Supernatural Aid in the Case of Robert Johnson
by Cole Waterman
The full moon hangs like a silver dollar in the opaque sky over Rosedale, Mississippi, the October air sending messengers of cool breezes. Leaning in the crux of a gnarled oak tree, a young black man with a cataract eye in a frayed suit hums the germ of a doleful melody. His broken-down Terraplane car is parked nearby, near the road sign marking the crossroads of US 61 and US 49. A slide guitar in hand, he does his best to tune the unsympathetic strings, strumming them along with discordant results. In the otherwise still night, the wretched howl of a rogue hound cuts through the struggling troubadour’s loneliness.
And then, just for a moment, a thought of desperation gleams across his mind, a notion fueled by years of frustration, countless sleepless nights, and no shortage of homespun whiskey. Man, what I wouldn’t do just to be able to… It’s just a thought, an impetuous offer to no one, a cliché conjured in jest.
Disregarding the idea, he hunches over his instrument as another man ambles from around the tree. The guitarist is startled, caught unaware by the stranger’s presence. The interloper is older, tall and dark, wearing a duster, his eyes chunks of coal, the faint stench of sulfur about him. Introductions are exchanged, small talk is made; guy seems cordial enough, just a fellow train-hopper, passing-by when he heard those notes rippling through the air. Can he have a look at the guitar? Can probably get it in tune…for a price, a little bargain.
What are the conditions? the guitarist ponders. How about the kind of guitar mastery that’ll make his idols who had blown him off stand in awe, pining for the secrets he’d acquired? How about an inimitable knack to duplicate an entire song after hearing it once? How about a dexterity in his fingers and a tap into the most proficient vein of rousing lyricism this side of the Tin Pan Alley? In short, how about icon-status, the envy of generations to come, the power to change history through his musicianship? Ah, and in return, nothing but one cheap soul, to be claimed at some later point down the road…really, who’s getting the short end of the deal here?
Consideration for what is entailed passes in an instant, supplanted by a shaking of the hands, a guitar passed to the stranger and tuned so deftly in his hands as to become a conduit for evoking emotions of every facet. In having the guitar returned to him, the young man’s hands blaze across the neck and body with unleashed skill, lyrics and melodies toppling over one another as his previously dormant muse detonates. Pausing from his gleeful reverie, he looks up to thank the stranger, only to find him gone. A twinge of regret flashes and dissipates, brushed aside in favor of indulging in his gifted talent.
It’s an old fable, ancient even, a not necessarily required aspect of mythology, but a common one nonetheless. The names, dates, details change, but the premise remains basic: a young, desirous protagonist, a bit too earnest in his dreams for his own good, who, lacking the foresight that could benefit him, sinks to his lowest point, his moment of greatest vulnerability. Another figure appears, charismatic and promising great things, offering potentialities to be realized. Of course, as Joseph Campbell has noted, there is a catch: the naïve hero gets what he so desperately longs for, but only for a short time, while in the future, the seemingly benevolent aid will acquire his malevolent payoff.
In the specific story above, the figure of the young down-and-outer strumming his guitar is Robert Johnson, the man who would be posthumously known as “The King of the Delta Blues,” and one of the most influential artists in the annals of recorded music. The figure of the shrouded second man, fortuitous in his stumbling upon Johnson, is none other than the Dark One, Satan, the Devil, who recognizes the fervid yearning in Johnson’s soul and rushes to the scene to fashion a deal for himself.
As is the case—near the hallmark—of so many historical figures appropriated by the realm of mythology, documentation on the life of Robert Johnson is shockingly thin. In fact, aside from two surviving photographs of the man and the twenty-nine songs he recorded over two separate occasions (those occasions being about the only dates on which his whereabouts can be pinpointed), there exists practically no evidence he ever existed. In lieu of this sparsely recorded life, oral traditions and folklore have stepped-up to fill-out the picture.
Though contested, the common consensus marks Robert’s birthday as May 8, 1911 in rural Hazelhurt, Mississippi, born out of wedlock in the heart of the humid delta. Nearly from the time he could walk, Robert lived the life of a vagabond, dropping out of school, being taken in by various relatives, traversing the Deep South and causing his share of trouble, though making his prime base in Robinsonville. In his teens, he developed a love for music, began making himself a regular hanger-on at “jook joints” throughout the area, and quickly learned how to play the Jew’s harp and harmonica, before growing ambitious enough to attempt the guitar. He attempted to endear himself to some of his idols such as Willie Brown, Charley Patton, and Son House, tried getting them to impart some of their knowledge of the blues on him. Though his charisma paid off in getting them to become friends with him, they all but dismissed his musical aspirations due to the horrendous racket he thought passed for guitar playing. Dismayed, young Robert stuck to his guns, apparently viewing their detractions as a personal challenge, and continued his frantic strumming. When his wife died in childbirth, it was the last impetus Robert needed to abscond from the area for the next few months or years.
