By Steve Beard
Despite being a monumental influence on contemporary music, most people outside the small fraternity of blues aficionados have never even heard of Robert Johnson (1911-1938). As a matter of fact, it was not until 70 years after his death that he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys.
His mark on the history of rock ‘n’ roll, however, is undeniable. “Robert Johnson is the most important blues musician who ever lived,” says legendary guitarist Eric Clapton. “I have never found anything more deeply soulful. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.”
Robert Johnson’s life was tragic, miserable, and short. He never knew his father. His birth was the result of an extramarital affair. He wandered around the South, using aliases to keep one step ahead of the law. When he got married as a young man, both his wife and baby died during childbirth. After that, he drank hard and chased women. In “Preaching Blues,” he sings, “the blues is a low-down achin’ heart disease/ Like consumption killing me by degrees.”
Johnson also was a certifiable musical genius, able to do things with the guitar that no one else had done. Even though he only recorded 29 songs in the mid-1930s, he mesmerized fans all over the South.
Because he had mastered the guitar seemingly overnight, the rumors began to whirl. It was said that he went out to the crossroads and traded his immortal soul for the ability to play the guitar. Like a showman, Johnson never contradicted the rumors. With songs like “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Hellhound on My Trail,” as well as lyrics that dealt with damnation and salvation, he let the legend take on a life of its own.
Several years ago, my best friend Troy and I traveled to the crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly waited for his encounter with the Devil. Blues fans like us from all over the world travel to the intersection of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
In the South, the juke joints are packed on Saturday night and the clapboard churches are crowded on Sunday morning. The Robert Johnson legend of the crossroads fits right into a vibrant worldview of angels, demons, heaven, hell, sin, and atonement. At the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, you can even buy a t-shirt that reads, “Lord, forgive Robert Johnson.”
The metaphor of the crossroads is not reserved for yesteryear blues vagabonds looking for fame, fortune, and females. Rather, it carries a universal draw to anyone looking for a second chance. The crossroads represent an opportunity to get back on the right course, regain integrity, and give life another shot. It often defines our journey with grit, soul, and drama.
In honor of Robert Johnson’s memory, Eric Clapton hosts the Crossroads Guitar Festival every year. He actually knows a thing or two about crossroads. At one point in his life, Clapton was in the middle of a tour in Australia and he couldn’t stop shaking. “I’d reached the point where I couldn’t live without a drink and I couldn’t live with one,” he wrote in his fascinating autobiography.
At the time, Clapton was a new father and he knew he had to get back into alcohol treatment—especially for the sake of his son Conor. “I thought no matter what kind of human being I was, I couldn’t stand being around him like that,” he wrote. “I couldn’t bear the idea that, as he experienced enough of life to form a picture of me, it would be a picture of the man I was then.”
Clapton had been to rehab and tried to control his drinking, but once again it was controlling him. “I now had two children, neither of whom I was really administering to, a broken marriage, assorted bewildered girlfriends, and a career that, although it was still ticking over, had lost its direction. I was a mess.”
His love for his son proved to be his prime motivation. Clapton wanted things to be different for Conor from what he had experienced as a boy. “I had to break the chain and give him what I had never really had—a father,” he wrote. Clapton had grown up believing that his grandparents who raised him were actually his parents. His childhood was miserable and he was scrambling to make sure history didn’t repeat itself.
Ticking off the days in rehab, he came to the terrifying realization that nothing had really changed about his desires and that he was going to go back outside the safe confines of the treatment center completely unprepared to deal with his addiction.
“The noise in my head was deafening, and drinking was in my thoughts all the time,” he wrote. “It shocked me to realize that here I was in a treatment center, a supposedly safe environment, and I was in serious danger. I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair.”
“At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room I begged for help. I had no notion who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing left to fight with,” Clapton confesses. “Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn’t allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help, and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered.”
That epiphany took place in 1987. Eric Clapton just recently turned 65 years old, but more importantly he has now celebrated 23 years of sobriety.
It took only a few days after that experience for him to realize that something profound had taken place within his life. “An atheist would probably say it was just a change of attitude, and to a certain extent that’s true, but there was much more to it than that,” he conveys. “I had found a place to turn to, a place I’d always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in.
“From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety,” Clapton continued. “I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray, and with my ego, this is the most I can do. If you are asking why I do all this, I will tell you… because it works, as simple as that. In all this time that I’ve been sober, I have never once seriously thought of taking a drink or a drug. I have no problem with religion, and I grew up with a strong curiosity about spiritual matters, but my searching took me away from church and community worship to the internal journey. Before my recovery began, I found my God in music and the arts, with writers like Hermann Hesse, and musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. In some way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to talk to him.”
In 1991, Clapton’s four-year-old son died from an accidental fall from a Manhattan highrise. Understandably, this crossroads devastated him.
“I cannot deny that there was a moment when I did lose faith, and what saved my life was the unconditional love and understanding that I received from my friends and my fellows in the 12-step program,” he writes. The song “Tears In Heaven” emerged out of the anguish of the tragedy in order to help him cope.
Clapton would go to his 12-step meetings and people would get him coffee and let him vent. On one occasion, he was asked to chair the session on the third step—the one about handing your will over to the care of God. During the session, he recounted the mystical experience he had when he fell to his knees and asked for help to stay sober. “I told the meeting that the compulsion was taken away at that moment, and as far as I was concerned, this was physical evidence that my prayers had been answered,” he relates. “Having had that experience, I said, I knew I could get through this.”
Much to his surprise, a woman came up to Clapton after the meeting and said, “You’ve just taken away my last excuse to have a drink.” He asked her what she meant. “I’ve always had this little corner of my mind which held the excuse that if anything were to happen to my kids, then I’d be justified in getting drunk,” she said. “You’ve shown me that’s not true.”
Clapton came to the sudden realization that perhaps there was a way to turn his excruciating pain and tragedy into something that could help someone else. “I really was in the position to say, ‘Well, if I can go through this and stay sober then anyone can.’ At that moment I realized that there was no better way of honoring the memory of my son.”
Not everyone responds at the crossroads of pain and tragedy by finding peace kneeling in prayer. But everyone has been given a choice and an opportunity—from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton to you and to me. There often comes a time when decisions must be made, courage must be summoned, and change must occur. For some it is getting off dope, for others it is getting right with God, and still for others it is just choosing to be a decent human being.
Robert Johnson died at age 27 after three days of pain and agony. Apparently, he was given moonshine laced with strychnine by a jealous husband who believed that Johnson was messing with his wife. Even though there are three different graveyards that claim his bones, he most likely is buried in the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church cemetery in Greenwood, Mississippi.
Etched in the granite tombstone are the words that Johnson supposedly scribbled on his death bed: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He will call me from the grave.”
The lines between fact, fiction, and Robert Johnson are blurry at best. What we know for sure is that crossroads have always held out the offer of a shot at new hope, even if we are approaching the exit gate of life.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News magazine.