Blog Post 155 – Radiolab and Robert Johnson at the Crossroads

Hi all!

I know this isn’t the botanical lore I was promising for the month of April, but don’t worry, there’s more of that coming. I just had to share something that my very dear and wonderful friend Kathleen alerted me to. One of my favorite non-magical podcasts in the world, Radiolab, just did a really interesting mini-show on a topic which intersects with our work here!

Please hop over and check out the 30 minute Radiolab short on the Crossroads, specifically the tangled crossroads legend surrounding blues players Robert Johnson (to whom the myth of selling his soul to become a great blues player is frequently ascribed) and Tommy Johnson (who may actually have done the crossroads ritual). There are fantastic interviews with music historians, blues experts, and even Tommy Johnson’s brother, all of which help shed light on the strange and gorgeous African American folk tale about gaining new power at the crossroads.

I should point out that they come at this from a scientific and historical perspective, and really are pursuing the true story about the musicians rather than doing much to get at the folkloric roots of the crossroads phenomenon. They specifically wind up ignoring the existence of the story in other African American literary and folklore sources, such as these:

  • The multiple incidents of crossoroads conjure recorded by Harry M. Hyatt between 1935-1939 (found at the bottom of the Lucky Mojo page linked above), which would have pre-dated the “creation” of this story as described in the Radiolab short
  • The numerous incidences of crossroads as places of healing, particularly trading things like a wart or a sty to a mysterious stranger, in Southern and African American folklore (which can be found in Hyatt’s work, the work of Vance Randolph, and Newbell Niles Puckett).
  • Puckett’s description of the crossroads ritual as an origin for folk hero Jack, which was published in 1926 and states:

Various legends are in vogue among the Negroes to account for the origin of this creature.  One illustrating the common theme, was told me by a root-doctor last summer.  Jack sold himself to the devil at the crossroads one night at twelve o’clock. For seven years all power was given to him to do as he pleased, but at the end of that period his soul belonged to the devil. [This eventually goes on to tell the story of Jack-o-Lantern, but the crossroads portion of it is given here as illustration of my particular point]

  • Zora Neale Hurston’s 1931 article on African American folk magic, which has the following item in it:

How to Have a Slick Hand with People.

On the dark moon of any Friday night, dress yourself in black. Sit flat in the fork of a cross road at exactly twelve o’clock and sell yourself out to the devil. After which you shall have power to do anything you wish to do (“Hoodoo in America,” 392)

  • The appearance of crossroads in European folk magic (such as that found in Charles Leland’s Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune-telling, published in 1891, long before the legends being described in the blues tales)

There are so many other appearances of crossroads in folklore that it would be daunting to tackle them here (though I will probably try to do a bigger article on them some day). My real point is just to say that while I love the Radiolab story, they definitely overlooked a large amount of crossroads material so that they could focus more on the story of two real blues musicians, which is understandable.

I really do hope you’ll give this particular show a listen. It’s great, especially in its ability to untangle the two legends from one another, and you get to hear some really hauntingly good blues, too.  Let me know what you think of it!

All the best, thanks for reading, and see you down at the crossroads…

-Cory

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2 Comments on “Blog Post 155 – Radiolab and Robert Johnson at the Crossroads”


  1. The roots of crossroads mystery in Europe go back into prehistory, too. Shrines to Hermes in His most primal form (pillars called Herms) were erected at crossroads, and there is much lore associating Hekate with crossroads, as well.

    Check out Nigel Pennick’s stuff on roads and crossroads sometime, too. He’s deeply attuned to European earth mysteries.

  2. Kathleen Says:

    YAY! This was an awesome RadioLab short! I wish it was a full show but it was still amazing! I was very interested in how during the interview Ledell Johnson brought up his brother selling his soul so matter of fact. It was awesome to hear his account of HOW you go to the crossroads to sell your soul. And the MUSIC! I did feel like maybe they tip toed around the subject of the crossroads but I feel like they left it alone out of respect. I felt like the piece still left an air of mystery about the crossroads.


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