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  • Writer's pictureJeff Powers

“Ike Zimmerman: The X in Robert Johnson’s Crossroads” Living Blues 2008

Updated: Mar 20 Ike Zimmerman: The X in Robert Johnson’s Crossroads Bruce Michael Conforth, Ph.D.Program in American Culture University of Michigan This legend has at least some of its genesis in both the folk beliefs of early twentieth-century African-Americans, and the rapidity with which Johnson seemed to have become a guitar master. This idea, Johnson’s rapid acquisition of superior,and some have even used the term “unearthly,” musical skills has been mentioned by many blues researchers and musicians. 4 Johnson’s desire not just to play the blues, but to excel at them, made him perfect fodder for the creation of such a myth within his community and even today. His story in this regard begins at an early age. As told by the late blues great Eddie ‘Son’ House Jr., (who also claimed to have been Johnson’s musical mentor) as a teenager Johnson seemed desperate to find aspot in the blues world:“He (Johnson) used to play harmonica when he was ‘round fifteen, sixteen years old. He could blow harmonica pretty good. Everybody liked it. But he just got the idea that he wanted to play guitar… He used to sit down between me and Willie (Brown). See, Willie was my commenter, you know, he’d second all the time, he’d never lead, I’d do the lead. And we’d be sitting about this distance apart, and (Robert) would come and sit right on the floor,with his legs up like that, between us.“So when we’d get to a rest period or something, we’d set the guitars up and go out – it would be hot in the summertime, so we’d go out and get in the cool, cool off some. While we’re out, Robert, he’d get the guitar and go bamming with it, you know? Just keeping noise, and the people didn’t like that.”

6 They’d come out and they’d tell us, ‘Why don’t you or Willie or one goin' there and stop that boy? He’s driving everybody nuts’ … I’d say, ‘Just leave the guitars alone… (but) we couldn’t break him from it, and his father would get at him, dogged him so much that he run away.” 5 Herein lies the beginning of his mythic, almost supernatural reputation, for where Johnson went during his absence from the Delta was unknown to its community.His return, 18-24 months later, however, proved to be one of the most dramatic,and retold, moments in blues history.

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