Claud Johnson is finally enjoying the fruits of the legendary Robert Johnson's estate
June 2, 2004 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Son of a Bluesman The legend was that if you touched Robert Johnson you could feel the talent running through him, like heat, put there by the devil on a dark Delta crossroad in exchange for his soul. It is why Claud Johnson's grandparents would not let him out of the house that day in 1937 when Robert Johnson, his father, strolled into the yard. "They told my daddy they didn't want no part of him. They said he was working for the devil. I stood in the door, and he stood on the ground, and that is as close as I ever got to him. He wandered off, and I never saw him again." Today, in the working-class neighborhood where he raised his children, Claud Johnson, a rich man, lives in a grand house on 47 acres of property. (After Claud won his court battle in 1998 and was recognized as the son of the blues legend, his lawyer handed him a six-figure cashier's check and begged him to quit hauling gravel. Claud kept hauling gravel for five months. "After 29 years, it just gets in your blood"). His victory stands out in the annals of Mississippi probate law. It took 10 years, two trips to the State Supreme Court and two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not to mention, most of the first two or three generations of blues musicians died without securing rights to their composition. Explains Thomas Freeland, a Mississippi attorney and blues historian: when the San Francisco-based band the Grateful Dead recorded songs by the North Carolina blues musician Elizabeth Cotten, Freeland said, "the story is, [she] bought a dishwasher with the royalties." (more inside)
posted by matteo (13 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
you can also find the main story in the Los Angeles Times, but registration is required
More on the paternity suit here

it's a motherfucker of a long post, I know, and I'm sorry. I just couldn't split it well enough, and I wanted to leave the reference to Elizabeth Cotten on the Front Page

posted by matteo at 10:06 AM on June 2, 2004

What a neat story. Thanks for posting it.

I hate it when bands record old songs -- not folk songs, or traditional songs that don't have an identifiable author -- and rip off the songwriter by claiming credit for themselves. So many blues musicians got robbed by their record labels, or otherwise never collected a dime for their groundbreaking work. (That's why I give what I can to the Music Maker Foundation.)

And the Q&A in the KTLA story is priceless:
To the shock of the assembled lawyers, who had to pause during questioning because they were laughing so hard, she described how both couples made love standing up in the pine forest, watching each other the whole time.
posted by Vidiot at 10:12 AM on June 2, 2004

awesome awesome awesome post
posted by Satapher at 11:47 AM on June 2, 2004

Re : Robert Johnson and The Devil

That sounds like a relatively minor devil to me. It could incarnate, yes - so that's a Delta Devil - quite nasty in it's own right, and it sure can posess a man's soul.

A dog's too.

There are lots of devils, all different.

I read a story once about a saint casting a whole pack of devils out of a man. That was in Pakistan. The saint was a Sufi, and the devils did not want to go. But, they went.

Said the saint - "They are a form of life, ye.s, and so they have a right to exist.

I am human and my allegiance is to my race. So, I did this for that man. But, I lied to the devils when I said I would burn them and all their family if they afflicted that man again, and he should come here once more for my help.

In fact, after the first time I give them two more chances. Then, I burn them."

Three strikes for devils...

Meanwhile ( back to Johnson ) - THE Devil ?

You don't need to go to a Mississippi crossroads in the middle of the night to meet him.

He gets around. Anywhere, anytime.

I can smell these things - I've had a few lesser devils in my time. But I lost them along with my name. See, I got lean and thin, almost dried up altogether. Nothing but skin and bones without a past, or familiar faces in tow.

Family ? - Gone. Future ? - only the road meeting my feet. One step after the next.

Eventually, there was no juice in me left to sustain hungry devils, so they moved on and I was free.
posted by troutfishing at 12:17 PM on June 2, 2004

put there by the devil on a dark Delta crossroad in exchange for his soul

From the Salon review of Chasin' That Devil Music by Gayle Dean Wardlow:

Another winner is Wardlow's playful rebuttal, possible only from a son of the Bible Belt, of the increasingly tiresome legend of Robert Johnson's crossroad pact with Satan. Citing both the Bible and Johnson chapter and verse, Wardlow pulls an ingenious switcheroo on the myth (again you'll have to read the book for the details) and ends with a flourish: "May the devil be chained in hell. The Lord and Robert won this one at the crossroad."

Patrick Howse. "Blues Researcher Gayle Dean Waldlow Talks About Delta Blues and the Robert Johnson Mystery." Monitor (Peavey) 10, #3 (1991) : 30-39.

But the blues musician would be the preacher's natura! counterpart.

Right, the evil counterpart. Remember, now, black people in the church back then believed that if you played the blues you were playing the devil's music because of all the things associated with it, the whiskey, the women, the gambling, the violence, and so forth. If you played blues you were going to hell. And the legend was in those days that you could sell your soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to do whatever you wanted. I think Son House was partly responsible for this story about Robert Johnson's deal with the devil. Son House said he heard Johnson play one time and he couldn't do much, then he heard him six months later and he was a polished entertainer. Implying that he had made the "deal at the crossroads" to get so good so quick. I think Son House got his memory mixed up and instead of six months it was probably a couple of years. There were a few Johnson songs that no doubt perpetuated the myth like "Me And The Devil Blues"," Stones In My Passway", and "Hell Hound On My Trail". Lines such as "me and the devil walkin' side by side, gonna beat my woman 'till I get satisfied" were pretty strong statements. When people heard that they said "my gosh! he wouldn't be singing a line like that unless he belonged to the devil". Robert Johnson was an excellent song writer, he was very diverse with Iyrics and sometimes those Iyrics were a little unusual. The fact that he died a violent death added to the overall mysticism.

