ReMastered season 1, episode 7 recap: Devil at the Crossroads


Episode 7 of Netflix original ReMastered examines the mythology of bluesman Robert Johnson. Did he make a deal with the devil?

ReMastered has looked at scandals rocking the music world before. However, it’s shied away somewhat from looking at the music itself. “Devil at the Crossroads” comes closest to doing that, as it looks at the legacy and mythology of blues icon Robert Johnson. The big question, of course, is whether or not he actually made a pact with the devil to improve his musical abilities. It sounds like a silly question, but the legend is almost synonymous with the man.

ReMastered suggest Johnson isn’t just a great bluesman but was also the template for what became rock ‘n roll. However, is the man as mysterious as the legend suggests? Sure, there are only 2 known photos of him, but there is evidence that his mysterious history has more earthly origins. In piecing together the Robert Johnson story, ReMastered consults experts like rock curator Bruce Cornforth and scholar/musician Adam Gussow, as well as musicians like Rory Block, John Paul Hammond, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, Taj Mahal and Keith Richards. Just as importantly, it consults Robert’s living grandson, Steven Johnson!

Robert Johnson’s origins

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Robert Johnson was born to Julia and Charles Dodds. Mr. Dodds, a wealthy carpenter and farmer, is said to have fled Memphis, Tennessee to escape the jealous, racist terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, Julia lived with a lumber camp worker. Things didn’t improve much for young Robert. According to ReMastered, his sharecropper stepfather abused him for not working the fields. Bluesman Taj Mahal mentions the origins of blues, as a way of entertaining workers in the fields. Because sharecroppers couldn’t pay for the music, the bluesman would travel to get money, playing whatever gigs they could. In a very real way, it was an attempt to earn a living outside of field work. Unfortunately, blues was often considered “devil music,” which was yet another obstacle musicians faced (other than racism, competitors and rip-offs in general).

Life threatened to settle him down but fell short. Johnson married Virginia Travis, who moved with her grandmother to give birth. Johnson used this as an opportunity to tour. Unfortunately, while he was gone, Virginia died in childbirth. What drew him to music? He had been impressed by established musicians like Son House, but blues elitists initially rejected him as untalented, or just making noise. This apparently triggered him to improve his skills, almost like revenge. In a short time, he would be considered as outperforming his mentors! This led to the myth that, at one point in his short time outside the scene, Johnson went to “the crossroads” and made a deal with the devil to improve his guitar skills.

This partly reflects the superstitions of the time, according to Yvonne Chureau, a Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College. She discusses “hoodoo,” or African American folk spirituality. Author and musician Zeke Schein also demonstrates hoodoo references in Robert Johnson lyrics. Also, the song “Hellhound on My Trail” obviously features devilish imagery, which makes Johnson sort of a proto-shock rocker — albeit playing the blues. However, even that song deals with more earthly issues. “Hellhound on My Trail” refers to sprinkling “hot powder” at his door — a reference to a technique used to ward off bloodhounds. Modern bluesman Keb’ Mo’ adds that the crossroad myth is a metaphor.

Demystifying the legend

Where did Robert Johnson really hone his guitar skills? ReMastered says that, when Johnson visited Mississippi to locate his birth father, he found his mentor instead: Ike Zimmerman. While little seems known about Zimmerman, he was considered one of the greats in his day, and also had some strange ideas which may have added to the “crossroads” myth. For example, Zimmerman said one could only learn the blues by sitting on a gravestone at midnight in a cemetery, during which spirits called “haints” would come out and teach you how.

Such devil imagery alienated Johnson, it certainly would have added to his legend. When he impregnated someone named Virgie Cain, her parents thought he played “the devil’s music” and shunned him. In fact, according to ReMastered,” he had trouble meeting his own son, Claude, for being a blues musician!

The death of a man, continuation of a legend

In 1938, Robert Johnson was at Three Forks Juke in Missisippi. It’s claimed that he was served poisoned whiskey by someone jealous of his flirting with his wife. Supposedly he died in 3 days and the man who poisoned him got away without even an inquiry. Of course, this legend is disputed, as some believe he died from congenital syphilis. In any case, the man’s death is shrouded in mystery, and there was no autopsy done. Though this may have resulted from racism, it oddly adds to his mystique.

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Johnson was highly influential on other greats bluesmen, like Muddy waters. In addition, he influenced folk legend Bob Dylan, countless rock bands (like Led Zeppelin), and is considered an early entry to the “27 club” — musicians who died at the age of 27 (like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Mia Zapata). To paraphrase Steven Johnson: At some point in life, we all come to a crossroads and choose how much to sacrifice for greatness.

What are your thoughts on Robert Johnson’s music and legend? What did you think of this episode of ReMastered? Let us know in the comments!