Song Of The Day 8/5/2016: Robert Johnson – “Cross Road Blues”
Week Of Lies VI* -- The annals of popular music are filled with anecdotal legends featuring musicians who meet the Devil at the crossroads. In each of these myths, the Devil makes the musician a Faustian offer of fame and wealth, in exchange for the Devil's dominion of his or her immortal soul at the termination of his or her earthly existence.
The myth has been accepted as fact by many music followers in attempts to explain or rationalize the immense popularity of certain musical acts, especially pop "family" acts such as the Osmonds and the Brady Bunch Kids. (These families' deals with the Devil were considerably more complicated, as the souls of each member of the family had to be processed in separate contracts, each with different limitations, conditions and evergreen clauses; the Devil frequently had to temporarily stop proceedings to retrieve ball-point pens and official letterhead from Hell, leaving the families to wait by the crossroads for up to 3 years until he returned. "Deal with it," the Devil was reported to say to patriarch Mike Brady,"at least I made it back to earth earlier than that other guy.")
In reality, encountering the Devil at the crossroads is a phenomenon that stretches back to the earliest days of contemporary American popular music. Reconstituted written journals show the following exchange at a rural intersection not far from Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1892:
DEVIL: Say there, young man, -- you, marching over there. Can I help you with that tuba?
JOHN PHILIP SOUSA: Forsake it! This thing is impossible to march with! I can't keep dropping it like this!
DEVIL: I'll tell ya what you need, sir – you need a way to carry that instrument around your neck! Why, yessir, I think that should just do the trick!
SOUSA: Suspending a tuba via your neck, using a common necklace or lanyard? Speaking of such a thing is nonsense!
DEVIL: Better yet, why don't we take the throat of your tuba, and curve it so the instrument itself drapes against your nape?
SOUSA: You make a mockery of me, candid stranger?
DEVIL: No sir, I am perfectly serious! Wanna strike a deal? We shall make alterations to your tuba, name it after you, and you will make untold amounts of money! In exchange – well, I have one very simple condition for you, sir.
SOUSA: No, sir, I say. No.
(Long, pregnant pause)
DEVIL: You can have orgies.
SOUSA: Where do I sign?
The most well-known account of arranging a deal with the Devil is, of course, that of bluesman Robert Johnson. The legend says that Johnson was guided towards a set of crossroads in rural Mississippi, where the Devil took Johnson's guitar and offered to tune it so he could play any blues song masterfully, as shown in this transcript from a rarely-heard field recording:
JOHNSON: I wanna whammy bar.
DEVIL: A what?
JOHNSON: A whammy bar.
DEVIL: What the hell's a whammy bar?
JOHNSON: Somethin' you attach to the bridge to make the notes vibrate.
DEVIL: You already got a whammy bar. You got ten of 'em. They're on each of your hands.
JOHNSON: Nah, they can't cut it. I want that real fast tremolo, you know?
DEVIL: You can't do that kind of thing with a guitar! Are you crazy? Anyway, I just said I'd tune it. I said nothing about accessorizing.
JOHNSON: Man, you gonna make all these changes to my guitar an' shit, why can't you just throw on a whammy bar? I thought you could do anything.
DEVIL: I… I can, but you're asking me to bend the limits of physics in a way that's impossible!
JOHNSON: Don't gimme that shit. It ain't impossible for you, bitch.
DEVIL: Man… why did I do this today? Why didn't I just go scare the shit out of Benny Goodman like I usually do on Thursdays?
JOHNSON: You comin' down here with all this power and you're tellin' me you ain't gonna use it? Gimme a goddamn whammy bar, cheapskate.
DEVIL: Look. It's very simple. I tune this guitar. You play the guitar. You become the biggest singer in the Delta. That was it. I am tuning this guitar. That's all. I'll tell you what, I'll buff up the frets too. As a favor. I'll even throw in some tuning pegs for free. Because I like you. But there is no way in the world I'm giving you a quote-unquote whammy bar so you can vibrate your notes like some Biloxi whore. If you keep bugging me about this whammy bar shit I'm personally unleashing my hounds on your ass. Is that clear?
JOHNSON: Then gimme a wah-wah pedal.
The Devil continued acting as impresario in this vein throughout the 20th century, imbuing musicians with unmatched instrumental skills, attractive sexual partners, and the finest alcohol available. During the punk era he also made fliers.
