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Blues Bash: The Legendary Robert Johnson

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"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.”

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  • Nice article, Donnie!

    I never knew this was the basis of the ol’ selling your soul to the devil legend.

  • For a few years I worked right next door to the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio where RJ taped most of his sides back in 1936, and used to get my haircut in the basement of that hotel. But you don’t have to go where he made his famous recordings to feel his spirit; you can sense it strongly just from listening to the fruits of those sessions.

    Great piece, Donnie; it’s the most appropriate one for this feature. Because Robert Johnson IS the blues.


  • Vern Halen

    I’n currently reading Escaping the Delta (one of the books listed after your article) – which so far seems to be making the point that the whole Robert Johnson myth was made up by white people to glamorize the blues and/or sell records. Black people for the most part had never heard of him til white rockers started dropping his name. It’ll be interesting to see how this book turns out.

  • Donnie Marler

    Robert Johnson was very well known with a tremendous following all through the Delta region and surrounding areas.
    He had been dead for many years before white rockers recognized his talent and contributions to the blues, and through his influence, rock genres.
    Escaping the Delta is an interesting read, but it’s insinuation that Johnson was a myth perpetuated by whites, and virtually unknown to blacks of that era, is implausable, to be polite.

  • Bliffle

    At least Robert Johnson got some great musical ability for the price of his Eternal Soul. Personally, I’ve been trying to sell my own Eternal Soul to the devil in exchange for one evening with Scarlet Johannson (to discuss Woody Allen movies, you disgusting pervert!) but the market for Eternal Souls seems to be saturated. It’s a buyers market. I blame it on the current crowd in Washington.

  • Vern Halen

    I haven’t finished the book – we’ll see.

    Best “sell my soul to the devil” story was on SNL with Will Ferrell playing his satanic majesty trying to trade a song forged in hell for Garth Brooks eternal soul. What a hoot!

  • Nice piece! Of course, a lot more can be said about the crossroads myth. I found this website, which talks about how the “teacher at the crossroads” was erroneously transmuted into a devil figure, and how the legend was misattributed to Robert Johnson when it really originated with another blues singer, Tommy Johnson.
    A couple of other links mentioning this: here and here.

    Of course none of that takes away from Robert Johnson’s deserved reputation as the greatest of the original masters of the blues. His influence seems more pervasive than anyone else. Wherever his talent came from, it was amazing, almost unearthly.

  • Donnie Marler

    Thanks for the links, I’m always interested in the origins of legends.
    As for Johnson, I think a great deal of his mystique is due to the tremendous impact of the small catalogue of music he left, the existence of only two confirmed photographs of him, the promise lost when he died, and that fascinating legend, rightly attributed or not.

  • Congrats! A link to this article now appears on our Myspace profile page.

  • Having shaken the hand of a man who shook Johnson’s hand, the full force of the Johnson legend could still be felt in Honeyboy’s grip.

    And the full force of the legend is present right here in your writing, Donnie. Well done!

  • Also, as per Honeyboy Edwards, who was with Johnson when he died, it only took days for Johnson to succumb to the ill-effects of the poisoning.

  • Donnie Marler

    Joan, the sources I was using for reference had that Johnson fought off the effects of the poison for a few weeks, but they aren’t as authoritative as Honeyboy, I imagine. Thanks for sharing that.
    And thank you for the kind words. He’s such a fascinating subject!

  • Escaping the Delta is an interesting read, but it’s insinuation that Johnson was a myth perpetuated by whites, and virtually unknown to blacks of that era, is implausable, to be polite.

    I don’t think that’s quite what Escaping the Delta is saying, though, Donnie. Although it does say that while Robert Johnson had a following, he was not a “star” in any sense of the word; he had one minor, regional hit with “Terraplane Blues.”

    I think the book’s point that he was not the hugely influential force in blues history that he’s popularly considered to be; in fact, it says outright that “very little in the history of black music would have been different if Johnson had never played a note.” But it also backs up that assertion so well that I haven’t found a reasonable way to challenge it yet.

    If what you mean is that the book says that the idea of Robert Johnson as “most influential musician in all of the blues” is a myth perpetuated by whites, you’d be correct. It does say that. But that also happens to be true.

  • All of that said, I thought the article was brilliant and incredibly, impressively evocative.

  • I concur with the gentleman above. Johnson’s influence is incalculable. Is Son House even more obscure? One of my persoanl favorites is Mississippi John Hurt. He’s part of the the essence of the blues many search for. Johnson was a true rebel without a cause. Not the fake variety we see in pop culture today.