I always considered the story that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his prodigious guitar talents to be no more than brilliant marketing that gave his already dark music an extra whiff of Satanic danger.
This paucity of hard facts, when viewed in light of Johnson’s remarkable talents as a guitarist and blues singer, has fueled speculation about a supposed deal with the Devil. Johnson had been an amateurish guitarist when he first encountered his mentor Son House in 1930. “You can’t play nothing,” the elder guitarist told him. Soon after, Johnson disappeared for a brief spell. The next time House heard him, Johnson was a master on the instrument, one who stood out from his peers and surpassed House himself in technical proficiency on the instrument. The transformation was as breathtaking as it was unexpected.
Pearson and McCulloch link the “first explicit suggestion” that Johnson made a deal with the devil to an interview with House published in 1966. The bluesman told Pete Welding that the younger guitarist had “sold his soul to the devil in exchange for learning to play like that.” In their attempts to dismiss the story’s importance, Pearson and McCulloch call attention to the lengthy gap between Johnson’s death in 1938, and the appearance of this colorful tale almost three decades later.
But what happens when we focus attention on Robert Johnson himself and examine his most revealing legacy—namely his 42 surviving recordings? In truth, this is the hardest hurdle of all for scholars who want to sweep the Devil under the carpet. Johnson himself was clearly obsessed with Satan, and his songs reflect the anxieties of a man who had something to fear from this quarter. His “Cross Road Blues” seems to explicitly reference these tales of a crossroads as a place where dark powers are afoot—a view, by the way, which is a clear carryover from African belief systems. Johnson’s concerns about the afterlife surface in his song “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” And his “Me and the Devil Blues” builds on the image of a man haunted by Satan himself. Johnson also gave his “Preachin’ Blues” the subtitle “Up Jumped the Devil.” These references must be an embarrassment to modern critics trying to sanitize and secularize Johnson’s music—and one admires their perseverance in trying to cleanse these songs of biographical references. But the whole legacy of the blues is as a music of self-expression and personal revelation. Any attempt to portray Robert Johnson as singing about someone else’s life and someone else’s attitudes inevitably sounds hollow and unconvincing.
The hardest song to sanitize is the piece Johnson recorded in his last day in the studio, June 20, 1937, the anguished “Hellhound on My Trail.” This is one of the most powerful blues ever recorded, and explicitly relates the horror of a man pursued by demonic forces. Churchgoers of the day—a group that accounted for the vast majority of Mississippi’s residents, circa 1937—would have been very familiar with the image of hellhounds hunting the souls of desperate sinners. But no church painting or sermon of the period could come close to matching the intensity and immediacy of Johnson’s recording.
When researching my book on the Delta blues, I pondered long and hard over these references to the Devil and tried to reconcile them with the claims of scholars who dismissed the tale as a product of the over-heated imagination of 1960s white blues enthusiasts. To help me, I turned to Mack McCormick, a reclusive scholar who spent years doing first-hand research on Johnson for a much anticipated but never published biography, and who was a major source for Pete Guralnick’s 1989 book Searching for Robert Johnson. I confronted McCormick point blank about the crossroads story, asking whether the time had come to put it to rest.
McCormick vehemently disagreed. “When I went to New Orleans in the late 1940s to visit some record collectors,” he related, “they told me that same story. You need to remember that almost nothing had been published on Robert Johnson at that time. A little bit had been written around the time of the Spirituals to Swing concert, and a couple of record reviews had appeared, but they were full of mistakes. Yet these record collectors had heard about Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil. I subsequently heard the same story within the black community. The fact that the same story circulated among these two groups—groups that had very little contact with each other—impressed me. It suggests that the story had deep roots, probably linking back to Johnson himself.”
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