Robert Johnson - Lost and Found by Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch also debunks this tiresome legend.

In print, this story song began with Samuel Charters, an early folk music scholar who wrote about this in his book The Bluesmen. According to Wardlow, the whole crossroads and devil pact stems from an embroidered fantasy Charters wove from one sentence Son House said to him: He must have sold his soul to the devil to play like that. Evidently there is no other statement on the topic made by House or anyone else who knew Johnson.

The Mississippi bluesman who did claim to sell his soul to the devil was the great Tommy Johnson, at least according to his brother LeDell.
posted by y2karl at 2:19 PM on June 2, 2004 [1 favorite]

From Lucky Mojo, here is The Crossroads in Hoo Doo Magic And The Ritual Of Selling Yourself To The Devil:

The crossroads ritual is currently best known in popular American culture through the recent acceptance of a spurious legend that the famous 1930s blues singer Robert Johnson claimed that he had learned how to play guitar by selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, somewhere in Mississippi. In truth, the blues singer who publicly made this claim was Robert's rather less-well-known contemporary and friend Tommy Johnson, not related to Robert. Tommy Johnson is remembered for his classic recording of "Maggie Campbell Blues." LeDell Johnson, Tommy Johnson's brother, spoke with the blues scholar David Evans about Tommy's sudden guitar playing skill and Tommy's claims about it. His account of the ritual is typical of others collected throughout the South. Note that LeDell did not say that Tommy Johnson called the crossroads spirit "the devil" and he did not mention selling his soul.
"If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little 'fore 12 that night so you know you'll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself...A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he'll tune it. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you. That's the way I learned to play anything I want."
--That page is quite the dissertation on the topic otherwise.

I notice she cites the story beginning with the writer Robert Palmer--so it seems I may have conflated Samuel Charters with Robert Palmer.
posted by y2karl at 2:38 PM on June 2, 2004

thanks for the links, karl. i knew I was going to venture into y2karl territory with this post, but I just wanted to share Claud Johnson's amazing story.
the two things that amaze the most: first, that it was _his son's grandparents_ who took the blues=satan equation seriously, and didn't even let him hug his kid. and second, the dishwasher anecdote -- it is appalling (even if untrue it is sadly realistic). that a true creative genius like Cotten ends up working as a maid and can't even make a decent living out of her genius really tells you a lot about the recording industry, pre-Civil Rights Act America, and about how little Fairness exists in this world. weekend Blues-lover that I am (I don't have a hundredth of your knowledge in the field, k, I just listen to what I love without knowing too much about stuff) I've always loved immensely Cotten's music -- that speaks to me even more deeply than Mississippi John Hurt's does (again, I am no critic)
posted by matteo at 3:21 PM on June 2, 2004

Eligah Wald's Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues does a lot of debunking too. In addition to dismantling the devil-at-the-crossroads myth, he argues that the current musical canon of great bluesmen (Robert Johnson included) had little resemblance to what black urban record buyers liked to buy or listen to in the 1920s and 1930s. Robert Johnson's posthumous fame today is primarily due to his "discovery" by British record collectors, which inspired such remakes as Cream's "Crossroads" and the Rolling Stones' "Love in Vain."
posted by jonp72 at 3:29 PM on June 2, 2004

does anyone really need too much dismantling of the devil at the crossroads story? isnt calling it a myth a bit redundant?

John Hurt is genius.
posted by Satapher at 3:46 PM on June 2, 2004

Well, to church going folks, as an example of popular music, the blues was the devil's music--along with jazz, hillbilly and whatever other secular music was available. H. C. Spier, the Mississippi music store owner and part time record company talent scout would not allow any of the many 78s with which he was associated to be played when Wardlow interviewed him.

As for Elizabeth Cotten, had she not been the maid for the parents of Pete, Mike and Peggy Seeger, she probably would never have been recorded at all. I suspect the dishwasher story is probably apocryphal as well.
posted by y2karl at 3:50 PM on June 2, 2004

This is too good not to quote:

[...] the crucial testimony came from Virgie Mae's closest friend, Eula Mae Williams, an 80-year-old midwife with pure white hair, who recalled an evening walk she took with her fiance and Virgie Mae and Robert Johnson [...]

Q: Well, let me, let me share something with you, because I'm really curious about this. Maybe I have a more limited experience. But you're saying to me that you were watching them make love?

A: M-hm.

Q: While you were making love?

A: M-hm.

Q: You don't think that's at all odd?

A: Say what?

Q: Have you ever done that before or since?

A: Yes.

Q: Watch other people make love?

A: Yes, I have done it before. Yes, I've done it after I married. Yes.

Q: You watched other people make love?

A: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.

Q: Other than … other than Mr. Johnson and Virgie Cain [her married name].

A: Right.

Q: Really?

A: You haven't?

Q: No. Really haven't.

A: I'm sorry for you.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:42 PM on June 2, 2004

This particularly struck me:
Claud kept hauling gravel for five months.
Insanity, or just a mad passion for gravel? Anyway, fantastic post, matteo.
posted by languagehat at 10:04 AM on June 3, 2004

for archival purposes:

Robert Johnson Day Trip

One Saturday in April and October
10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Robert Johnson, the Delta's notorious and mysterious bluesman, has three possible grave sites. In this trip, visit them all and try to decide which is the real one. Along the way, participants will discuss the facts and legends connected with Johnson, listen to his music, and get a feel for the towns and countryside where he plied his trade in the 1930's.

posted by matteo at 8:08 AM on June 11, 2004

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