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Crossroad Blues


“I went down to the Crossroads, fell down on my knees” Robert Johnson.
When Robert Johnson sang of the Crossroads down in the 1930’s Mississippi Delta, he was paying homage to a tradition that has existed in varied forms for centuries, and at the same time adding his own contribution to the wealth of folklore that exists around the crossing place of two highways.

The sinister reputation of the Crossroads is found in the folklore and belief systems of Europe, Japan, India, Greece, America and some American Indian tribes. The Crossroads were believed to be the haunt of the darker denizens of the otherworld, ready to leap on the weary traveller when the sun set below the horizon. They were the meeting place for devils, demons and witches, and the haunt of ghosts, black dogs and other supernatural creatures. In this role they were probably seen as ‘in between’ places that are prevalent as religious sites in some cultures: places where the veils between worlds were more likely to breakdown.

In Greek mythology Hecate was the goddess associated with Crossroads: a fitting meeting place for the Queen of the Night. Sacrifices may have been made at crossroads in the distant past and (according to Funk and Wagnall Dictionary of Folklore and Mythology) stone pillars were placed at Crossroads on which offerings were left, unfortunately it does not mention when or where these were made.

James Fraser’s ‘The Golden Bough’ outlines a number of colloquial traditions at Crossroads: in Bali East Java ,food offering were left at Crossroads to entice the Devils that were thought to plague the islands. They were then called to depart and chased from the villages with the Crossroad presumably as convenient starting point. In the Bohmerwald Mountains, young men would crack whips at crossroads on Walpurgis night to drive away and witches that might be abroad, and on St John’s Eve bonfires were lit at crossroads to drive away evil spirits.

Crossroads were the burial sites for murderers, executed criminals and suicides. It was believed that the Crossroads would presumably confound the restless spirits, and stop them from returning to haunt the living. Gibbets were erected at crossroads as gruesome reminders of the law of the land, and to stop the restless soul of the executed person returning for revenge.

Amazingly enough the practice of burying suicides and criminals at crossroads was only repealed by an act of Parliament as late as 1823, supposedly on the request of George IV who had been delayed by a crowd gathered for a burial at the crossroads of Hobart Place and Grosvenor Place(1). One wonders how long the tradition would have survived if the King hadn’t been annoyed by this hold up.

Anthony D. Hippisley Coxe mentions the tradition surrounding the Cannards Grave Inn as one example of a crossroads burial in his ‘Haunted Britain‘: Giles Cannard was apparently an Innkeeper who was discovered forging, choosing to hang himself rather than submit to the authorities. His body was buried at the crossroads which was once the ambush site for the highwaymen he associated with, his restless spirit ready to frighten the unwary after the sun had gone down. The Inn is at an intersection of 5 roads and presumably is the site of the burial, although this is not clear from the entry. A quick internet search to find if the Inn still stands gave conflicting information: there are entries for the Inn but a few suggestions that it changed its name in the 1990’s.

Jenniffer Westwood (in her book Albion) mentions another example of such a burial at the Gypsy’s or Boy’s Grave on the B1506 Newmarket to Bury Road where it crosses the road to Chippenham & Moulton. This was traditionally the grave of a boy who had committed suicide after losing his sheep. Presumably this type of burial was a common enough occurrence, supported by the fact that it took an act of parliament to stop it.

A Modern Legend
In the deep South of the Missippi Delta - fertile birthplace of the blues - the crossroads plays a prominent part in the mythology surrounding legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson. The Robert Johnson legend deserves an article in itself, especially for such an influential musician. However, the basic legend is that Johnson, who was not considered a great guitar play by his peers in Robbinsville, disappeared and then returned a short while later with a talent that seemed remarkable given his past performances. When asked how he became so proficient he is reputed to have said he sold his soul to the Devil after meeting him at a lonely crossroads.

If this was a bit of spin to make him more appealing it certainly worked, the myth rolling down the decades and even being the inspiration for the Crossroads film in which Steve Via plays the Devil’s guitarist. There is no doubt Johnson was talented, and his mysterious death added to and seemed to give credence to the story. Listening to his tortured singing and haunting guitar on such tracks as ‘Hell Hound on my Trial‘, and, ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ certainly had an effect on me when I first heard them.

