Crossroads, Selling Your Soul, Voodoo & The Blues


Android Futureman
Aug 7, 2002
A friend has been reading the book Escaping the Delta about the world of Robert Johnson, master bluesman, and it got me started about the whole blues culture, and in particular the Crossroads selling of the soul.

There are three fairly famous blues musicians associated with selling their souls - Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, and Peetie Wheatstraw, who billed himself as The Devil's Son-In-Law or the High Sheriff of Hell (and who was made into a film character by Rudy Ray Moore).

The story tends to go: The bluesman would met the Devil at a crossroads at midnight, handing him their guitars and allowing him to tune it to give them unheard of skills in exchange for their souls.

But here's where things get weird. Escaping the Delta seems to think that the accusation of Robert Johnson selling his soul was an after-death fabrication made by people who wanted to get paid by credulous ethnographers interested in hearing any stories about Robert Johnson.

The Peetie Whetstraw article I found indicates that the whole thing was just a device to get attention for their playing.

But I also found another article on Robert Johnson online that tried to bring Robert Johnson into the idea that he was induced into the Voodoo religion in an attempt to better his confidence and musicianship, to become just a flat-out better artist. A few quotes from this article:

A man named Julio Finn wrote a book titled: The Bluesman The Musical Heritage of Black Men and Women in the Americas. Finn adds the factor of voodoo to the equation, "It is doubtful whether Johnson could have written the lyrics of songs with out having been initiated into the cult…the symbolism involved in them is highly complex and of a nature which makes it highly improbable that they were simply things he 'picked up'(215)." With voodoo given credence, Finn provides an intuitive insight of Johnson's psyche and artistic sensibility. I believe an answer to our burning question is found with Julio Finn.


Many countries such as the European countries, India, Greece and Japan, as well as people such as the American Indians, subscribed to the superstitions and folk tales of the crossroads. At these intersections, demons, evil spirits, ghosts, Kobolds and fairies were found. It is a burial place for suicides and murderers and a dump heap for parricides. The crossroads is a rendezvous for witches who use this place for Sabbat rituals. Sacrifices were offered to the gods to protect humans from the evil which lurked here.

Legba is a trickster deity and god of entrances and crossroads. He is part of the belief systems of blacks of Dutch Guina, Brazil, Trinidad, Cuba and the voodoo cult of Haiti and New Orleans. In the new world, Legba goes about in tatters and he functions in cult rituals "to open the way" for the gods to possess their devotees. For this reason his songs are sung first at all rites. In the new world syncretism he is often equated with the devil. With this information, we can assume that when Robert Johnson made his claim of meeting the devil, he was referring to Legba.


Finn's argument for voodoo becomes stronger at this point in Johnson's life. Johnson's young wife died during childbirth. Finn sees this as a catalyst which draws Johnson to a search within himself, an attempt to gain control of his life:

"Confronted with yet another crisis, this young man sought a means of transforming his life, by transforming life itself into a work of art. Disillusioned with the reality the white world imposed upon him, he turned to the world of magic to the supernatural powers promised by Hoodoo…Having realized that music was a kind of magic, he sought out magic to gain control over it(213)."

To harness this power he sought the guidance of a Root Doctor{a voodoo medicine man}. Deep in the bayou, he sought to understand that energy which all human beings possess. He learned to channel it through his guitar, much the same way a practitioner of voodoo channels a spirit using his body. In this way the blues is an offshoot of voodoo, an Americanized version of the African religion.

So maybe there's more to this whole "selling the soul at the crossroads" biz than has been understood by less religious/spiritual people, or by people who want to discount Voodoo's influense.... any other theories or infortamtion that any blues fans might have?

Robert Johnson Article
Peetie Wheatstraw Article
Tommy Johnson Article
Some interesting stuff here, including
documentation on the crossroads ritual ....... from "Hoodoo - Conjuration - Witchcraft - Rootwork," a 5-volume, 4766-page collection of folkloric material gathered by Harry Middleton Hyatt, primarily between 1935 and 1939
and some opinion on the Robert Johnson 'myth', as well as the identity of 'the devil' : this is a great site for information on hoodoo generally.

