Guitarists of my generation know Robert Johnson through the song “Crossroads” by the British rock group Cream. Theirs is a cover of Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” which purportedly describes the day that Johnson traded his soul to the Devil for the ability to play his axe.
He was the inspiration for Hayden Quinn, the guitarist who sparks awe and rumor of his own unholy alliance in the new novel Born Under a Bad Sign. More on that later.
Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1911 and died in 1938. In those short years, he developed a reputation as one of the finest blues guitarists of all time, mastering the instrument so quickly that contemporaries accused him of having some otherworldly help.
Writers differ on how the legend began. Some, pointing to the lyrics in “Cross Road Blues,” say that Johnson stood at the crossroads not to trade his soul but to hitch a ride. Others say Johnson brought his guitar to a crossroad near a plantation at midnight to meet a large black man who granted him mastery of the instrument. Still others believe the guitarist, seeking solitude, fueled suspicion by practicing in the quiet of a graveyard.
Some of the characters in Born Under a Bad Sign see a similar pattern in Hayden Quinn. As facile as Eric Clapton, as inventive as Jimi Hendrix, Quinn fuses rock, blues, jazz and classical music into a cry of rebellion and pain. While his performances burn and records sell, that obsessive devotion invites rumors of his own compact with Lucifer.
It also plays the devil with his relationships with women, a fact the book’s principal character, Elizabeth Reed, discovers a little too late.
Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.
With original photography by the author.