If it weren’t for the devil, we wouldn’t have rock ‘n’ roll. As stated in a previous installment of this column, I’m not necessarily talking about Satan as a literal being, but rather the idea of rebellion and independence. Rock ‘n’ roll is, at least in ethos if not always in practice, about breaking norms and a kind of personal and artistic liberation. Raw sexuality, decadent indulgence, screaming ridiculous things at loud volumes? All the handiwork of the devil; all rock ‘n’ roll.
But then there’s the other aspect of the devil giving us rock ‘n’ roll. Rock music wouldn’t exist without blues, and one of the greatest to ever play the blues was given the gift of his uncanny talent thanks to the devil himself. And that was way before the “Filthy Fifteen.”
The story of Robert Johnson is probably a familiar one to most, if not in name at least in narrative. Johnson, an aspiring blues musician, is told to take his guitar to crossroads near Dockery Plantation in Mississippi at midnight. There, a large black man (whom we’re to infer is the devil) takes his guitar, tunes it, and in turn, gives Johnson newly masterful guitar playing skills. With the help of the Dark Lord, he becomes a musical icon.
The story’s circulated for 60 years at least, with some of the details changed a bit, but the end result is always the same: Robert Johnson’s skill comes courtesy of the handiwork of a luthier named Lucifer. Son House is often credited as the source of the story, having told historian Pete Welding about how, at first, Johnson was actually a terrible musician, but after not making any public performances for two years, he managed to come back only to upstage all of his peers. It’s likely he attributed his newfound abilities to this meeting with the devil after dark only due to a leading question, but it’s at least a possible origin point of this ongoing telephone-game retelling of Delta blues lore. Another possible source is Ledell Johnson, brother of blues yodeler Tommy Johnson, who attributed the transaction to his own kin: “He said the reason he knows so much is that he sold his soul to the devil.”
With folklore that stretches back nearly 100 years, it’s increasingly difficult to verify any such claims, not that I’m sure it’s possible to ever really gather evidence on anyone who takes a meeting with the devil (Beelzebub has a closed-door policy last I checked). In fact, information about Johnson himself is scarce—there are only a handful of known photos of him, and even his grave site is the subject of some dispute. But myths grow more intriguing the less actual information we have; if Robert Johnson had a time-stamped affidavit of where he was the night in question, we would have moved on by now. We not only don’t have that, we’re not even really sure who came up with the story in the first place, much in the same way we don’t know the names of the people who’ve written folk songs that have been passed down through generations. We can safely assume that record producer John Hammond of Columbia Records had a lot to do with disseminating the story. But the waters get a bit murky beyond that.
There is, however, another likely culprit: Johnson’s music itself. The crackly, distant sounds of early Delta blues recordings have a kind of supernatural quality to them. They’re often downright eerie, and the devil is often a supporting character—Johnson certainly wasn’t the first to travel to hell and back through song (though he did it more than once; see also: “Hellhound on My Trail”). And maybe because of the ghostly, lo-fi sound of blues 78s, we’re more likely to buy into the idea that the unseen forces these singers are channeling and confronting are, in fact, real. But it’s also no coincidence that two songs in Johnson’s repertoire during his short career were titled “Cross Road Blues” and “Me and the Devil Blues.”
The former has no mention of the devil, and the latter has no mention of crossroads, but when you put the two together, a picture starts to develop that begins to explain this legend a little better. “Cross Road Blues” finds its protagonist stranded, unable to get a ride, but it’s not hard to see this as a metaphor for a pivotal and life-changing event of some kind. Blues is often associated with soulful and spiritual lament, and the figure at the center of the song is the loneliest person in the world in those three minutes. That anguish might not necessarily translate when you hear Cream’s version of it from the 1960s, but the metaphor is just as universal.
“Me and the Devil Blues,” however, is a bit more sinister—a bit more literal in its depiction of Satan coming to collect on his debt. It’s also a story the motivation behind one’s own sins, in this situation the mistreatment of a woman—behavior attributed to “that evil spirit, so deep in the ground.” But the song becomes a bit more eerie when combined with the details of Johnson’s death, or lack thereof; like I said, the actual records are spotty, but Johnson is generally thought to have died of whiskey poisoning, possibly from a lover’s husband. Johnson’s insistence, “Baby I don’t care where you bury me when I’m dead and gone,” only feels that much creepier in context. (In 2010, Gil Scott-Heron released his own more modern and suitably harrowing cover of the song, just one year before his own death.)
Earlier, I used the term “Faustian bargain,” and therein lies a major clue as to why this story endures: It’s, for lack of a better word, a trope. The German fable of Faust, making a deal with the devil to trade his eternal soul for access to pleasures out of his reach, is one that crops up again and again throughout literature, music and film—we know the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil because we’ve internalized it. It’s part of a shared folklore that transcends origin and language because the story itself is universal—we’ve all made a deal with the devil at some point, and we’ve all regretted having to cash that check.
Robert Johnson’s own devil encounter is still a good story, though. The details are so hazy they barely exist; our sense of reason might tell us that it’s nothing more than a good yarn, but it’s one that’s held up for 60 years or more, if only because it’s one of the only details about Johnson himself that’s survived after all this time. And through that hollow, static ridden recording of a man laying his soul bare to be sold to the highest bidder, you can almost believe he came face to face with that shadowy figure late at night.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.