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 by nacrowe
LOVE IN VAIN: ROBERT JOHNSON 1911-1938 (FABER & FABER, 2016) is lovingly constructed graphic novel depicting the basic narrative of doomed legendary DELTA BLUES artist ROBERT JOHNSON from the perspective of the DEVIL.
in terms of narrative there seems to be a heavy focus on the sheer physicality of the era, especially with evocative visual depictions of the thankless task of laboring in the cotton fields and carousing in the juke joints. you get a sense of how far outside of society JOHNSON was for pursuing a career in music that was unsanctioned by the BLACK BAPTIST CHURCH. you also get a feel for how all modes of escapism, whether they were musical, sexual or chemical in nature, where all just diversions from the harsh draconian reality that was being an AFRICAN AMERICAN in the JIM CROW, post-reconstruction deep south.
as with all types of narrative telling, choices are made regarding the subject that reflect more on the author/artist than the subject perhaps. this is true in the case of LOVE IN VAIN which was created by R. CRUMB acolyte MEZZO and finds interest in the extremity of the subject matter. in my mind, what i find more interesting about JOHNSON and his art are the ways that his upbringing and background informed his art. how they contextualized his lyrics. how those lyrics and that sound connected with generations of artists.
the devil at the crossroads gimmick is overblown in my opinion. it also is highly misrepresented as conversing with god in order to gain insight or wisdom is a hallmark of the WEST AFRICAN storytelling and oral history tradition than anything else. what gets perpetuated in well-meaning texts like this is the idea of a man who deserved to die for his talent, which is bullshit. the man was poisoned by a jilted husband of woman he was pursuing. shit happens. he messed with the wrong guy and due to his status as a societal outside, JOHNSON was left for dead without a doctor. his death was inevitable or a sign of anything.
i was a little let down that the narrator was the devil, even if he questioned the motives of several characters in the process (which is a bit of a head-scratcher when the lord of darkness finds you a bit duplicitous). seemed exploring WEST AFRICAN culture of HOODOO beliefs would have been more interesting, but hey the pictures are amazing.