Thursday 19 April 2018


Founding myths have a very useful purpose. Whether it is that of Romulus and Remus' bitter feud that led to the founding of Rome, or the discovery of Hungary from the pursuit of a magical stag, or even King Arthur and his ideas of honour and chivalry, these myths act as a kind of signature watermark of the societies they are linked to and tell us how they view themselves. Societies born in struggle, nations founded on wandering and travel, cities created in industry and competition – these are the mirror-images that reflect how we wish to see ourselves. And they don't have to be dramatic, or spectacular – even the absence of an event can lead cultures and people to believe that they created themselves by pluck and effort alone (after all, every time someone refers to themselves as a 'self-made man' this is always a pure giveaway that they have created their own myth of virtue and 'grit'). But most of all they are the beginning of a narrative, because without an origin and without events, you don't have anything at all.

Rock music, being based as it is on arcane energy and ritual, also has a founding myth: it is the myth that roots rock music in the Delta, and the moment when Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads. At this midnight rendezvous a deal was reportedly struck between the unknown, young blues guitarist and the fallen angel whereby the former sold his soul in exchange for ungodly talent and fame. As a result Johnson went on a blistering creative run, creating a repertoire of tracks that would form the basis for the modern blues and rock; it also cursed him to a tragic, and early, death.

As with other founding myths this is a story that conflates truth and fallacy. Yes, there was a Robert Johnson in the Delta at that time (and we have the recordings to prove it), and there is a metaphorical or symbolic devil in popular culture and in our personal imaginations, but there was no meeting at the crossroads and there was no deal with the devil. Johnson himself did not gain any particular success or notoriety during his lifetime and to some extent remains as obscure and disregarded in the blues' homelands in the south as he is revered elsewhere, to the extent that when writer Elijah Wald went to the Delta to research his own book on the man he was surprised to find that none of the blues-loving inhabitants had heard of him. What was important about this myth is not what it did for Johnson himself (in reality, very little) but what it implanted in the consciousness of rock culture and its view of itself – that there was an element of darkness, an edge of devilry, at the heart of it.

This sense of insurgency is what subsequently defined rock music at its best, just as much as its absence defined rock at its worse; and it also provided a method by which members of the general masses could gain fame and notoriety beyond anything that was previously possible. Rock music created a route for anyone to gain international fame on an unprecedented scale. These are the trace elements that the deal at the crossroads left in the collective unconsciousness of popular culture.

But there is something else essentially liberating about the myth – for the crossroads is a place of choice, opportunity, and possibility. At the centre of the crossroads your position is purely neutral; you are free at that moment to go in any direction. The roads are clear, straight, and pure. These roads are the pathways of our own creativity; they represent the opening of our own internal horizons. And it is this neutrality that represents a calm centre, the eye of our own personal storm.

So, how do we get back to the crossroads? To that moment of clarity and possibility? The answer is simple – close your eyes, imagine the sun on your back and the sky empty blue above you, and you're already there.

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