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Did Robert Johnson sell his soul to the Devil?

“I Went Down To The Crossroads…” – Did Robert Johnson sell his soul to the Devil?

Introduction to Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson (1911-1938) is a blues musician from Mississippi. He is known for playing some of the best blues ever, emulating the sound of two guitars with one.

He is often called the “Father of Modern Rock and Roll,” because his songs influenced many people, including Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Muddy Waters.

Johnson was often scolded for not working enough in the field. He would spend most of his time in old juke houses, watching Son House religiously, and trying to learn everything about the guitar. When Son House would go out on breaks, young Robert would pick up the guitar and try to play. House would get a lot of complaints, as nobody liked Roberts playing. However, he was never discouraged.

Professional Career

Robert Johnson’s young wife died during child birth, so he packed up and left to play music up and down the Delta around 1930.

He left mysteriously for about a year. When he came back, his playing, songwriting, and singing were all extraordinarily improved.

He started traveling from town to town, playing for tips on street corners. He eventually got to record in San Antonio, Texas circa 1936. He recorded songs such as Come On In My Kitchen, Crossroad Blues, and Terraplane Blues. The latter became a regional hit, selling 5,000 copies. In 1937, he had another recording session in which he brought Sweet Home Chicago and Love in Vain, two of his most popular songs.

Johnson and the Devil

What happened to Johnson when he disappeared in 1931? He left as an average musician at best, but came back as a lean, mean, blues-singing machine. How could anyone gain such an incredible amount of skill in just a few months?

Well, several explanations have popped up. The most practical is he started taking lessons with Ike Zinnerman. However due to Johnson gaining such an incredible amount of skill in a short time, some have dismissed this. The other explanation is that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.

Legend has it that while working on a rural farm in Mississippi, he still had a burning desire to become a great blues musician. He was instructed to take his guitar down to the crossroads in the dead of the night. There, a large black man (the Devil), will take his guitar, tune it, and play a few songs. He will then hand the guitar back, with the owner gaining mastery of the instrument. In return, the Devil would then own the players soul.

The legend has grown in time, but that is the core of it. Many variations of this tale have been told, including this actually happening at a graveyard. Johnson seems to have occasionally suggested that he did, in fact sell his soul. However, the myth may have grown from fellow blues musician Tommy Johnson, who repeatedly and publicly claimed he did sell his soul:

“If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there be sure to get there just a little ‘ fore 12 that night so you know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself…A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.”

Evidence in His Songs

In Crossroad Blues, Robert sang:

“I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees/I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees/I asked the Lord above, have mercy, save poor Bob if you please/Uumb, standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Ain’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by.”

In Hell Hound On My Trail, he shows fear of the devil.

In Me and the Devil, he sang:

“Early this morning when you knocked upon my door/Early this morning, umb, when you knocked upon my door/And I said, ‘Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go,” before leading into “You may bury my body down by the highway side/You may bury my body, uumh, down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.”

It is possible that he made the whole thing up as a publicity stunt, but he mentions the Devil in six of his songs, so it is hard to tell. Many people have tried it, but some say you have to honestly really want to sell your soul, not just say you do.

Aftermath

The effects of the myth are still relevant today. You see references or re-enactments of the crossroads scene everywhere in pop culture. It was even documented in the film Crossroads.

Robert Johnson is a great musician, and the folklore behind him just adds to his popularity.

Did he really do it, though? Did he really disappear, sell his soul to the Devil, and gain super-natural musical prowess? Or did he just learn really fast? For now, no-one will ever know. Sometimes it is fun to believe something like this could happen. Either way, it makes a good story. For those that believe in the supernatural, this seems a lot more possible than others. Johnson died at a young age, maybe the Devil was behind it all.


from classicrockencyclopedia.blogspot

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March 3, 2009 - Posted by | Music_Blues, Robert Johnson, _ARTICLE, _MUSIC

2 Comments »

  1. Robert Jr. Lockwood, who’s sister was dating Johnson, said in an interview that Johnson did not sell his soul. And he died from drinking poisoned liquor at a juke-joint where he was playing. He made his living as an itinerant street musician. He had to play to eat, and that’s how he developed his technique. He was the next big recording star after “Blind Lemon” Jefferson. These two and a handful of others created the persona of the “blues guitar player”, a kind of American mythic figure. Johnson has certainly achieved a mythic status, and it seems much the same is happening to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Someone once said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

    Comment by Mike Mitchell | June 24, 2011

  2. Cheers Mike! Johnson’s surely mythical. Maybe actually 100% myth!

    Comment by stupidand | June 24, 2011


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