Friday, September 27, 2002

Dark Side of the Blues

Written by: Jeff Rent & Rick Garner
Case Filed:
9/27/02 - Jackson, Mississippi
Executive Producer:
Rick Garner
Special Thanks:
Steve LaVere, Delta Haze
Still images in video from film
"Can't You Hear the Wind Howl?: The Life & Music of Robert Johnson" Used with permission.


video


The huge cotton fields of the Delta produced more than just cotton. In fact, the immense Dockery Plantation may be the exact location of the birth of the Blues. Slaves and then sharecroppers communicated across the fields in a style called "field hollering." This became the Blues we know today.

After the Blues' birth in the fields, Clarksdale, Mississippi, would become the Home of the Blues and is now linked to a rather mysterious chapter in Blues history.


The intersection of Highway 61 runs through the Delta and crosses Highway 49 in Clarksdale. It is promoted that this is where Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil. Johnson even recorded a song called "Cross Road Blues" and the legend says that in selling his soul to the devil, he was able to play anything on the guitar. If one plays their guitar at the crossroads just before midnight, a tall black man will come up from behind. Once given the guitar, he will play it and hand it over. Anything can be played on the guitar, for the price of a soul.

Although 61 & 49 is promoted to be the crossroads of the Robert Johnson legend, it's purely a romantic tale and in fact there is no real crossroads at all.

Not only is Johnson the subject of an undying legend, he also has three grave markers. The first one, at the Mt. Zion Church near Morgan City is incorrect. The second one, behind Payne Chapel at Quito, Mississippi is entirely bogus. And the third one, at Little Zion Church two miles due north of Greenwood is, without a doubt, his final resting place. From Robert Johnson and the Crossroads Curse

Although Johnson's recording career was very brief, his life story has taken on mythical proportions in the years since his death. In rural folklore, the intersection of two roads was often regarded as an evil place, the site of black magic. This notion dated back to early mythology in Africa and Europe. As these pagan cultures were forcibly assimilated by Christian society, some of their original beliefs were blended with the new religion. So according to the legend, Johnson went down to the crossroads and made a pact with Satan. The devil promised to fulfill his dreams, thus Johnson traded his eternal soul for his extraordinary talents. Of course, the devil wouldn't allow him to enjoy his success and the lord of the underworld soon claimed his prize. Even though Johnson's musical legacy would eventually earn worldwide acclaim, he never had a chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

But while the legend of Robert Johnson is interesting enough on its own, there is much more to the story of "Crossroads". In addition to the bluesman's untimely death, there have been a string of tragedies associated with musicians who have performed the song over the years. Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Allman Brothers Band have all experienced the loss of group members or loved ones. My website will also delve into these other occurrences. Personally, I don't believe that this song is actually cursed. While there have certainly been some terrible misfortunes associated with a number of the artists who have recorded the composition, I think these are merely coincidences. Nonetheless, it's another fascinating aspect of the "Crossroads" legend. Even now, this tale from American folklore still endures.

Robert Johnson was born on May 8th, 1911 in Hazlehurst, MS. He was the illegitimate son of Julia Dodd and Noah Johnson, a man whom he would never know.

Steady work was scarce, so he and his mother were forced to move often, as she sought employment in Memphis and various parts of the Delta. While he was still just a young boy, he went to work in the cotton fields on a plantation near Robinsonville, MS. It was a bleak existence, so he turned to music for comfort. At the age of seventeen, he married his childhood sweetheart, Virginia Travis. He loved his young bride dearly, but their romance was short-lived. In April of 1930, little more than a year after they were wed, his wife died during childbirth. Johnson was absolutely grief-stricken and this incident marked a turning point in his life. From then on, he traveled constantly, devoting all his time and energy to his music.

Over the next few years, Johnson worked tirelessly to hone his craft. He and his friend Willie Brown would often sit on tombstones, writing ominous melodies and drinking moonshine. Although he could not read music, he had a keen ear and often imitated the styles of other musicians. From watching fellow guitarist Son House, he was inspired to develop his own bottleneck slide technique. He also played with Charlie Patton and Sonny Boy Williamson, performing in juke joints throughout the Deep South. But Johnson was quite ambitious and he was not satisfied with the moderate acclaim he had received. Since many of his contemporaries were envious of his musicianship, this may have led them to spread false rumors about him, whispering that he had gladly paid the Devil's price to satisfy his own ambition.

