photo manipulation by nacrowe
the recent documentary DEVIL AT THE CROSSROADS (ALL RISE FILMS, 2019) is an uneven documentary concerning DELTA BLUES icon and AMERICAN folk-hero ROBERT JOHNSON, who is a pivotal figure of the first order in 20th century world culture writ large.
this film attempts to bring context to his life, both in terms of his personal narrative and his influence on generations of musicians. participating musicians include TAJ MAHAL, KEB MO, KEITH RICHARDS, JOHN P. HAMMOND (son of the legendary JOHN H HAMMOND of COLUMBIA RECORDS), BONNIE RAITT and ERIC CLAPTON.
i think where this brief (under and hour) documentary excels is in its dispeling of popular myths surrounding the BLUES that came out of the MISSISSIPPI DELTA region in the pre-WWII, post-reconstruction era. this includes the misconception that the BLUES came out of the church. if anything, according to this documentary, the southern BAPTIST churches of were the ones that demonized BLUES musicians, who often played for the sharecroppers while in the fields as well as at BLACK-owned juke joints at the edges of small towns. it was these southern BAPTIST reverends that popularized the idea of JOHNSON selling his soul to the devil in order to become a gifted guitarist.
the documentary even goes so far as to decode some of the lyrics. for instance, references to women in lyrics by BLUES musicians that were played in the fields where not references to objects of affection who treated them poorly, instead they represented the plantation owners and how they exploited them and their race. specific to JOHNSON are coded references to the KLU KLUX KLAN, evading lynching and HOODOO beliefs in nation sacks.
what comes across in the documentary is the struggle of a supremely gifted songwriter and musician who became proficient through dedication to his craft despite traumatic loss and isolation. his mother's first husband was a successful business who was run out by the clan, leaving her in the process. JOHNSON's father was a local he barely knew. she eventually settled with a sharecropper after years of wandering from town to town who would beat a young JOHNSON for not committing to working the fields. for JOHNSON, the fields was something to avoid, something to transcend. it is the belief by some that this breaking away was what made the BAPTIST church so envious of these truly independent musicians.
less interesting in this documentary is their brief run through of how WHITE AMERICA got interested in his music and the influence of his playing and songwriting on later generations of BLUES players and ROCK AND ROLL musicians, all who essentially are playing on variations of his music.
what particularly annoyed me about this film was the mention of the "27 Club" of prominent musicians that passed on unexpectedly at that age at the peak of their powers. its a tired cliche that isn't deserving of mention in the telling of JOHNSON's story and actually diminishes the seriousness of his work (as well as that of JIM MORRISON, JIMI HENDRIX, AMY WINEHOUSE, JANIS JOPLIN, KURT COBAIN, etc). ditto for the constant mentions of him selling his soul to the devil where it is said at face value. seems to me that whenever someone or something is beyond comprehension, our knee-jerk reaction is to ascribe some sort of divinity or wacky supernatural fairy dust on top of it. JOHNSON didn't pay any price for his talents by being poisoned at a juke joint. he hit on the wrong person's girl and paid the brutal consequences of that decision. the real tragedy is that nobody spoke out about it, because in essence he was on the edge of society, even black society.
because he was, after all, a BLUES musician. if anything he sacrificed himself to their escapism, their religious delusions, their hypocrisy.
im with the grandson of JOHNSON who states that the meaning of the crossroads is what each of us is willing to sacrifice in order to achieve greatness. i say amen to that.
photo & text by nacrowe
LIFE (LITTLE BROWN & CO, 2010), written by the iconic ROLLING STONES guitarist / songwriter KEITH RICHARDS is one of the most expansive memoirs by a musician i have come across in recent years. it is exceptionally well written and conceived and was an enthralling read mostly due to the scope of its narrative.
following his early life you really get a feel for how early ROCK & ROLL was transmitted abroad and reintroduced by a bevy of talented BRITISH musicians who were steeped and obsessed with forgotten and dismissed stateside BLUES traditions. in a very real sense, these BRITISH INVASION bands reintroduced AMERICA to her own musical traditions.
for me that early period is the most interesting section of the book. you get a sense for how hostile the club scene in LONDON was initially to bands exploring the BLUES in the early 60s, instead focused at the time on ROCKABILLY and early ROCK AND ROLL. THE ROLLING STONES initially were just a group of CHICAGO BLUES obsessives (i.e. the roster of CHESS RECORDS) that aspired to be the best cover band of that music in town. songwriting wasn't even in the picture for them. one interesting tidbit during this period was the fact that there was a loose underground collective of record collectors that would play newly imported hard to find vinyl singles at house gatherings. these obsessives would argue about the authenticity of the artists while RICHARDS and MICK JAGGER were there only to glean off ideas about how to deconstruct the actual compositions themselves. its hilarious to think that these BRITISH obsessives thought they knew about the BLUES enough to judge them. its sad that when these musicians (like MUDDY WATERS) came to play ENGLAND they were booed for not fitting the prescriptive view of what a BLUESMAN should look and sound like (i.e. ROBERT JOHNSON). typical BRITISH snobbery. but you get a sense of what RICHARDS was fighting against.
this book goes deep into various parts of his career and personal life, as well as his relationship with drugs. its funny because RICHARDS has a public persona for being a modern-day PIRATE or DRACULA figure who, much like LEMMY KILMISTER, has consumed in inordinate amount of pharmaceuticals and yet somehow has carried on into his elder years. in actual fact throughout his memoir RICHARDS makes repeated commentary about the mistakes made by others regarding drugs. he speaks of using in moderation and consuming a base amount to maintain a steady level alertness, something he did to stay up for days on end recording albums in the late 60s and early 70s. he never upped the dosage in search of a higher plateau. it was all about stability.
this concept regarding stability also seems to be how he navigates relationships both personal and business alike. despite his bacchanalian reputation for debauched depravity, i mean he is practically the poster child for ROCK AND ROLL excess, he speaks about things like groupie-culture as less about sex and more about companionship while on the road for years on end, especially in the earlier years. its counter-intuitive from your expectations going in, but THE DIRT this is not. he comes off practically like an ENGLISH gentleman.
but again, for me this book is less about the extracurriculars and more about his appreciation for music and the art of collaboration. in many ways his strength as a musician, aside from his songwriting prowess, is to seamlessly integrate himself into a rhythm section, maintaining the groove without showboating or drawing attention to himself. they had JAGGER for that, the ultimate peacock. JAGGER for himself is given praise throughout but also consternation for his betrayal of the band in the 1980s when seeking a solo deal with the same company on the back of a recently signed multi-album deal for the band. JAGGER collaborates when necessary but ultimately is made to look like a selfish opportunist of the first order, seeking glory for himself which very much goes against the ethos of the band.
i could go because this book is beyond expansive and well-worth the time of anyone interested in ROCK AND ROLL, BLUES, COUNTRY MUSIC or the historical progression of popular music in the 20th century. can't wait to read JAGGER's perspective if such ever comes out.