The real roots of the legend lie in voodoo folklore which found its way to the delta in a diluted form (Hoodoo), perhaps mixed with other crossroads folklore that seems so prevalent throughout cultures, and with a bit of Fire and Brimstone for good measure.
According to the excellent Funk and Wagnalls Dictionary of Folklore and Mythology, the budding blues guitarist would first procure himself a Black Cat Bone (Muddy Waters sang of this in Hoochie Coochie Man) file his nails, and then make his way down to the crossroads armed with a guitar and a steely nerve. The guitarist then had to play into the witching hour, whereupon the sound of another guitar would slowly become audible from somewhere in the darkness, gradually accompanying that of the guitarist. The Devil would then appear, swap guitars and then disappear leaving the guitarist in possession of some mean chops but unfortunately with his soul as the Devil’s bargain.

Whatever the source for Crossroads folklore it is surprising just how widespread it is, and is perhaps as old as roads themselves. It is beyond the scope of this article to cover all aspects of the mythology of crossroads and I would love to hear of any other traditions or locations that you may know of.

(1) Jenniffer Westwood Albion

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Daniel Parkinson
Daniel Parkinson
robbiethered
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Crossroads

Being a practising -er- whatever you like to call it, I've had many experiences at crossroads. It's true, the crossroad does feature a fair bit in Voodoo and Hoodoo magic, but it was also the case that in Greek folklore a similar thing was done to gain supernatural musical talent, particularly in their folk traditional music; the greek "blues". I must explode the myth that only the blues tradition and the American South etc feature such crossroad rituals.

Also, it is the THREE WAY, [The place where one road or path forks into two] where the majority of these particular types of magical rites are done, and less the standard four-way crossroad, though that features in other ways more. The three way junction symbolises many things; the three Fates, Hecate with her three faces, and the dualism of one path becoming two.

I am a Bluesman too, who has worked in pro capacity. I have done the "crossroad" rite. I was a blues player anyway long before I did it, but it's put a bit more fire in my playing, I'd say. In my version, you go every night at midnight, for nine nights. You can ask for anything, not just musical talent. In my case, a black cat accompanied me every night, watching me in silence a few feet away down the dark lane. The last night a man in red and black on a red and black motorcycle rode past very fast as I approached the three way, when the whole place had been silent every night before. He had one of those "skull" masks on, so I couldn't see his face. Red and black are the colours of  a god of the crossroad/three way, who appears in a form like the Horned "Devil" and it is often he who is invoked at the crossroad. He is a trickster god, with humour, and not thoroughly hostile and purely evil like the Christian Church's "Devil." The last night the cat wasn't there, but as I made my supplications at the three way, the biggest spider I've ever seen, the size of a tarantula, ambled across before my feet. I'm not aware such things exist in the English countryside. I didn't touch or follow it, I could guess what it meant. These were signs I believe that my rites had been successful.

Please note and understand that I'm a real genuine guy, not a nutter or fantasist. These happenings I describe in my comment are real. I've been in psychical research societies but I found they inexplicably refused to experiment with me by trying to get evidence on camera of entities I could call on. If anyone is interested in my help to research things in such ways, let me know. I'm in the East Midlands.

Look at these:

http://www.luckymojo.com/crossroads.html

and

http://www.mudcat.org/rj-dave.cfm

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Daniel Parkinson
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Thanks for the story and the

Thanks for the story and the links, it was interesting to see the quote from Tommy Johnson, as I had heard that the crossroads story was told about him as well. Didn't know about the three way cross roads either - interesting stuff. Not sure I am ready to get my guitar re-tuned just yet though ;-)

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Ian Topham
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Hi Robbie, thanks for the

Hi Robbie, thanks for the comments and welcome to the website :)

Mauro
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Thanks for the very

Thanks for the very interesting story: I've heard this blues tradition many times and it's good to know it's still alive.

