Tracking the 'Big Road Blues' and a soul sold at the crossroads

Aug 4, 2012

Tommy Johnson’s songs may not be very well known, but he was a hugely influential blues player and also may be the source of one of the most enduring legends of the blues – the Devil and the Crossroads.

While this legend is sometimes associated with Robert Johnson (no relation), it was Tommy Johnson who first cultivated a story about himself that he met the devil at a crossroads, and sold his soul in exchange for his musical ability.

He did have formidable musical talents and was a flamboyant performer, known for playing guitar behind his back, between his legs, tossing it up in the air. He only made a couple of dozen recordings between 1928 and 1930, but his aggressive guitar style and huge voice, with it’s eerie falsetto are unmistakably core Delta blues.

Johnson's recording in 1928 of "Big Road Blues" exemplifies this style.

66 years later Sean Costello does a version of “Big Road Blues” that is essentially faithful to the original, with one major exception: he plays it on electric guitar. What’s interesting is how modern the guitar parts sound, written as they were in the 1920s.

When John Lee Hooker passed away in 2001, he had been working on some tracks that included “Big Road." It features his signature one-chord boogie sound, and but for the lyrics, it bears little resemblance to the original.

Here are the full versions of “Big Road Blues” tracked through time:

1928: “Big Road Blues” Tommy Johnson

2003: “Big Road” John Lee Hooker

2005: “Big Road Blues” Sean Costello

The Blues Time Machine” is a weekly feature tracking one great blues song through time. The series is hosted by John Kessler, from KPLU’s “All Blues,” and is published here every Friday and airs on KPLU 88.5 on Fridays at 12:10 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.