/edit/ does help to include the url. duh.
More on Tommy Johnson and the significance of the crossroads atLuckyMojo.

This site claims that the devil in this tale is a misinterpretation of an African deity:

"In Africa, almost every cultural group has its own version of the crossroads god. Legba, Ellegua, Elegbara, Eshu, Exu, Nbumba Nzila, and Pomba Gira are African and African-diaspora names (in several languages) for the spirit who opens the way, guards the crossroads, and teaches wisdom.

Because the crossroads is land that belongs to no one, a place outside the borders of town, it is considered a suitable site to perform magical rituals. The use of the crossroads as an impromptu altar where offerings are placed and rituals performed is widely encountered in both European and African folklore."

"The crossroads is the most popular place to perform a specific hoodoo crossroads ritual to learn a skill -- to play a musical instrument, for instance, or to become proficient at throwing dice, dancing, public speaking, or whatever one chooses. As this ritual is usually described, you bring the item you wish to master -- your banjo, guitar, fiddle, deck of cards, or dice -- and wait at the crossroads on three or nine specified nights or mornings. On your successive visits you may witness the mysterious appeances of a series of animals. On your last visit, a " big black man" will arrive. If you are not afraid and do not run away, he will ask to borrow the item you wish to learn. He will show you the proper way to use the item by using it himself. When he returns it to you, you will suddenly have the gift of greatness.
The man who meets people at the crossroads and teaches them skills is sometimes called "the devil" He is also called "the rider," the "li'l ole funny boy" or "the big black man," black in this case meaning the actual colour, not a brown-skinned ("coloured" or Negro) person. Because he shares qualities with and derives from a number of African crossroads spirits (of whom Legba, Ellegua, Elegbara, Eshu, Nbumba Nzila, and Pomba Gira are some African and African-diaspora names), it is a common scholarly conceit to equate the crossroads "devil" with Legba, but that is utterly unheard of in the oral folk tradition.

This African-derived crossroads ritual is one of the most widely distributed beliefs in African-American folklore and is practiced throughout the South. It is the subject of the rest of this essay."

Much more on the site, including instructions on how to try this for yourself (Not sure if you're allowed to take a van, that crossroads ritual really wasn't designed for pianists was it?:hmph: )

Curiously the author here is of the opinion that Robert Johnson's Crossroads Blues is about hitch-hiking - I thought it was generally accepted that it was just about having to make choices?
BlackRiverFalls said:
Curiously the author here is of the opinion that Robert Johnson's Crossroads Blues is about hitch-hiking - I thought it was generally accepted that it was just about having to make choices?

Why can't it be about both?

Most blues lyrics have two or three layers of meaning - one of them sexual.
Great link, BlackRiverFalls... it seems like the article I put out was maybe more a product of the same kind of thinking as Margeret Murray's Witch Cult book, too much speculation and not enough facts... the link you provided sounds more resonable and realistic, but just as fascinating.
Series: Re-mastered
Episode: Devil At The Crossroads

This tale of the life of Robert Johnson is straight no-frills story-telling. Best thing for me is the descriptions of his unique playing style. The mythology is same ol same ol.

Shame on whomever dumped my Blues Thread. :mad: Best playlist on the board.
Why can't it be about both?

Most blues lyrics have two or three layers of meaning - one of them sexual.
Johnson's Terraplane Blues is a good example of that- Led Zeppelin later used the same car/shagging metaphor for Trampled Under Foot.
I made a motorcycle trip thru the Delta back in 2019, I think it was, before Covid anyway.
Im afraid any mojo at The Crossroads is most likely long gone. Now there’s a gas station, a convenience store, a fast food joint, and a discount furniture store on each corner. Also the roads are paved, not a cottonfield in sight, and theres a traffic light.
Only thing that hasn't changed is its still in the middle of abject poverty. The MS Delta is on par with some reservations out west as far as neglected & poor as hell places in the USA.
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