The myth of Robert Johnson meeting the Devil and selling his soul in exchange for his remarkable musical talent is legendary. There are commemorative sign posts put up for tourists to see at several intersections purported to be where Johnson made this deal (the intersection of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi being the most believed to be credible). The truth of the matter is that we all come to crossroads wherever we turn. Maybe none seem as dramatic to us as Johnson’s, but we all must navigate our own way through life and accept the choices that we make and the fact that they are what take us to wherever we end up.
With the sun setting somewhere over the lost mining town of Christmas, AZ, the sky here looked as if it was suddenly set on fire. We’re at the intersection of Arizona Route 77 and Roundup Dr. – a dirt road. Dripping Springs Wash lies behind the dilapidated double-wide just off the highway. Multiple vehicles are parked out front – some with the hoods up, presumably being repaired. Behind the dark tangled trees, other double-wides, trailers and shacks seem to also be inhabited.
While stepping out to shoot these photos, I briefly thought about of the legend of Robert Johnson and his deal with the Devil. While everyone seems to hear the myth and think that Johnson’s music somehow made the deal worthwhile, I wonder. Would I want to be the best artist, photographer, writer or musician for the price of my soul? Hell no! Ability is no substitute for existence or feelings – it’s not about recognition. It’s not about mastering something. It’s not about what you can do. No activity or skill makes up for the emptiness or loneliness in life.
Like most roads in Arizona, Highway 77 is lined with roadside memorials to those whose have been killed along the way. Two lane highways are littered with the dead. People speed home or to the bar. Race off to where there think they need to be. Head on collisions happen so fast that you don’t see them coming – until it’s too late and lives are changed forever. Or lost.
Robert Johnson spent his life on the road. Probably the founding member of the “27 Club.” Many romanticize his death. The idea of burning the candle at both ends – live fast and dying young. The way to go. But in reality, death is never romantic. It’s just the end of life. The casualties are those left living – the ones left holding the bag of shit you leave behind.
While Johnson’s music lives on, his legend lives on. But the human life he lived was not a myth. We don’t know what that really was. What he thought at 2AM while lying in a strange bed and staring at the dark ceiling above him. We don’t know what he actually felt inside — just his story. But even there, the story itself is probably misleading or wrong. Instead of the happy-go-lucky Southern dandy who died in a flurry of romance and murder, he was more likely just the victim of bad moonshine and a case of untreated syphilis. He may have had many woman along the road, but you have to wonder if any of them was really the right woman. When Johnson’s first wife Virginia passed, he wasn’t there by her side, but was instead out drinking whiskey and playing his guitar in some distant roadhouse bar. Perhaps it’s divine justice that Johnson died alone himself.
We all make our own choices and ride with the luck of the road. On this night, at this particular crossroads, it seems from the number of vehicles parked outside the trailers and double-wides that everyone has made it home. Couples eat their dinners together. Turn on the TV and settle in for the night. Some of these dwelling are no doubt their own private little hells, but others, must provide a beautiful dirty refuge from the world outside. No one needs to know what anyone else shares behind their own closed doors, but the things that really matter in life often aren’t seen at all, but just experienced.
When we drove away from this particular crossroads, the stories that came to my mind were the romantic thoughts about couples that had found something between themselves that let them briefly escape the brutal life they had to endure each day in order to survive. How they could find the ability to transcend all the bullshit of the outside world together – even if only for this one Friday night. No roadside memorial makes up for the things you miss in life. Need to remember to stop and experience the things around us right now instead of trying to see what is farther down the road.