Undisputed facts about Johnson's life are few and far between. More often than not, his legend has obscured the few grains of truth, which can be discerned. According to the myth, the young bluesman desperately longed for fame and fortune. Johnson was not satisfied with his own musical abilities and felt that he needed more talent to achieve success. He was already bitter toward his creator, blaming God for the death of his beloved wife and unborn child. Despondent and irrational, he made a momentous decision. At the stroke of midnight, he walked down to the windswept crossroads at the junction of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, MS. Reciting an ancient incantation, he called upon Satan himself to rise from the fires of Hell. In exchange for Johnson's immortal soul, the devil tuned his guitar, thereby giving him the abilities, which he so desired. From then on, the young blues man played his instrument with an unearthly style, his fingers dancing over the strings. His voice moaned and wailed, expressing the deepest sorrows of a condemned sinner.

In 1936, Don Law, a producer who worked for the American Record Company, approached Johnson. Law was eager to record the blues man, offering to pay him between $10 and $15 for each song. The first sessions occurred later that year, at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX. Johnson played some of his own compositions and also modified the work of other artists, recording seventeen songs on November 23rd, 26th, and 27th. If he was not fully satisfied with his performance, he would record an alternate version. But Johnson was a confident musician and he had been playing these compositions for years. As a result, most of the songs were recorded on the first take.

While in town, he was arrested for vagrancy and thrown in jail. At the station, the police beat him and smashed his guitar. Rather than risk further abuse at the hands of the officers, Johnson asked them to contact Law. The producer verified the bluesman's story and subsequently posted his bail. Although this incident might have seemed quite traumatic, it apparently had little effect on Johnson. After recording "Crossroad Blues" and several more songs in the days that followed, he left San Antonio and resumed his wandering lifestyle.

The next sessions took place during the summer of 1937, at the Brunswick Records Building in Dallas, TX. On June 19th and 20th, Johnson performed twelve more songs for Don Law. Once again, a handful of alternate versions were also recorded. As before, Johnson received a modest cash payment and no royalties. Although the producer was already making plans to conduct some additional sessions in the future, he would never see Johnson again. The troubled blues man had a date with destiny.

Just as the story of Johnson's life is filled with contradictions, the circumstances of his death also remain murky at best.

The most likely explanation is that a jealous husband poisoned the blues man with strychnine, after Johnson unsuccessfully attempted to rekindle an old romance with the man's wife. Following his spurned overture, he was drinking at a juke joint with Sonny Boy Williamson. His friend strongly cautioned him not to drink from an open whiskey bottle on the table, but Johnson paid him no mind. He suffered terrible convulsions and died several days later, on August 16, 1938. Even in death however, Johnson could not find any lasting peace. To this day, his final resting place is still the subject of considerable debate. In Mississippi, there are actually two different gravesites, which bear his name.

Without the solid foundation of the blues, rock and roll would probably not exist. During the decades since his death, Robert Johnson's music has influenced countless other artists. In the most immediate sense, his style was adopted and imitated by the blues musicians who followed in his footsteps. Then in turn, these artists had an effect on subsequent generations.

His legacy can be heard in a broad spectrum of music, from jazz to R & B to rock. And in recent years, he has finally begun to receive the credit he so richly deserves. In 1986, he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame as one of the forefathers of rock music. Further recognition came when the U.S. Post Office issued a commemorative stamp in his honor on September 17, 1994. It is impossible to calculate the full impact of Johnson's music, as the ripple effect continues to spread outwards. But clearly the lonely blues man from Mississippi has achieved the fame, which he craved during his short life.



