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Mystery of the month: Did Robert Johnson sell his soul to Satan?
Did legendary guitarist Robert Johnson sell his soul to Satan?
As the blues legends Son House and Willie Brown ended their set to rapturous applause, they were approached by a young man. It was 1930 in Robinson, Mississippi, and Robert Johnson was 18 years old.
‘Can I have a go on your guitar?’ he asked Son House, who nodded. Johnson picked up the guitar and started playing.
He was terrible. The crowd started booing, and the club owners took the guitar off him and threw him out into the night.
A year later, House and Brown were playing another gig in Banks, Mississippi, when Robert Johnson walked in with a guitar in a case on his back.
‘Boy, now where are you going with that thing?’ House is said to have asked Johnson. ‘To noise somebody to death again?’ In response, Johnson took out his guitar – which had seven strings, instead of the usual six – and began to play.
This time, he was absolutely incredible. House, Brown and the whole crowd listened in stunned silence. How had this 19-year-old kid gone from being a guitar zero to hero in just one short year?
Soon, the whispers began: Robert Johnson had cut a deal with the Devil.
The story went that Johnson had been walking late at night with his guitar, and fallen to his knees, wailing, at the crossroads between US 61 and US 49 in Clarksdale. The Devil appeared and promised Johnson unearthly musical talent – in return for his soul. Johnson agreed, so the Devil tuned his guitar for him and handed it back, and the deal was done.
It sounds far-fetched, but in the Deep South of America in the 1920s, blues music was considered to be ‘the Devil’s music’ by the deeply devout God-fearing folk. It was thought to tempt people into lustful thoughts, by encouraging them to gyrate their hips and dance.
Johnson did little to dispel the rumours – in fact, he seemed happy to encourage them, recording tracks such as Me and the Devil Blues and Hell Hound On My Trail. In reality, he lived a hard life; raised in poverty and abused by his stepfather as a child, he married young, only for his wife to die in childbirth. After he found success as a musician, he became a hard-drinking womaniser, and died aged just 27 – inadvertently joining the ‘27 Club,’ which is the name for the conspiracy theory that links together the many musicians who’ve died at the age of 27, including Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse.
So did he sell his soul to the Devil? An alternative theory has been put forward that he was a Voodoo practitioner who went to the crossroads to invoke the help of the trickster god Papa Legba, and it was he who gifted Johnson with his musical ability. In West African religious practices, which were then incorporated into American and Haitian Voodoo, crossroads have great significance as a place where the land of the living meets the land of spirit. Again, Johnson may have been referencing this in his song Cross Road Blues.
Whether or not the Devil or Papa Legba was responsible, contemporary accounts are pretty clear about Johnson’s amazing transformation.
However, his grandson Steven, a teacher and vice president of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation, has a more prosaic explanation. ‘...He practised. And he practised twice as hard as anyone else.’
Did he practise Voodoo?