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May 16, 2024 9 mins

Today's tour features two characters with legendary reputations.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild.

Speaker 2 (00:12):
Our world is full of the unexplainable, and if history
is an open book, all of these amazing tales right
there on display, just waiting for us to explore. Welcome
to the Cabinet of Curiosities. It's practically cliche now, the

young hopeful moving to Hollywood wanting to be discovered. Yet
it still happens.

Speaker 1 (00:43):
Every year. Thousands of people uproot their lives to pursue
their dreams of stardom. But one man found his fame
a different way by bringing the movies to him. Mexican
revolutionary Pancho Villa was born in Durango, Mexico, in eighteen
seventy eight, with a very full name of Jose Doroteo
Orango a Rambula. Many stories about his early life are

either apocryphal or just downright false, but it's widely believed
that he grew up in poverty with his parents and
four siblings. They suffered under the hacienda system, in which
wealthy estate owners would exploit poor workers for their labor.
After the death of his father, via abandoned his schooling
to find work and help his family keep their home.
He did a number of jobs, working as a bricklayer

and a sharecropper, among other things, but his life took
a sharp turn when he was just sixteen years old.
He'd been living in Shihuahua when he got word that
his sister had been assaulted by a local hacienda owner
back home. He returned to Durrango for revenge. After killing
the owner and stealing one of his horses, Via became
a bandit to get by. Pretty soon he found himself
in trouble with the law, getting arrested for stealing mules

and guns. But while other criminals would have been sentenced
to death for their crimes, Via had gotten involved with
some pretty important people who often kept him off of
death row. Instead, he was forced to join the federal army,
but that punishment didn't last too long. He skipped town
and went back to Chihuahua to try and make an
honest living as a butcher. When that failed, he left

once more and assumed a new name, one inspired by
his paternal grandfather, Jesus Villa. He called himself Francisco Pancho
Villa and Then in nineteen ten, his life changed forever
as the Mexican Revolution took hold. Via joined the other
revolutionary seeking to overthrow the oppressive Mexican government, but the
opposing forces and funding were very strong. If Via was

going to have any hope of victory, he needed money.
But it wasn't like he could just kick start a
war or hold the GoFundMe. He needed big donors, and
he needed them fast, So he looked north to the
United States, specifically to the motion picture industry. Via reached
out to the Mutual Film Corporation with a proposal. He
would allow Mutual Film to shoot The Mexican Revolution in

exchange for a twenty five thousand dollars advance and fifty
percent of the film's profits. He even prompt to perform
re enactments of key battles in case they needed additional footage.
The studio agreed and told him that even though US
papers were painting Via as a villain, Mutual would show
the world a much different and sympathetic side of him.

The studio sent a crew down to Mexico, including actor
Raoul Walsh, who was cast as a younger version of
Via for the film. The goal wasn't just to make
a war picture. It was to craft a biography of
a man who was fighting for a better life for
his people. The Life of General Via, directed by William Carbaine,
told the story of triumph over adversity, at least it

would have if it had survived. Very little of the
production exists today. It's really just a few pieces of
footage and some publicity photos, And unfortunately for their star,
Mutual wasn't able to do what they had promised. After
the war, Via was left to deal with the fallout
all on his own. This included a nineteen sixteen US
expedition across the border to capture him and bring him

to justice for attacking New Mexico. Villa managed to survive
another seven years until his assassination on July twentieth of
nineteen twenty three. He was killed in an ambush while
returning home from the bank. Although his reputation was tarnished
for decades following his death, he eventually came to be
revered as a champion for the Mexican people, an achievement

that might have happened sooner had his film not been lost.
Pancho Villa was a revolutionary hero who stood by his
principles until the very end, But it seems that even
he was tempted by the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.

Every musician has their influences, artists they love and listen
to while shaping their own sound. If you're a classic
rock fan like me, then your favorite band was likely
influenced by the blues. And if you like Eric Clapp,
led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, then your favorite artist's
favorite artist was one man Robert Johnson. But just like

his later listeners, Robert had his own influences, and if
the rumors are true, he got his talent from a
sinister source. He won his musical style in a diabolical
deal with the devil himself. Not much is known about
Robert's early life. He was born in nineteen eleven in
Mississippi and at an early age became interested in the guitar.

In the deeply segregated South, black people often weren't allowed
in community spaces like bars, performance halls, or restaurants, so
blues musicians often performed in juke joints, which were casual
after hour spots in black owned stores or houses where
the black community could gather when Robert was a teenager,
he first saw a blues musician named Sunhouse perform a

juke joint in Robinsonville, Mississippi. When Robert tried to perform himself,
he was booed off the stage by Sunhouse and the
other patrons. Apparently Robert was no guitarist. Robert moved with
his mother to another town shortly after that, but when
he returned to Robinsonville two years later, Sunhouse was blown
away at how quickly Robert had become an excellent player

through his teens. In twenties, Robert traveled throughout the South
playing street corners, house parties, and juke joints. Twice he
sat down to record his original music, resulting in twenty
nine recorded songs. In nineteen thirty eight, when Robert was
just twenty seven, he died of unknown causes. He never
gained any recognition or fame in his lifetime, and was
buried in an unmarked grave in a pauper cemetery. Robert's

legacy might have stayed just like that if it wasn't
for a compilation of his songs called King of the
Delta Blues Singers, released in nineteen sixty one. The Man
who recorded Johnson's twenty nine songs, believed that he was
a great blues artist, and audiences in the nineteen sixties
seemed to agree. Teenagers Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant,

and Keith Richards all love the record. Robert Johnson's music
helped shape the path of classic rock and roll. The
same time Robert's musical genius was being rediscovered, so too
was his darker reputation. Rumors spread that Robert hadn't just
been a great artist, his gifts were supernatural. To learn
to play the blues, he went to a crossroads somewhere

in Mississippi and made a deal with the devil, promising
his soul in return for musical talent. It didn't help
that many of his songs hinted at the supernatural, like
Hellhound on My Trail, Crossroad Blues, and even Me and
the Devil Blues. But the truth, well, it's not quite
as exciting. It was tireless practice, not dealings with the

devil that made Robert Johnson a star. The rumor about
his supernatural skills probably first came from the remarks by
the musician Son House. He was the one who had
laughed Robert off the stage in that juke joint the
first time Robert tried to play guitar. When Robert showed
up again nearly two years later, playing like a natural,
he made it that Robert must have made a deal

with the devil. Instead, what Robert really had done was
find a great teacher, a player named Ike Zimmerman. Now,
Robert and Ike did like to practice in graveyards after dark,
which does sound a little spooky, but this was for
practical reasons, not demonic. Graveyards were one of the few
quiet places where Robert and Ike could play without people
disturbing them. It's also likely that Robert's story was mixed

up with another blues musician with a similar name, Tommy Johnson,
who played Delta Blues in the same circuit as Robert,
claimed that he had sold his soul to the devil
to learn guitar. Robert may have died in obscurity, but
today his music lives on, as does his devilish reputation.
Whether or not the devil made him do it, he'll

have to admit that Robert Johnson was a hell of
a good player. I hope you've enjoyed today's guided tour
of the Cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts,
or learn more about the show by visiting Curiosities podcast
dot com. The show was created by me Aaron Mankey

in partnership with how Stuff Works. I make another award
winning show called Lore, which is a podcast, book series,
and television show, and you can learn all about it
over at the Worldoflore dot com. And until next time,
stay curious.

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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