The haunting melodies of Billie Holiday gave new life to a song written in 1933 by Rezso Seress. Three years later, a rash of suicides in Hungary pointed to the song as the cause. The song was banned and American musicians and singers jumped at the chance to record the infamous tune. Billie Holiday's version became the most popular. Was the song responsible for hundreds of suicides? The only fact known is that Rezso Seress did leap to his death in 1968. From Snopes.com 

Up to seventeen suicides were purportedly linked in some way to the song "Gloomy Sunday" in Hungary before the song was (allegedly) banned. These "links" included people who reportedly killed themselves after listening to the song (either from a recording or performed by a band), or who were said to have been found dead with references to "Gloomy Sunday" (and/or its lyrics) in their suicide notes, with "Gloomy Sunday" sheet music in their hands, or with "Gloomy Sunday" playing on gramophones.

I don't know how any of these claims could be verified short of paging through old Hungarian newspapers; even then, it would be difficult at this late date to separate exaggerated and fabricated reports from true ones. I suspect that this portion of the legend is trivially true, a combination of Hungary's historically high suicide rate and the assumption of a causal -- rather than a coincidental -- relationship between the song and suicides that caused rumors and media reports to be greatly exaggerated.

Hungary has had the highest suicide rate of any country for many years (as high as 45.9 per 100,000 people in 1984), so a few dozen suicides there over a year's time certainly wouldn't have been unusual, even in 1936. Nor is it at all uncommon for suicides to work something from popular songs or books or films into their deaths. Only when one particular song was coincidentally linked to a sufficient number of suicides to draw attention to all the suicides in which it played a part did people start to claim that it was somehow the cause of these deaths.

Many claims are made about the reaction to "Gloomy Sunday" by Hungarian authorities, from "discouraging" public performance of the song to an outright ban on it. I have found no reliable information about when, where, or by whom this song might have been banned in one form or another. My guess, based on similar legends (such as the claim that Donald Duck was banned in insert Scandinavian country of choice), would be that some Hungarian municipalities may have instituted some types of (possibly voluntary) restrictions on the song, but that there was no nation-wide ban on "Gloomy Sunday."

The claims about American reaction to the song are even wilder. Some sources claim that no "Gloomy Sunday"-inspired suicides were reported in the USA at all, while others attribute cases of suicide (up to "200 worldwide") in both the USA and Britain to the English-language version of "Gloomy Sunday" (including "young jazz fans" who became depressed after hearing Billie Holiday's version of the song). Likewise, while some sources say that there were no restrictions whatsoever placed on the song in the USA, others claim that it was "banned from the airwaves." (Sometimes the ban is said to have been directed at a particular version of the song, such as Billie Holiday's recording of it.) Some sources even claim that a sort of "compromise" ban was enacted as many radio stations played only the instrumental version of the song.

The "girlfriend who inspired the song committed suicide" claims sounds like an embellishment of the basic legend, as I only found one source that mentioned it. It claimed that Javor "wrote the song for a former girlfriend," and that shortly after its release she committed suicide and left behind a note reading simply "Gloomy Sunday."

Rezso Seress did indeed commit suicide, jumping from a Budapest building in 1968. This portion of the legend also appears to have been embellished, with some sources claiming that he was depressed because he'd never been able to produce another hit after "Gloomy Sunday."


On Congress Street in Downtown Jackson in the shadow of the capitol building, stands the 930 Blues Cafe. But it's a different sort of shadow that brought the unexplained team to this building.

Original Image



Enhanced Image


The picture seems to be of a misty human form standing at the top of the stairs...a figure that wasn't discovered until the image was viewed later. That picture was taken inside the 930 Blues Cafe. The person who took the picture, was only trying to get a shot of the mural at the top of the stairs. Our cameras were not allowed inside the 930 Blues Cafe, but we did speak with employees who have reported a number of strange happenings, such as doors slamming shut when there's no breeze. So, these legends only continue to lure people to the mystique of the Blues. From a legendary Delta blues man dealing with the devil to a song that's said to drive people to suicide, and ghostly figures lingering in Blues cafes. With all urban legends there is a shred of truth. Nobody, however, can deny that the pain of the Blues is still attracting fans from all parts of the world. 
 
Additional Resources:

Delta Haze Corporation

Robert Johnson Notebooks


Robert Johnson's Death Certificate


Robert Johnson Memorials & Buildings
 


"Can't You Hear the Wind Howl?"

The Unofficial Billie Holiday Site


The Song that Can Kill


930 Blues Cafe

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