieks, and other bizarre effects. You can hear these African vocal techniques used in early blues-singing especially by the greats Charley Patton and Blind Willie Johnson. This technique came from ritual possession where the voice is modified to match the spirit and mask being worn.
The guitar wasn’t the sort of strummed accompaniment associated with high plain drifting cowboys or the minstrels of Europe or even the precise picked ragtime banjo. Instead, it set up an intricate pattern of rhythmic accents and responses to the singer, it became both drum, orchestra, and second voice. Slide guitar evolved from the African single-stringed bow (diddlebow) and it was played with a knife, rock, or bone. Eventually giving way to the bottleneck thanks to Hawaiian guitarists. With the ‘slider’ one can hit the in-between notes and produce a very voice-like sound.
Robert Johnson and Vodou Connection
Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, on May 8, 1911 to Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson. Julia was married to Charles Dodds (born February 1865), a relatively prosperous landowner and furniture maker, with whom she had ten children. Charles Dodds had been forced by a lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst following a dispute with white landowners. Julia left Hazlehurst with baby Robert, but in less than two years she brought the boy to Memphis to live with her husband, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer.
Robert married Virginia Travis in February 1929, and the young couple soon became expectant parents. But tragedy struck when Virginia, only sixteen years old, died in childbirth in 1930. In 1931 Robert met and married a woman named Calletta ‘Callie’ Craft. During the next year, Johnson traveled to such places as St. Louis, Memphis, Illinois, and back home to the Delta. Then, on Saturday night, August 13th, 1938, at a juke joint named Three Forks, near Greenwood, Johnson played his last gig. Of the many rumors concerning Johnson’s death, poisoning is the most substantiated. His death certificate was found in 1968, verifying that he died in Greenwood, Mississippi. He was buried in a small church in nearby Morgan City.
Robert Johnson’s musical life did not begin with a bang. His playing was not very good and the older, more respected bluesmen would chase him away so as not to scare the patrons. Eventually, Robert vanished from everyone’s sight and memory for a period of time and when he reemerged he blew everyone’s minds, his technique was unsurpassed, his performance mesmerizing, and he wrote a bunch of songs, though based on older songs of the time, that introduced new and mystical themed lyrics into them. During my talk with Honeyboy he told me that Robert was a ladies man, and had several women in several locations throughout his gigging route as a musician. That some of these women practiced a western form of African Vodou(n) called in the South, Voodoo or Hoodoo. In the next segment I am going to extract a number of verses from his songs that contain direct associations with Vodou.
The Johnson Juju
“Kind Hearted Woman Blues”
But these evil-hearted women
Man, they will not let me be
She’s a kindhearted woman
(But) She studies evil all the time
My door knob keeps on turnin’, it must be spooks around my bed
- These may be references to the women in his life who practice Vodou and to the spirits that surround them.
“Come On In My Kitchen”
I know she won’t come back
I’ve taken the last nickel out of her nation sack
- A nation sack is a kind of magic bag that is used in hoodoo magical practices. It is only used by women, and originally was hung from the waist of a woman’s skirt; to swing on the inside of the skirt, between a woman’s legs. It would have contained nine silver coins.
“Stones In My Passway”
I got stones in my passway
And my road seem dark as night
My enemies have betrayed me
Have overtaken poor Bob at last
And there’s one thing certainly
They have stones all in my pass
- Laying stones down in the passway in a certain configuration is another way to jinx someone. These methods of jinxing someone are called foot track magic. The stones need to be placed in a passway because the person has to walk over the cross in order to be cursed. This is called ‘crossing the line’.
“Little Queen of Spades”
Everybody say she got a mojo, now she’s been usin’ that stuff
- A Mojo (bag) is a Voodoo charm, a ‘prayer in a bag’ consisting of a bundle of twigs, nail clippings, hair, skin, and other remnants secretly collected from the body of the person, it also contains a spirit trapped inside by the conjurer. The word comes from ‘mojuba’ which means, “a prayer of praise” which comes from the Kwa language of the Yoruba and means ’em’ (I) ‘ajuba’ (salute). It was an appeasement to the gods. In New Orleans Hoodoo they call it a Gris-Gris Bag or a Mojo Hand.
