[Artwork by JEFF PASSETTI]
We’ve all heard the mythic tale of Robert Johnson’s Faustian bargain with the Devil, struck at the crossroads under a Delta moon. Let’s imagine for a moment that it’s a different night at that Mississippi crossroads. On this night, the devil is busy with other things, perhaps plotting the eventual rise of Slayer or meeting with the Republicans. And Johnson, well, he’s long since given the Devil his due, probably having second thoughts as to whether unlimited pussy, corn liquor and a little plantation-rock stardom was worth the eternal damnation as he shovels another load of coal into Hell’s blast furnace.
On this night, two moonlit figures converge at that storied crossroads, both carrying guitars. Their names — Skip James and Nick Drake — mean little at the time, but history will be kind to them, affording them both an afterlife of influence and respect that will eclipse their humble careers and troubled lives. They pause and eye each other tensely. While James would surely not be surprised to learn the Devil is a white man, one look into Drake’s doleful eyes confirms the obvious: It ain’t him. James politely tips his hat and rambles on into the sultry American night. Somewhat puzzled by the encounter, Drake waits around for a few moments before he, too, gives up and moves on.
But what if it didn’t go down like that? What if Louis Armstrong were the Devil? What if he showed up on that night with a horse leg-sized blunt of his beloved ‘muggles‘? What if Skip James and Nick Drake sat down for a spell, passed the peace pipe and took out their guitars and traded songs? What would it have sounded like if James’ kicked-dog blues and Drake’s folksy melancholia got tangled up in a warm Delta breeze? Well, the short answer is M. Ward. — JONATHAN VALANIA