Where exactly did Johnson sell his soul?
There are a couple places that lay claim to the spot where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil. One is the intersection of Highway 61 & Highway 49, and another is the intersection of Highway 1 & Highway 8. Both are quite nearby each other, just a short car ride apart. To the north, there’s Clarksdale, and to the south there’s Dockery Farms — both of which were magnets for up and coming artists like Son House, Willie Brown, and Robert Johnson at the time.
The fame of Highway 61
Highway 61 & Highway 49 is the more reputed intersection where Johnson sold his soul. Perhaps this is partly because Highway 61 is itself so famous, even beyond Johnson. People from Muddy Waters to Son House to Elvis lived nearby the road, and notoriously Bessie Smith’s death came due to a car accident along Highway 61. What’s more, it’s been immortalized with songs by Honeyboy Edwards and Mississippi Fred McDowell, and via popular music by Bob Dylan.
This ought not to take away from the intersection of Highway 1 & Highway 8, near Rosedale. This spot has also been captured with famous Delta Blues songs like Charley Patton’s Highwater Everywhere Pt. 1, singing about Rosedale.
For either of these potential spots, it doesn’t really take much of a stretch of the imagination to imagine a young Johnson in his bohemian 20s, bringing brandy with him — his guitar slung across his back — returning home from shows or nights-out. Potentially, with his senses dulled by substances on such walks home, he’d hear the howls of rabid dogs, inspiring him for songs like Hellhound On My Trail.
Why did Johnson sell his soul?
For added context, one might wonder why he did it. Why did he sell his soul? Well, at these nearby hubs of Rosedale, Clarksdale, and Dockery, Johnson — fresh to the scene — was just a young kid in his 20s, trying to make his mark. Imagining the owners of the scene at the time (people like Patton, House, and Willie Brown), Johnson was just a fresh-faced player, and not necessarily that remarkable on the guitar.
In fact, according to Son House, he was really just starting out at the time.
[Robert] blew a harmonica and he was pretty good with that, but he wanted to play guitar…such a racket you’d never heard! Get that guitar away from that boy, people would say, he’s running people crazy with it.
Desperate to dethrone his worthy contemporaries and make a name for himself, he was compelled to attain mastery by any means — even if it came at the greatest cost. Thus, as the sunset one fateful evening, Johnson again slung his guitar across his back and set foot for the Crossroads. It’s here where he met the devil at midnight, with the devil receiving his guitar, adding his spell to the instrument. After handing the guitar back to Johnson in return for his soul, Johnson got what he wanted, though he’d soon pay the price.
In the end
Luckily, the gains he made were captured on tape, with 29 unique songs, but it was soon after that the devil collected his due, leading to Johnson’s death at 27.
Today, people still flock to Highway 61 & Highway 49, as well as Highway 1 & Highway 8, to celebrate Johnson’s flavourful playing and edgy style, as well as his overall impact on music.