*Tommy Johnson was playing a local house party in November of 1956 when he suffered a fatal heart attack.*
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Mississippi Crossroads Revisited
Most people understand that bluesman Robert Johnson's life was shrouded in mystery, and part of the mythology around him related to a story of how he sold his soul to the devil to gain his musical talents at a Mississippi crossroads. Folk tales of bargains with the Devil have long existed in African American and White traditions. Truth may reveal, however, that the source of the mythology really belonged to Tommy Johnson, who next to Son House and Charley Patton, was more important to the development of preRobert Johnson Delta blues than anyone else. Armed with a powerful voice that could go from a growl to an eerie falsetto range and a guitar style that had all of the early figures and licks of the Delta style clearly delineated, Johnson only recorded for two years from 1928 to 1930 but left behind a body of work that's hard to ignore. Here is my poetic tribute to the story of Tommy Johnson. Tommy Johnson and the Blues Tommy Johnson ran from home at just sixteen Guitar tied to his back in the dead of night Left Crystal Springs to be a blues playing king With his devil moon-eyes shinin' like signal lights. At the fork in the road past the edge of town Was a Mississippi altar of cold black stone. Tommy sat and played some delta sounds That spoke of roots and black cat bones. Old Papa Legba grabbed Tommy's guitar from behind And said, "Young boy, just why is you takin' flight?" Walking about in old raggedy clothes of the foulest kind, Papa croaked, "This ain't no place to be at midnight." Tommy's shaky voice spoke through trembling lips. "I wants to play my songs like nobody knows And get mo' money from jukes and tips Fo' whiskey, gamblin', and jelly rolls." "Then, you in the right place to trade, my son," Said big black Legba grinning ear to ear. "I'll fix you up and you'll be owin' me one. Your credit's good here for many a year." Papa tuned up the box to thunder rolls And lightning flashed as hoo-doos bayed. Legba's sad blues pierced Tommy's soul. Six red wires glowed as Papa danced away. Tommy took his guitar from outstretched hands And felt Blue Devils fill his cold black heart The deal went down on crossroads land The witching hour gave Tom his spirit start. Tommy held its neck and let his fingers fly Over his old guitar now filled with life. And sang melancholy notes both low and high That could burn the air or coax a wife. He played the blues behind his head Then tossed the guitar into the air. He rode it like a mule with legs wide spread As dark angels danced with envious stares. Whiskey flowed through thirsty lips Until Tommy's money was almost gone, So, he turned to Sterno and shoe polish sips Strained through bread to quench the wrongs. "Baby, why you do me like you do," Tommy begged. "Jake alcohol's ruined me, churning 'bout my soul I drink so much of it till done give me the limber leg 'Cause them brownskin women don't do the easy roll" "Easy rider, see what you done, done, done You done made me, but now you're through Crying, canned heat 'round my bed in the mornin' sun, Run here, somebody, take these canned Sterno blues." "Crying, big fat mama, meat shaking on her bones. Well, I'm going away, mama, won't be back till fall. Says the good book tell you, reap just what you sow. I'm crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home at all."