"You may bury my body down by the highway side
Baby, I don't care where you bury my body when I'm dead and gone
You may bury my body, ooh down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride" — Me and the Devil Blues ©(1978) 1990, 1991 Lehsem II, LLC/Claud L. Johnson (Administered by Music & Media International, Inc.)
A young man walks slowly down a lonely dirt road in the delta region of Mississippi. Without a soul for miles around, and near midnight, it’s an eerie place – a place where the imagination runs wild and anything is possible. "Damn," he curses to himself, ashamed of his fear for starting at the hoot of an owl nearby, "ain’t nothin’ here, it’s just a damn old wives tale, is all."
Legend has it, if you go to the crossroads at midnight you can get your heart's desire, for a price. All you have to do is step out into the crossroads and wait for your guest to arrive. If you’re lucky, he won’t come. If he does, you’d better be sure what you want is worth the cost. The devil only wants one payment, and there’s no going back on the bargain. Don’t bother praying to God for help, your soul is no longer His concern.
Welcome to the legend of Robert Johnson. No personality in the long and colorful history of the blues has fired the imagination more than he does. Rumored to have sold his soul to the devil for his musical ability, Johnson made the most of his talent, beginning a musical legacy that would last long beyond his short years, and ensure he would never be forgotten.
Adding to the mystique surrounding his purported arrangement with Beelzebub was Johnson’s physical appearance. He was a handsome man, very popular with the ladies, but he had unusually long fingers and a cataract in one eye. Some said it was his ‘evil eye,’ a reminder of his crossroad meeting with old Scratch.
Johnson was known for odd behavior while performing. His habit of turning his back on his audience while he played made some uneasy. He was also known to get upset. He would simply walk off the stage and leave if someone got too curious about his technique. Such behavior wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today, but in Robert Johnson’s era it was unusual for a performer to behave as he did.
Robert Johnson lived the bluesman lifestyle to the fullest. A traveling man, he didn’t like to sit still. He loved being out on the road, playing his music and women – all women. He had an interesting way to insure he’d be well fed and cared for in the towns he played in. He’d find the homeliest woman he could and sweet talk his way into her good graces. He thought this was the safest way to go. Chances were, if she was homely, she didn’t have a man, and she wouldn’t mind taking good care of a traveling bluesman if there was a little romance in it for her.
This worked out well for Johnson in his travels, and perhaps, if he’d have stuck to that tactic he would have lived longer. In little Greenwood, Mississippi, Johnson struck up a relationship with the wife of a roadhouse owner. None too subtle, Johnson didn’t make an effort to hide the fact he was sparking the lady, and before it was over, he got a case of strychnine poisoning from a half-full bottle of whiskey he was handed. The strychnine didn’t kill him, but it weakened him badly and he succumbed to pneumonia a few weeks later, August 16, 1938.
Robert Johnson was buried in a simple wooden coffin by the county at Little Zion Church, just north of Greenwood, along a stretch of highway locals call the ‘money road.’
As for the devil, no one knows if he collected his debt, but the root of that legend was a comment by Son House, another famed bluesman, who said, “He sold his soul to play that way.”