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At the crossroads as Robert Johnson centennial nears

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Robert Johnson On the southeast corner of the roads is H Town Custom Wheels. Across DeSoto to the west is Beer & Bud Mart, which faces a Church's Chicken stand. Immediately to the east of that are the Delta Donut shop and Abe's BBQ, the latter noting its service to residents and visitors since 1924.

Yet this is the focal point of one of the towering legends of 20th century popular music—the original intersection of Highways 61 and 49, the place where seminal blues musician Robert Johnson is said to have arrived one midnight to seal a deal with the devil, trading his soul to become the greatest blues musician in history.

Perhaps.

Actually, there are at least three such crossroads around northern Mississippi, any of which might be the one Johnson had in mind 75 years ago when he wrote his signature song “Cross Road Blues"—and that's only relevant to those who are remotely likely to believe in such things.

The only sign of anything out of the ordinary today at the crossing of 61 and 49 is a triangular traffic island with a tall pole atop which are three identical oversized replicas of a blue electric guitar—not, by the way, the type of instrument Johnson played in the 1930s.

But whether his reputation was the outcome of a supernatural bargain or simply natural-born talent combined with patience and practice, Johnson remains the man most broadly considered the preeminent bluesman of all time, a reputation that grows only more solid as the 100th anniversary of his birth in Hazlehurst, Miss., approaches on May 8.

Consider that during his lifetime, his biggest-selling recording, “Terraplane Blues," sold about 5,000 copies. When the “King of the Delta Blues Singers" LP surfaced in 1961 with 16 of his songs, it sold around 20,000 copies. Since its 1990 release, a 2-CD box set of all his known recordings has sold 1.5 million copies. That's despite detractors who have suggested his reputation is over-inflated.

“Robert Johnson to me is the most important blues musician who ever lived," said Eric Clapton, who helped turn a generation of rock fans on to Johnson and his music playing an amped-up electrified version of “Crossroads" with the English power trio Cream in 1968. “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice."


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