Despite the dying bedside pleas of the artists the Devil conducted business with, the entity steadfastly refused to let any of his clients out of their contracts. The first, and so far only, case where the Devil voluntarily broke a contract was recorded in September 2006, during this taped call to a cell phone in Southern California:
KEVIN FEDERLINE: Hello?
DEVIL: Hey, Kevin… this is Satan…
FEDERLINE: Yo yo yo, whassup D-man?
DEVIL: Not much, not much, how are you?
FEDERLINE: I am rollin', sir. Heavy mobbin'. Chillin' as usual. You get the promo I sent you?
DEVIL: Uh, yes… well, that's kind of why I'm callin', Kev…
FEDERLINE: Does my new album thing slam or what? Does your head hurt from all the slammin' you did? Did you slam against walls and doors and shit? Damn, Devil-man! I wanna know if you slammed! Hey, that rhymes! I just made up a new rhyme, G!
DEVIL: Um… Kev, listen, I… you know, there's no easy way to say this, so I'll just come right out with it.
FEDERLINE: Whatsa matter G?
DEVIL: Uh… I'm letting you out of the deal.
DEVIL: The deal. I'm breaking the deal. I'm giving you back your soul. You're not going to hell.
FEDERLINE: What are you talkin' about, man? The album drops next month! You said it was gonna debut at No. 1!
DEVIL: I know, I know, Kevin. And trust me, nobody feels worse about this than I do.
FEDERLINE: Then why are you doin' it?
DEVIL: Well, Kevin… it's… (sigh)… Man, the album just sucks so bad.
FEDERLINE: Ah, man…
DEVIL: I mean, really, dude, it's horrid.
FEDERLINE: You're hurtin' my feelin's, man…
DEVIL: I mean, Kevin… "Lose Control"? You're calling a single "Lose Control"? Do you know how many rappers have a song called "Lose Control"? What's the matter? Did your ex get custody of the thesaurus?
FEDERLINE: But I wanted a track that made the listener really feel like they were… they were… you know, they were… sort of…
DEVIL: I get it, I get it. Losing control.
FEDERLINE: Exactly! You feel me, yo!
DEVIL: Look, look, K-Fed… I have this reputation to uphold, you know? Quality standards. Look at my record… The Eagles, Rick Dees, that guy who did "Undercover Angel" whatever his name was, Christopher Cross, Crash Test Dummies, Stryper…
DEVIL: I can't risk my reputation. I just can't. I let you get away with this, then every half-wit white rapper from Podunk U.S.A. is gonna be callin' me, askin' me to hook 'em up, sayin' "I'm totally off the hook, like K-Fed!" And the whole thing will just snowball. I can't have that. So let's just… look, you get your soul back, you don't go to hell, and we just forget this ever happened.
FEDERLINE: But… I ain't gettin' no No. 1 album?
FEDERLINE: No fancy cars?
FEDERLINE: No fur coats?
FEDERLINE: No Grammys?
FEDERLINE: Not even the Best Metal Grammy that Jethro Tull got?
FEDERLINE: No stables of bitches?
FEDERLINE: No cell phone plan with unlimited data?
FEDERLINE: No customized Myspace page?
FEDERLINE: No three-ring binders?
FEDERLINE: No gift cards for Mickey D's?
FEDERLINE: No milkcow in my backyard with a pretty Dutch milkmaid with lips like a trout?
DEVIL: Kevin, please, stop this. Why don't you go on one of
those cruises? You see what Norwegian's doin' these days? They take real good care of you.
FEDERLINE: Damn, Devil… I don't know what to say. I really… I really wanted to be famous an' shit, yo.
DEVIL: Oh, you'll be famous.
FEDERLINE: I will?
DEVIL: Um… Yes, in a way, you'll be famous. Very famous.
FEDERLINE: No shit?
DEVIL: I can almost unconditionally guarantee that you will… achieve notoriety of some kind. I just don't want to have anything to do with it.
FEDERLINE: Ah, great! I gotta tell the wife!
DEVIL: Kev, Kev, Kev! No, wait! She's not -
* Note: Today's entry is a republish of the most popular single web page I've ever produced, from my old blog Museum of Pop Archaeology, which was really good. This piece was written in 2008. No lie.