The blues. They bring to mind an image of a man sitting on a porch, cotton fields stretching out as far as his eyes can see. The grit on his fingers as he plucks the strings mixes with the pain down deep in his soul and floats out of his mouth. He grips his slide guitar, holding it close like he is making love to his woman, making the guitar sing along with him.
For many blues musicians and enthusiasts, Robert Johnson is the epitome of the blues. When asked about him, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones replied simply, “He had it all.”
Johnson’s ingenious guitar playing birthed rock ‘n’ roll. He also birthed one of the original music conspiracy theories. Legend has it that Johnson trotted up the crossroads to sell his most valuable asset to be the best blues player ever: his soul.
Johnson was born on or around May 8, 1911, in Hazelhurst, and was raised not to perform secular music—the Devil’s music. When he took to the harmonica and the guitar, his family villainized him. In fact, when Johnson’s young wife and child died in childbirth, some claimed that his playing the blues caused the tragedy. Like all things about his life, the fable varies.
The most popular story is that Johnson was told to travel near Dockery Plantation near the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale. At the stroke of midnight, the Devil tapped him on his back. Without looking at him, Johnson handed his guitar to Satan, who tuned it and played a few songs. Satan handed the guitar back to Johnson and, voila, a blues icon was born.
People who knew him said that as wonderful a guitar player he became, they never saw him practice. Guitar players who hear him for the first time mistakenly assume that a second person is playing guitar with him.
Some people believe that the story of Satan at the crossroads gives credence to this mystic legend. Many believe Satan was heaven’s original choir director—or at least that he was a gifted musician. In the Bible’s book of Ezekiel, as God prepared to cast Lucifer and his angels out of heaven, he says, “The workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created.” A tabret was a drum used in biblical times for praise and worship. The pipes could also mean that he played the church organ.
Another holy text, the Quran, implies that whoever takes the Devil as a companion is a companion to misery. If one reads Johnson’s lyrics, one can certainly see misery. Johnson’s most famous song is “Crossroad Blues,” a song about a drifter trying to hitch a ride. Or is it?
I went down to the crossroads/fell down on my knees/Asked the Lord above, “Have mercy save poor Bob if you please”/Mmm the sun goin’ down boy dark gon’ catch me here …
The word dark, a metaphor for death, could be seen as a song about a man who is afraid because when he dies, his soul is bound for hell.
If so, the lyrics also seem to foreshadow Johnson’s early death.
The song “Me and the Devil” is about Johnson’s miserable companion, Satan. It also shows subtle evidence of demon possession. The song could also be seen as a part two of the “Crossroads Blues” because of the last three lines.
Early this morning/when you knocked upon my door/And I said hello Satan/I believe it’s time to go/Me and the Devil/Was walkin’ side by side/ And I’m gonna beat my woman till I get satisfied/You may bury my body/Down by the highway side/ So my old evil spirit/ can get a Greyhound bus and ride.
Steven Johnson, Robert Johnson’s grandson, tells a story that refutes the Crossroads myth, but is just as strange as the original. Robert Johnson went Hazelhurst in search of his biological father, the grandson relates. Along the way, he ran into Ike Zimmerman, a blues player who took him in as family and taught him everything he knew.
Johnson lived with Ike for two years in Beauregard, five miles south of Hazelhurst. They would practice in a cemetery. Maybe Zimmerman felt that Johnson’s playing was so bad, only the dead would listen. Regardless, Johnson became a diligent guitar student and played for hours and hours on top of tombstones. When he left Beauregard, his playing had improved so much that the running joke became, “You must have sold your soul to the Devil.”
Perhaps Johnson’s other-worldly lyrics were a clever ruse on his part to be mysterious for all time. If true, it shows that Johnson was a genius at song writing. But some blues enthusiasts argue that Zimmerman was the real father of the blues, and even that he wrote “Crossroads Blues,” not Johnson.
The Rolling Stones covered “You’ve Got To Move,” an old Fred McDowell blues song about the inevitability of death. Well, Robert Johnson had to move at the age of 26 or 27. If he indeed died at the young age of 27, it would make him the founding member of the “27 Club,” an infamous list of cursed musicians who died at age 27, which includes The Doors’ Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
One story of Johnson’s death was that a jealous husband poisoned the blues man’s whiskey. Perhaps the Devil came calling to collect. Some say that he died on his knees, barking and howling like a dog and signaling possession.
If Johnson sold his soul for fame and fortune, the Devil tricked him. John H. Hammond, the legendary producer behind the careers of Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Aretha Franklin, among others, was searching for Johnson to perform at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Hammond was too late, but if Johnson had lived, the performance would have certainly have made him a huge star.
Most likely, Johnson never had much money to speak of; he was buried in an unmarked grave. Yet, although the biggest and brightest musical luminaries have covered his material, Robert Johnson, the man, is as vaporous as a dream.