Devil At The Crossroads Documentary Review
As a big of fan of the man the myth the legend that is Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues, I was absolutely ecstatic to see that a proper documentary had finally been done about him. I was also very surprised to find it on none other than Netflix of all places.
The documentary does a great job of telling the story about Johnson’s rough upbringing in the early 1900’s Mississippi era, fraught with extreme racism where beatings and lynching’s were commonplace. Not only does the film detail the atmosphere of the time period, it also does a great job in explaining how blues music (eventually what we know as rock music) came to be.
People nowadays like to think that post civil war, slavery was completely eradicated and black people had the same access to jobs as white people. But this is far from the case. Black people essentially never left working the fields as assimilation in white society was met with strong resistance. The fields were hot, rough and served to drain the spirit of all energy due to the grueling work conditions. The early blues musicians found a way to help and capitalize from this. They would play guitar for the workers of these plantations at night and would be paid for the services. The blues truly spoke and resonated with the grit and rawness of these workers lives and provided them with a joyful escape.
In addition to playing at plantations, in major cities there were black clubs called juke joints where blues music was the preferred music. This is where Robert Johnson became inspired by watching some of the first famous Delta blues players like Son House. Son House became a yard stick for Johnson to try to reach. In the film, Son House tells the story of how they would take a break from playing and find Johnson trying to play the guitar but it was awful. One night, Johnson was trying to play in front a fairly large crowd at the juke joint, only to be booed off stage because of his horrible playing. He left the juke joint swearing to be back with a vengeance and this is where the legend was born.
Legend has it, that very night Johnson went to a crossroad with a guitar and waited for the devil. The devil greeted him and offered to tune his guitar in a special way to make him sound like the best guitarist in the world. All he needed in return, was Johnson’s soul. The reality is Johnson left the town to learn from a fellow up and coming blues artist who would take Johnson to learn how to play at a cemetery at night so as to not disturb the living with the horrible sound that is someone learning guitar.
A year later, Johnson returns to the same Juke Joint he was booed out of and proceeds to blow everyone away with his newfound guitar skills. Son House would describe his sound as two people playing the guitar at once. From here on out, Johnson was able to become the most sought after Juke Joint guitar player in the South.
His fame had even reached such heights that Carnegie Hall eventually came knocking for him to perform there. Upon attempting to reach him, they found that he had died suddenly. Rumor has it, that he was poisoned by the husband of a woman that he was attempting to woo. But others say that the devil came to collect his debt.
The documentary was not the best due to the lack of available footage, but they did do one of the better jobs of describing not only the story of Robert Johnson, but also the era that he was apart of, which gives you a much better insight to his music. It’s not the most entertaining of documentaries, but if you are a fan of Johnson, it provides you with some lesser know info about him than you will find in any biography. Anyone who is interested in how music history progresses, will truly find this interesting as it serves to show you where most modern rock music came from.