In the 20′s Robert Johnson was a kid who wanted to be a blues musician. But he sucked. So he goes away. When he comes back, he isn’t just good. He is awesome and not just in the technical sense but also in the feel it in your soul kind of sense. All the other blues musicians want to know what happened to make him go from terrible to incredible.
If you would believe the story, Robert tells them that he set off into the mississippi darkness, found the crossroads and exchanged his soul for the ability to play.
At the crossroads Route 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi is where it supposedly happened; Guitarist Robert Johnson met the devil, handed over his guitar and became one of the most famous blues guitar legends in history. In short, he sold his soul to the devil. All at the crossroads.
Or so the story goes…..
But is it true? Did he even go to the crossroads at midnight? And did he tell people about it afterwards?
Robert Johnson didn’t get to enjoy his fame. He was poisoned by his lover and died 30 years before the myth ever became a reality. In fact, the crossroads myth associated to him, was actually someone else’s story altogether.
And if it wasn’t for an interview with another famous bluesman’s brother and a chance encounter with a nosy writer / historian, it probably wouldn’t be a story at all.
It all began when David Evans, a professor at the University of Memphis did a taped interview in 1966 with Lydell Johnson about his brother, blues musician Tommy Johnson (no relation to Robert). Lydell described his brother’s abilities and told David that the reason he played so well had to do with a contract with devil….
He could play any tangled up song you wanted. Me and him would play for some white folks here and he could make a song up in 10 minutes.
And I’d ask him how he could do it and he’d told me the reason why’d he knowed so much, said he sold hisself to the devil.
I asked him how. He said if you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, said, you take your guitar and you go for a road crossings that-a-way, where a crossroads is.
And said, get there…be sure to get there a little ‘fore 12 o’ clock that night so you would know you would be there. And said, you have your guitar and be playing a piece, sitting there by yourself, and said a big, black man will walk up there and take your guitar and tune it and then play a piece and hand it back to you.
He said that’s the way I learned how to play anything I wanted and he could.
So anyway, one day David Evans is chatting with his friends at UCLA and they are talking about the things that Lydell had said about Tommy and a guy named Pete Welding happens to hear this conversation. Pete is a writer. And Pete decides that it makes more sense that the story was about Robert Johnson, not Tommy Johnson.
So a few months later, Pete interviews legendary blues artist, Son House ,and Pete asks about Robert Johnson and Son House tells him the story of how terrible Robert was at playing guitar then and how he disappeared and came back and was suddenly better than everyone. Pete asks Son if it was possible that Robert sold his soul to the devil and Son tells him it was possible.
So Pete writes an article linking Robert Johnson to going to the crossroads and selling his soul to the devil.
And the article exploded and was reprinted over and over and over. And bigger musicians bought into the myth and started covering his music.
And he became famous.
And a myth was born.
Robert Johnson will always be thought of as the blue guitarist that sold his soul to the devil to play music. But the more interesting part to me is how his brand became so synonymous with this event that it added more fire to the marketing elements of his music.
It wasn’t his playing but the story behind his playing that made him most famous. Not taking away from his talent, but the story is what propelled his status among guitar players everywhere.
Can you think of other myths that are synonymous with brands?
Image Attribution- http://www.flickr.com/photos/prettyuglydesign/6809370411/
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