Sunday, September 30, 2018

Robert Johnson at the Crossroads

I don't know how I have managed to keep this blog as long as I have and not brought up one of the great American spooky stories, but I have, so it is long since time that I brought this up.

The story goes that one night, some time between the late 1920s and the mid-1930s, shortly before midnight, at a crossroads near Dockery Plantation in Mississippi, a good harmonica player but lousy guitar player named Robert Johnson begasn a ritual to summon the Devil. Johnson pulled out his guitar and began to play, quite poorly. Shortly after the stroke of midnight, a large man, his skin and clothing as black as coal, approached, took the guitar from Johnson, tuned it, played a short tune, and handed it back to Johnson.

Johnson got the guitar into position, played, and was shocked to discover that he was now amazing. He looked up towards the coal-black man, only to find that he had vanished. Johnson walked back through the dead of night, and would soon discover that he was now a brilliant guitarist not just on the instrument that he had brought to the crossroads, but on every guitar that he picked up.

Johnson's newfound skill began to bring him success. He had became a popular guitarist and singer at the juke joints of the American south, and also found himself popular with the ladies.

But he knew that there was a cost, and that the Devil would quite literally collect his due. Johnson knew that in exchange for his talent, he had pledged his soul to the Devil, and that he would burn for eternity after his death.

As he shot to local fame, Robert Johnson wrote and performed songs with the usual blues subject matter of hard women and harder working conditions, difficult lives, and the need for relief. But he also wrote and performed other songs. Songs about bad dealings at crossroads. Songs about being pursued by demonic hounds. And songs about the Devil pursuing him. Some hold that he was writing songs based on the folklore of the region, but others claim that he was trying to tell people about what he had done.

One day, in August 1938, Johnson began behaving strangely, and people reported seeing him walking on all fours and howling like a dog. He had been working as a musician at a dance hall in Greenwood Mississippi at the time, and despite his odd behavior, he showed up for work that night and performed as normal. Later on, he fell ill, and suffered from painful convulsions that lasted for three days. Finally, he died. Some say he was poisoned by a jealous husband (again, he was popular with the ladies, not all of whom were single), some say that he simply dropped dead without cause. Most agree, though, that the Devil had made good on his part of the bargain, and now expected Robert Johnson to pay the bill.

Commentary: As I said above, this is one of the great American spooky tales, and I am surprised that I haven't covered it before. However. I am happy to do so now.

For anyone who tells you that overt connections between music and Satan began with heavy metal, let me introduce you to the mother genre of all rock music - the Blues. Stories such as this one surround Robert Johnson, one of the great early figures of the blues, but some would hold that other musicians (including Tommy Johnson - there were a lot of men with the surname Johnson in early blues, just as there were a lot of men with the surname King in mid-20th century blues) made the same deal. And blues music often contained Satanic imagery and subjects, such as Robert Johnson's own The Devil and Me Blues and Hellhound on My Trail Blues. Overtly Christian imagery and subjects were also, of course, part of early blues, which makes sense as blues is closely connected to Gospel music.

Robert Johnson was born in 1911, and died in 1938 at the age of 27 years. He had wandered the south as a musician and manual laborer during the 1920s and 30s, with accounts holding that he had either run away from home or been kicked out by his father as a teenager. However, as is typical for an African American in the early 20th century, his life was not well documented, and it is difficult to sort out what was true and what was rumor.

One thing that does seem to be certain - he hung out at juke joints as a young man, and played harmonica well. However, he wanted to be a guitar player, and was so bad at it that many musicians, including iconic bluesmen such as Son House, recall him "annoying people to death" with his attempts to coax any sort of decent sound out of a guitar. Then he vanished for somewhere between six months and a year, and when he re-appeared, Son House recalls being amazed at how skilled a guitar player Johnson had become.

I set the story in Dockery, Mississippi, but others would place the story in other locations throughout the south. Robert Johnson was a traveling worker and musician, and there is no shortage of crossroads in the south that claim to have been the location of his Faustian bargain.

Although the story of Robert Johnson is the prototype of the bargain between a musician and Hell, it is not the first such story. As documented in one of my earlier entries, the violinist Paganini is said to have either made such a pact himself, or to have bee the product of a pact between his mother and a demon. And, of course, in more recent years, heavy metal musicians play up this Satanic imagery to create their own mythologies.

Of course, the truth probably has less to do with deals made in Hell than with hard work. As noted, Robert Johnson vanished from the juke joints for somewhere between six months and a year. Though the documentation is sparse, he probably traveled to work, possibly with his family, and while doing so, he appears to have found a guitar teacher. The identity of the guitar teacher is unclear (and, really, it might have been more than one) but most sources point towards Ike Zimmerman (or, in some records, Zinnerman) being the teacher. It is said that the two played guitar at night in cemeteries in order to be in a quite place for practice, which may explain another variation of the story, where Johnson is said to have made his deal with the Devil in a cemetery, while playing his guitar on a tombstone.

Sources: Wikipedia, Open Culture, UDiscover Music, NPR, The Guardian

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