I remember seeing a short movie starring James Brown as a soul musician who sold his soul to the Devil (played by the great Gary Oldman) but managed to get away with it courtesy of his driver's (played by Clive Owen) skills. Very funny stuff. 

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Daniel Parkinson
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I have just heard of another

I have just heard of another location of a crossroads used as a burial site on an island off the West coast of Scotland, actually without promting by a friend who is not particulary interested in such things but owns a family cottage there and has heard of its reputation, I am following this up. We might actually get to play there as a band as the island has an excellent well-known music venue, so I will just nip down to the crossroads with my guitar (well probably not on second thoughts)

robbiethered
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Actually...

I'm not really sure if you can sell your soul, if by the "soul" you mean your eternal spirit. The evidence and general stance among practising occultists is that it's not yours to sell. You're a conceptualised part of the Deep Mind, [Or God, if you like] and your spirit is not for sale. I haven't "sold my soul." What spirits much prefer is regular offerings it seems, like food and wine etc, upon their sigils or altars, or parts of your daily life or talent dedicated to them. Something tangible for something tangible.

I won't pretend I wasn't a bit nervous while doing the crossroad thing I describe above. I'm an ordinary bloke in many ways. If a big scary apparition would have appeared I would have really had to steel my nerves not to flee! As you see by my experience though, big scary apparitions are rare in occultism, you more often get quieter, more subtle indications you're being heard, [Such as the black cat, the biker and the spider.] It's often easier to get a spirit to leave a mark or image on photographic film etc, than to appear directly to human eyes. I've got a ghost on a photo, it was at that Bronze Age village in Cornwall, it made a big ghostly face in the foreground on the film, when we saw nothing unusual on the day. I actually had the negatives examined by my old psychical research society, and they found it seemed genuine.

You may however in certain pacts be able to sell your "life." There's several pointers that Hendrix did this. A shortened life span in exchange for your desires being realised for a short number of years. But selling your eternal spirit? I doubt that.

By the way you can use any fork or crossroads, anywhere suitably private or lonely. Preferably a fork in the road, [a three way] or some rites won't work. There's nothing mystical about some particular crossroad in the States where legend says Robert Johnson did it.  Inside information like I'm giving you explodes many myths! Of course it's very likely that some crossdroads/forks are more haunted than others though, especially if they've been used as burial sites or gibbet sites etc.

Also, if anyone feels like doing a spell of whatever kind at a lonely three-way, [Google for suitable spells they're all over the Web!] - watch the trees! If you pick one with trees about it, and it is one where spirits hang out, you'll likely see the treetops suddenly move and swish as you recite your spell, as if there's a sudden wind, even when there is no wind. That's your signal you've been heard and the spirits have activated. Go even in the daylight if you're nervous, just try and make sure nobody else is about. If you actually call on "the spirit of this fork"  to help the spell, you'll quite likely then get such a response. [I can tell the wind is rising.. Leaves tremble on the trees....]

If it does appear, the Spirit of the Fork is known to most commonly appear as a Black Dog. [Yes, the one with the red eyes!] I'm serious. Robert Johnson may well have done Crossroads rites, he seems to know what can happen!

PennyTraition
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Re: Crossroad Blues

'Me And The Devil Blues' by the great Robert Johnson...In his short life, a womaniser, he was poisoned by a jealous husband. It is said he sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads. One of the first,and Greatest Blues singers,'Me And The Devil Blues' must be his most imfamous song:
"Woke up this morning,You were knocking on my door
And I said'Hello Satan,I believe it's time to go...'"
Find it on'Hellhound On My Trail'(indigo), and Robert Johnson:The Complete Collection'(prism leisure).
Also, for tongue in cheek fun, check Screaming Jay Hawkins:'Alligator Wine''I Put A Spell On You'...
Other music 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean';
'Gloomy Sunday', Billie Holiday's take on 'the Hungarian Suicide Song'. Diamanda Galás first album 'The Singer'...the only really accesible Galás album...
(Un)Happy listening!



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