I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above “have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please”
Ooh-ee, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by
Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, eee-eee, risin’ sun goin’ down
I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ down
You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown
That I got the crossroad blues this mornin’, Lord, babe, I’m sinkin’ down
I went to the crossroad, baby, I looked East and West
Lord, I didn’t have no sweet woman, ooh well, babe, in my distress
I was inspired to write this essay by an episode of Supernatural, titled Crossroad Blues, which aired in season two, and is a direct reference to the above song. In the episode, Sam and Dean are investigating the deaths of two people who said they were being followed by Hellhounds, and chronicles their first meeting with a Crossroads demon, whose job it is to collect the souls of humanity by offering people their fondest wishes, for a limited span of time. When their time is up, (a year, or five, or ten), Hellhounds are sent to collect the hapless soul.
The folklore about haunted crossroads comes from many cultures, but the folklore referenced in this particular episode of the series is sourced directly from the part of the South in which my mother was born, the Mississippi Delta. This is the kind of music I grew up listening to, and my Mom was the one who tried to explain the concept of Hellhounds to me.
The idea of Hellhounds (Black Hounds, Black Shuck, or Fetches, as harbingers of death) isn’t unique to the South either, but all these ideas come together directly from a song by Robert Johnson, where he sings about a man named Willie Brown, meeting the devil at a crossroads, making a deal with him for fame, and naturally, because the Devil is the Devil, regretting the whole matter, when it was time to pay up, and having to deal with the Hellhounds now on his trail..
Tales of bargains with The Devil are even older than that, with one of the most popular being the German legend of Johann Faust, who makes a deal with The Devil/ Mephistopheles, for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. So many movies, operas, plays, and stories have come from this legend, (and the Greek legend that spawned it), that it has become its own genre, The Faustian Pact/Bargain, in which a greedy person makes unethical, or soul destroying choices to get fame and glory,and pays a nasty price, although these specific stories are more religious in theme and origin than Southern folklore.
There are also lots of tales of The Devil traveling down South and losing bets, due to the cleverness, or skills, of a human opponent. Before The Devil Went Down to Georgia, he was sung about in Lonesome Fiddle Blues, a song later adapted by the Charlie Daniels Band in 1979. In the song, a boy named Johnny competes in a music contest with The Devil, for a golden fiddle, and wins. It’s an entirely appropriate song for the show Supernatural, containing elements of Rock music and Country/ Bluegrass folk songs, and its David and Goliath theme of a little guy being underestimated, and triumphing, over a supposedly larger, stronger foe. Sounds like a couple of guys we know, huh?
Going down to a Crossroads, to make Faustian bargains, is also a popular trope. In the 1986 movie Crossroads, which was inspired by the legend of Robert Johnson and featured the title song, Joe Seneca stars as Willie Brown, who must go to the crossroads, and make a deal with The Devil to get back the soul he bargained away decades ago.
Willie is accompanied in this soul quest by Ralph Macchio, as Eugene, and Jamie Gertz, as Eugene’s scheming love interest, Frances. The movie culminates in a guitar showdown between Eugene and a famous Rock guitarist, named Jack Butler, played by Steve Vai, a contest which directly echoes the fiddling contest in The Devil Went Down to Georgia, right down to referencing two different genres of music. The Devil, also known as Legba, (from Voudon), and Scratch, (a very old Southern name), is gleefully played by Robert Judd. The very first time I ever heard that name for the Devil was from guess who!
The entire movie has a poetic resonance, because the music Eugene uses, in a desperate bid to win his contest against Jack Butler, is the same classical music style that he’d spent the first half of the movie treating with some contempt.
The 1941 movie, The Devil and Daniel Webster, is another retelling of the Faust legend in which a famous lawyer goes up against the devil in a courtroom, to save the soul of a wayward farmer. Its based on the short story by Stephen Benet. The original title was changed to All That Money Can Buy.
In the 1987 Angelheart, The Devil, played by Robert Deniro, as Louis Cyphre, gets as far South as Louisiana in his search for a runaway soul housed in the body of Detective Harry Angel, played by Mickey Rourke. This movie was most famous for the sex scene depicted between Rourke, and Lisa Bonet, who was fresh off her stint on the much more wholesome Cosby Show. It’s a gorgeous film, although somewhat gory. This doesn’t contain a musical contest, but more of a contest of wills between Harry and Louis.
My favorite scene is one of the more innocent looking ones, where Deniro offers Harry an egg. Within the context of the movie, and its version of Christian mythology, the peeling of the egg is highly symbolic:
In the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, Easter eggs are dyed red to represent the blood of Christ, with further symbolism being found in the hard shell of the egg symbolizing the sealed Tomb of Christ — the cracking of which symbolized his resurrection from the dead.
In this instance the egg represents the soul, most specifically the soul of Harry Angel as Louis Cyphre peels off the egg shell, which is symbolic of the plot of the film, as Harry peels back the layers of his life and memories, until he reaches the film’s tragic conclusion.
Angelheart is available on Hulu.
One of my personal favorites is this little nugget called The Devil and Daniel Mouse, based on the above movie, and created as a Canadian Halloween special in the early 80s. It took me a really long time to find this again. Once again, we get echoes of The Devil Went Down to Georgia, as the lead character tries to bargain back her soul from the devil, and is aided by the mouse who loves her, who contests the Devil in a musical fight.
This is available on Youtube.
Another cartoon offshoot of the Faustian Bargain is an echo of the above story called Rock and Rule. This is another favorite of mine, as it introduced me to a lot of different artists I’d not heard of before like Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. I was already a fan of Debbie Harry, though. Its a very surreal film, with lots of music, and well… no people, just these furry type citizens living as if they were people, and while the Devil isn’t going down South in this movie, it does contain the Devil’s Bargain theme. My favorite character is of course Mok, voiced by Don Francks, and sung by Lou Reed. My favorite song from this movie is Debbie Harry’s Angel’s Song.
(The full movie is available on Youtube.)
Check out any of the above, and if you have any recs for more Faustian Bargain movies, let me know in the comments. I may or may not have seen them.
Other Faustian Bargain films to Watch for Halloween:
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Witches of Eastwick
Finally here, have some more Robert Johnson: