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At the Crossroads: When Robert Johnson Met the Devil

At the Crossroads: When Robert Johnson Met the Devil – Did Robert Johnson sell his soul for music? Is it cheaper than guitar lesson….Shane Adlum explores….

Little is known about the life and death of Robert Johnson, one of the most influential blues musicians of all time. There are only two known photos of him and no footage. He was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi on the 8th of May, 1911 and died on the 16th of August 1938 at the age of 27. Despite only recording 29 songs, his music was incredibly influential and laid the foundation for electric blues and subsequently rock and roll. He was a novice musician who somehow became one of the greatest guitarists off all time in an incredibly short period of time. Many tales have been told about his rise to prominence, his association with hoodoo and how meeting the Devil at the crossroads one night changed his life, the blues and music forever.

He never really had a stable home growing up. His biological father was chased out of town by a lynch mob and his step father would beat him because he didn’t want to work the fields. Robert moved from home to home and all he wanted to do was play the blues. When he was 18, he met Virginia Travis, a 15-year-old girl. They married and she became pregnant. Her family were very religious and didn’t approve of Robert playing the blues as they thought it was the music of the Devil. He promised to give up playing music, work on a farm and be a good husband. When she was 8 months pregnant, she left to be with her grandmother. Robert promised he would join her for the birth of their child. He used her absence as an excuse to start playing music again and played everywhere he could as he travelled to be with his pregnant wife. By the time he arrived it was too late. Expecting to be greeted by his wife and child, he was met by the news that both she and the child had died during childbirth. Her family blamed Robert and his Devil music. His life drastically changed after that and he decided to dedicate his life to his music.

Son House was a musician Robert greatly admired. He would watch Son play along with his musical partner Willie Brown every chance he got. Whenever Son and Willie took a break, Robert would pick up one of their guitars and play, much to the annoyance of the crowd, who thought he was terrible, and Son and Willie, who didn’t want him to break any strings. After one particularly bad performance he was asked to leave and supposedly turned to the crowd and said “I’ll show you” as he walked out. He wasn’t seen for over a year. Then one day as Son and Willie were playing a Juke Joint in Mississippi, Robert walked in the door with a guitar on his back. They recognised him immediately and he asked for the chance to play for the crowd. Everyone was blown away by what they heard, nobody could believe their ears, he was playing in a way none of them had ever heard before. Not so long ago he was annoying the crowd with his poor playing and now he was an impresario, doing things even Son House couldn’t do. How could he possibly have gotten so good, so quickly? This led people to believe he had done something drastic, something unholy, he must have made a deal with the Devil. And so, the myth begins.

Supposedly he went down to the crossroads where he met a mysterious figure believed to be the Devil. Robert got down on his knees and handed his guitar to Satan, who tuned it, played a few songs and said “once you receive the guitar your soul is mine, do you want it?” Robert accepted the offer and sold his soul. But the story doesn’t end there, if you make a deal with the Devil, you will have to pay the price.

His amazing transformation from novice to incredible instrumentalist could be traced back to another story about his life. In that time when he went missing for over a year, people say he went back to his hometown of Hazlehurst, Mississippi in search of his biological father. He didn’t find his father but he did find a new mentor. Ike Zimmerman was regarded as one of the best guitarists around at the time. He would give lessons in various graveyards around Mississippi because, as he put it,  “I don’t care how bad you sound out here, nobody out here is going to complain,” and that the only way to learn the blues was to sit on a gravestone at midnight while you played. Many legends exist about haints (an old southern American term for a ghost or spirit) appearing at midnight in cemetery’s and teaching people how to play the blues. Some say it was hard work and the tutelage of Ike that improved Robert’s playing so dramatically but stories of playing in graveyards only seemed to perpetuate the rumour of his deal with the Devil.

Robert’s technique was amazing, unlike anyone else at the time. He had really long fingers which seemed to help his style. Such was his ability, his music sounded like one guitar playing the melody and another playing the rhythm. When Keith Richards first heard Robert Johnson’s music he asked “Who is the other guy playing with him?” not realising it was Johnson playing on his own. “I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realise he was doing it all by himself” said Richards. How he managed to play like that is still a bit of a mystery, whenever he noticed someone watching how he was playing he would turn his back or stop playing altogether.

His lyrics did little to dispel the rumours of his satanic deal. In the song ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ he says “ME and the Devil, was walkin’ side-by-side” and he also makes a reference to his “old evil spirit” in this song.  He clearly wanted people to believe the story of his meeting at the crossroads. This made him more than a musician, he was the man who met the Devil and lived to tell the tale. Satan had put fire in his fingers and brimstone in his voice and he now had a gift to share with the world.

Once he had achieved a great level of success in the music industry, he wanted a family and a normal life but tragedy always seemed to follow him. He met Virgie Cain in the early 1930’s. When she became pregnant, Robert wanted her to come away with him but her family would not allow it. They were very religious and forbid her from seeing him. Again, playing the Devils music had cost him a child and a potential wife. He did try and visit his son but Virgie’s grandparents wouldn’t allow him to see his boy. His son Claude, watched as Robert was turned away not knowing he would never see him again. Robert then turned to the only things other than music that he loved, women and whiskey, the very things that would be his demise.

Robert Johnson had a woman in every town he played in to take care of him. One of these women was the wife of someone who worked at the Three Forks Juke Joint. One-night Robert was there, drinking and having a good time. He ordered a bottle of whiskey but when it arrived the seal was already broken. Someone tried to stop him drinking it but Robert wasn’t going to let anyone get between him and his whiskey. Quickly Robert became very sick, the bottle had been poisoned. He spent the next few days in unbearable agony awaiting the sweet release of death.  There was no investigation into his murder and his murderer was never brought to justice. Some say it was the jealous husband of his lover, others say it was the lover herself but those who believe the legend say it was the Devil, taking what was owed to him.

Many mysteries surrounded the life and death of Robert Johnson. How did he get so good? What really happened down at the crossroads? Was his gift a curse? Did he really meet the Devil? Was he murdered or did the Devil collect his debt? While most of the stories about his life are purely myths and legends, exaggerated over time, we do know he was an incredible musician and one of the most influential guitarists of all time. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, won a posthumous Grammy Award in 1991 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. Rolling Stone magazine named him the fifth best guitarist in their list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. Despite dying at the young age of 27, he left a great legacy and he continues to influence musicians to this day. And remember, if you do make a deal with the Devil you will be expected to pay your debt in full.

 

 

 

 

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