“Hellhound On My Trail”
And the days keeps on worryin’ me of a hellhound on my trail
If today was Christmas eve and tomorrow was Christmas day
You sprinkled hot foot powder, mmm
Mmm, around my door, all around my door
- Adherents of Voodoo mingle together Christian ideas with African ones and weeks prior, leading up to Christmas eve, powerful powders are prepared to ward off evil sorcerers known as Zobop. The Loups-Garou feature predominantly in the evils that can befall someone. Swiss anthropologist Alfred Métraux who was noted for his pioneering contributions to South American ethnohistory and the examination of African culture in Haiti, cites that the Zobop were members of a secret society of sorcerers and shape-shifters who could transform into a werewolf (loups-garou). These Zobop would “lay ambushes to get recruits in remotes spots, obliging them to take part in their sabbath” (Metraux).
- Hot Foot Powders were concocted in order to drive these evils away and contained red and black pepper, sulfur, essential oils, and herbal extracts.
“Traveling Riverside Blues”
She got a mortgage on my body, now, and a lien on my soul
“Me and the Devil Blues”
Early this mornin’, ooh, when you knocked upon my door
And I said, “Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go”
Me and the devil, was walkin’ side by side
It must-a be that old evil spirit, so deep down in the ground
You may bury my body, ooh, down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit, can catch a Greyhound bus and ride
- The devil has many names throughout history’s cultures, among adherents of Voodoo he is Papa Legba a trickster deity. Lyrics such as these added fuel to the rumors that he had made a deal with the devil (Legba) at a Crossroads. That after his death, the devil (Satan) will come and collect his due by taking Robert’s soul in exchange for granting him musical success during his lifetime.
“Cross Road Blues”
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above “Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please”
Yeoo, standin’ at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride
Ooo eee, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by
Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, risin’ sun goin’ down
Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, eee, eee, risin’ sun goin’ down
I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ down
You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown1
You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown1
That I got the crossroad blues this mornin’, Lord, babe, I’m sinkin’ down
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
- At the very heart of blues and rock music, both of which have been described as the Devil’s Music, lies the shadow of the Faustian pact, as epitomized by Robert Johnson. But behind the Faustian pact mythos lies the Hoodoo lore of the crossroads. Going down to the crossroads, where two lonely roads intersect symbolize the juncture where a person must call upon their spiritual strength and face their demons. It is a life-altering decision. The legend can be found throughout Europe, India, Greece, and Japan as well as the American Indian. With each culture’s story the crossroads are where demons, evil spirits, and ghosts rendezvous with witches, warlocks, sorcerers, and Boku. Sacrifices are made here, souls are bargained with and if you perform the rituals perfectly you walk away with magical powers. In the Central African Bakongo culture when making an oath, the person marks a cross on the ground and stands on it. The crossroads is where the dead and the living meet, where the Spirit-Gods (Loa-Lwa) hang out. Standing at the crossroads means that you have mastered both life and death. In Voodoo the God of the Crossroads is Papa Legba, a Trickster, it is through him that you must first seek to ‘open the way’ so that the gods may possess (ride) you.
- The myth surrounding Robert Johnson implies that in exchange for fame and guitar brilliance you die young, forfeit your soul and spend eternity in Hell to be taken away by (Hell) Hounds! Robert Johnson went to a lonely crossroads, played some guitar, and experienced visions as would shamans experience during their initiatory vision quest. This allowed his unconscious, or inner-genius, to take control of his guitar playing, thus his musicianship became outstanding. It also brought him a high level of charisma, charm or enchantment.
The Crossroads Ritual
“You have to go to the cemetery at the stroke of midnight for nine nights, and get some dirt and bring it back with you and put it in a little bottle,” he replied. Then find a place where the roads cross, a crossroads, and at midnight, for nine nights, sit there and try to play that guitar. Don’t care what you see come there, don’t get afraid and run away.”
“You will see a gamut of black animals, a black rooster, black bull, black dog or cat, even a black snake or lion. It will begin thundering and downpouring rain, a black smoke descends on you to where you cannot see anything. Then on the last midnight there will come a rider, in the form of the Devil, riding at lightning speed. You stay there, still playing your guitar, and when he has passed, you can play any tune you want to play or do any magic trick you want because you have sold yourself to the Devil”
Robert Johnson died at the age of 27 (like Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Kurt Kobain, and Amy Winehouse), and, as the myth concludes, he spent his final hours on all fours barking like a dog as the devil began to collect his debt in earnest. His death certificate revealed the cause of death as “No doctor.” His death occurred on August 16, 1938, at a country crossroads near Greenwood, Mississippi. He had been playing for a few weeks at a country dance in a town about 15 miles (24 km) from Greenwood.
So, here you have several associations between Robert Johnson’s lyrical content and the West African Vodoun beliefs which became Voodoo or Hoodoo down in the deep south of North America. I may be stretching these ideas a bit but they are interesting to entertain at the very least and hopefully you found some of it fascinating and learned something about the Blues, Africa, and Voodoo!