Singer/songwriter/guitarist Robert Johnson is the most legendary bluesman in the genre, with a story to match, and the Netflix documentary Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads (one of eight episodes in the ReMastered series) examines his life and myth.
Johnson was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and died in 1938 at the age of 27. He was not a good guitar player until, as the story goes, he went down to a crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil in order to become one of the greatest Delta blues players of all time. The details of his recorded output are inextricably woven into the Robert Johnson legend—he only released 29 songs (along with some alternate takes) for the American Record Company—and there are only three authenticated photographs of the man.
Yet Johnson, who scuffled as an itinerant musician and didn’t become famous outside his local area until long after his death, became a
towering influence on people like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton (who famously covered Johnson’s “Crossroads” on the Cream Wheels of Fire album), and uncountable other blues and rock artists. Many of his songs are classics, like the “Cross Road Blues” (as it was originally titled), “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and ”Love in Vain Blues” to name a few. As Bonnie Raitt says, “If you love the blues, you just gotta go back to the root of Robert Johnson.”
Devil at the Crossroads examines Johnson’s life in detail in its approximately 45-minute run time. It features many excerpts from his recordings, as well as artists like Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal, and Bonnie Raitt playing his songs. Much of the documentary consists of interviews with his grandson Michael Johnson as well as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, artist and Columbia
Records producer John Hammond, and others, along with archival footage of the era and of musicians he influenced like Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Robert Plant.
The documentary brings a lot of information to light, debunks some received wisdom, and leaves unanswered questions. This isn’t the documentary’s fault—not all that much is known about Johnson and much that’s been passed down over the years is contradictory.
The cornerstone of the Robert Johnson myth is that he sold his soul to the devil in order to become an extraordinary guitarist. In fact, at one point in his life Johnson left his Delta home for about a year and came into contact with guitarist Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman, the best guitar player in the region. The story goes that Zimmerman took Johnson to a grave and showed him how to play. When Johnson returned
DEVIL AT A GLANCE
Part of the Netflix Remastered series, this 45-minute documentary on legendary bluesman Robert Johnson suffers from some ill-considered animation and could use some extended performances of Johnson’s work, but otherwise does a good job of telling the story of his obscure life and his tremendous influence on contemporary music.
Clear, full-bodied, and well-mixed. The audio of the original recordings has been cleaned up and de-noised, but not intrusively so.
home, he had become so good that people thought he must have made a deal with the devil. As Michael Johnson notes, “Playing music in the graveyard perpetuated the myth.”
We learn that not much was known about Johnson until his death certificate was discovered in 1967, after which more information came out and “a new key would open up yet another door.” Johnson grew up in an environment of sharecroppers and wanted to make a living with the blues, but it was dangerous for a black musician to travel during those times. Yet as Taj Mahal points out, “You played that music and you could be outside of yourself and you could take everybody else [in the audience] out.”
Devil at the Crossroads doesn’t go into depth regarding Johnson’s playing technique, although Terry “Harmonica” Bean notes that Johnson had exceptionally long fingers, which allowed him to do things other guitarists couldn’t. Keith Richards points out that Johnson could sound like a one-man band, covering the bass, chords, and melodies simultaneously on the lower and upper strings. “One part of what he’s playing is talking to the other part and he’s [singing] in the middle.”
The documentary goes into far more detail about his personal life, his first wife dying in childbirth, his conflicts with family members, and his never knowing his biological father. All of this and other difficulties fueled his need for playing music, traveling, drinking, and womanizing. “Robert’s life was just one tragedy after another. It never seemed to end for him,” says Michael Johnson. It did in fact end after Johnson drank from a poisoned whisky bottle at the Three Forks Juke, given to him by the jealous husband of a woman Johnson had taken up with. He died on August 16, 1938.
Johnson’s music began to be rediscovered in a major way by, of all things, what the documentary calls “78 geeks”—college students in the 1950s and early 1960s who would buy boxes of 78 RPM records. In 1961, John Hammond was instrumental in the release of Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, which introduced a new generation to Johnson’s music.
Devil at the Crossroads does have flaws, the most egregious of which is the use of cheesy animation to illustrate some of the narration. It distracts from and cheapens the seriousness of the subject matter. And while there are plenty of song excerpts by both Johnson and the performers, I wish they would have included a full performance or two. Another thing that will irk blues aficionados to no end: The documentary shows the “crossroads” where Johnson supposedly sold his soul—and shows it over and over again. However, it is not known which intersection is actually the crossroads.
That said, Devil at the Crossroads is visually well done, artfully mixing archival footage, location shots (including the shack where Johnson was supposedly born!), and interviews. The sound is clear, full-bodied, and well-mixed. The audio of the original recordings has been very obviously cleaned up and de-noised, but not intrusively so. And the songs and performances make you realize how much the haunting sound of acoustic slide guitar is crucial to acoustic blues music.
Most of all, Devil at the Crossroads conveys the tragedy and the emotion of Robert Johnson’s music and life. As grandson Michael Johnson points out, “I really believe he was searching for the freedom within, the soul within.”
Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.