Rosedale Mississippi, where the crossroads of highways US 61 and US 49 in Clarksdale. Robert Johnson and his legendary crossroads deal with the devil, in which he sold his immortal soul for musical genius on blues guitar, is deeply embedded in the mythology and legend of the rural South and is one of the best known tales of American folklore. The scene of Johnson’s crossroads deal is not exactly something that can be proven. He was born in Hazlehurst, and his supposed grave is in Quito near Itta Bena but Rosedale did figure in the lyrics for one of Johnson’s most famous songs, “Travelling Riverside Blues”.
“Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale,” he wails, “gon’ take my rider by my side.”
“Traveling Riverside Blues” had a enormous influence on rock n roll, and was remade as “Crossroads” by Eric Clapton which mentions Rosedale with the same expression Johnson uses. It was also covered by Led Zeppelin whose more well known “Lemon Song” notably steals a lyric from that same Johnson tune, “You can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice runs down my leg”.
Not an iota of this proves much about Robert Johnson’s crossroads, of course, but I for one like the idea that it happened in Rosedale.
Meeting with the Devil at the Crossroads
Robert Johnson had been playing down in Yazoo City and over at Beulah trying to get back up to Helena, when his ride left him out on a road near to the levee, under his own steam he walked up the highway, guitar in his hand propped over his shoulder. It was a cool October night, full moon big up the dark sky, Robert Johnson thoughts was about Son House preaching to him, “Put that guitar down, boy, you drivin’ people nuts.” Robert Johnson needing as always a woman and some whiskey, Big trees all around dark and lonesome road, a demented poisoned dog howling and carping in a ditch at the side of the road sending shock chills down through his body, approaching the crossroads just south of Rosedale. Johnson, feeling bad and lonesome knows folks up the highway in Gunnison. Can get a
whiskey and women up there. Someone sitting off to the side of the road on a log at the crossroads says, “You’re late, Robert Johnson.” Robert Johnson drops to his knees and says, “Maybe not.” The man stands up, tall, slender, and black as the eternally closed eyes of Robert Johnson’s stillborn baby, the figure walks out to the centre of the crossroads where Robert Johnson kneels. He says, “Stand up, Robert Johnson. You want to bowl that guitar over there in that ditch with that rabid dog and go on back up to Robinsonville and play the harp with Willie Brown and Son House, cos you just one more guitar player like all the rest, or you want to play that guitar like nobody ever played it before? Make a sound nobody ever heard before? You want to be the King of the Delta Blues and have all the whiskey and women you want?”
“That’s a lot of whiskey and women, Devil Man.”
“I know you, Robert Johnson,” says the man.
Robert Johnson feels the moonlight bearing down on his head and the back of his neck as the moon seems to be rising bigger and bigger and brighter. He feels it like the heat of the noonday sun bearing down, and the howling and moaning of the dog in the ditch penetrates his soul, coming up through his feet and the tips of his fingers through his legs and arms, settling in that big vacant place below his breastbone causing him to shake and tremble like a man with the palsy. Robert Johnson says, “That dog gone mad.”
The man laughs. “That hound belongs to me spirit an all. He ain’t mad, he’s got the Blues. I got his soul in my hand.”
The dog lets out a low, long soulful lament, a howling like never heard before, rhythmic, syncopated grunts, yelps, and barks, seizing Robert Johnson like a Grand Mal, and causing the strings on his guitar to vibrate, hum, and sing with a sound dark and blue, beautiful, soulful chords and notes possessing Robert Johnson, taking him over, spinning him around, losing him inside of his own self, wasting him, lifting him up into the sky. Johnson gazes over in the ditch and sees the eyes of the dog reflecting the clear moonlight, more likely so it seems to Robert Johnson, glowing on their own, a deep violet penetrating glow, and Robert Johnson knows and feels that he is staring into the eyes of a Hellhound as his body shudders from head to toe.
The man says, “The dog ain’t for sale, Robert Johnson, but the sound can be yours. That’s the sound of the Delta Blues and the fingers too.”
“I got to have that sound, Devil Man. That sound is mine. Where do I sign?”
The man says, “Robert Johnson. Your word is plenty. All you got to do is keep walking north. But you better be prepared. There is a cost.”
“what cost, Devil man?”
“You know where you are, Robert Johnson? You are standing in the middle of the crossroads. At midnight, that full moon is right over your head. You take one more step, you’ll be in Rosedale. You take this road to the east, you’ll get back over to Highway 61 in Cleveland, or you can turn around and go back down to Beulah or just go to the west and sit up on the levee and look at the River. But if you take one more step in the path you’re headed, you going to be in Rosedale at midnight under this full moon, and you are going to have the Blues like never known to this world. My left hand will be forever wrapped around your soul, and your music will possess all who hear it. That’s what’s going to happen. That’s what you better be prepared for. Your soul will belong to me. This is not just any crossroads. I put this “X” here for a reason, and I been waiting on you.”
Robert Johnson rolls his head around, his eyes upwards in their sockets to stare at the blinding light of the moon which has now completely filled tie pitch black Delta night, piercing his right eye like a bolt of lightning as the midnight hour hits. He looks the big man directly in the eyes and says, “Step back, Devil Man, I’m going to Rosedale. I am the Blues.”
The man moves to one side and says, “Go on, Robert Johnson. You the King of the Delta Blues. Go on home to Rosedale. And when you get on up in town, you get you a plate of hot tamales because you going to be needing something on your stomach where you’re headed.” short gifted gain in this life for a big eternal payback