During his absence in 1929, Robert’s determination to succeed led him to hit the road, playing his guitar and singing his songs wherever he could, in front of barbershops, on street corners, on courthouse steps, in his beloved jooks, taking occasional odd-jobs to scrape up some cash or depending on his incorrigible lady-charming ways to get the girlfriends he made in each town to put him up for a few nights. During this span, he married again in an attempt to settle down. His wandering spirit could not be abated for long, however, and he soon after abandoned his wife for his true loves of music, carousing, and life on the road. In the early ‘30s, his skills deftly honed, Robert returned to his old stomping grounds, making his previous mentors eat crow and leaving them awestruck over how quickly he had perfected his handling of his instrument and how original his style was.
In ‘35, having been a professional musician for several years, his confidence cemented and his name recognized in blues circles, Robert began making an effort to get his music recorded. After making the necessary connections, Robert traveled to San Antonio, Texas, in November 1936 to record a batch of songs for the American Record Company. In June of the following year, Robert convened in Dallas to record a second batch, with a total of twenty-nine songs (plus several outtakes) rendered between the dual sessions. Over the next few months, eleven 78 RPM records were released, with a minor hit being scored with Robert’s “Terraplane Blues.” Though they didn’t become money-making hits, the records—heard mostly by fellow musicians wanting to investigate this brash talent—testified to their composer’s skills. His high yet powerful voice evoked desperation, playfulness, and loneliness and chronicled tales of murder, infidelity, and dark fates, his guitar playing so fast and textured as to make many believe there were two men playing the instrument instead of just mere Robert, the kid who wasn’t fit to so much as hold a guitar a few years previous.
His recording completed, Robert returned to his old life of wandering and playing wherever he could, possibly making the rounds as far as Chicago, Detroit, and Arkansas. The end of the line came in August 1938, when Robert was playing at a bar in Three Forks, Mississippi. As usual, accounts vary, but in the course of the evening, Robert drank a poisoned substance—probably whiskey laced with strychnine or lye by a cuckolded husband—and was removed from the premises a short time later when his affliction became clear. Though he lingered for several days, he succumbed on Aug. 16 at the age of twenty-seven (setting the paradigm for prominent musicians to die at the age), reportedly mad with fever, crawling around on all fours, foaming at the mouth and howling like a feral hound. He was buried in a modest grave, of which at least three locations with complete headstones claim to be the genuine site today.
Over the next couple of decades, Robert faded into obscurity, becoming nothing more than another dead bluesman. It wasn’t until 1961, when several of his songs were reissued and struggling musicians such as Keith Richards and Eric Clapton became enamored with him, that the mystique and legend of Robert Johnson sprung up in full bloom. Later, as Richards, Clapton, and dozens like them became famous in their own right, they took to covering Robert’s tunes, dropped references to him in the press and talked him up as though he were a current act in need of publicity. Henceforth, the mythic status of Robert Johnson was established, as he was retroactively heralded as the King of the Delta Blues and perhaps the true originator of the spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll, with his themes of death, fate, sexuality, and recklessness.
Perhaps it was only then the most enduring aspect of the Johnson myth took hold. Where the story of him selling his soul to the Devil came from no one can say for certain. It’s probable the myth existed, to some degree, while Johnson was still alive, though it may not have been taken as literally as it is today. A common theory is Robert’s compatriots, specifically Son House, stirred up the story to justify how he became so talented when they had passed him over, sort of saying to themselves, “Yeah, he’s good, but only because he sold his soul to the devil.” By this train of thought, the myth started as a defense mechanism meant to disparage Johnson’s talent. It’s also possible Johnson himself invented the myth as a means of creating his own aura, shaping his own destiny. Like they say, everyone needs an angle. Surely, if he didn’t invent it, he did nothing to downplay it, as several of his most tortured songs (i.e. “Me and the Devil Blues,” “Crossroad Blues,” and “Hellhound on My Trail”) mention the satanic incident in very specific—and strikingly chilling—terms. More than likely, the myth’s true origins sprung from a harmless story or joke that was seized upon. For instance, one fan tells another fan the myth in jest; as all nascent rumors do, it snowballs, gaining momentum and details until it’s affixed itself beyond all hope of separation to the legacy of Robert Johnson, in essence coming to define him, serving as the vehicle for his allure and continued relevance.
As stated above, the idea of a pact with the devil is nothing new in the canon of mythology. As the idea of a supreme demonic figure spans culture and ages—as a representation of the inner capacity for evil, of suppressed shadow urgings and insecurities existent in humanity—so too does the invention of a hero being tempted by the nefarious schemer. Sometimes, mythologist David Leeming notes, the tempter is rebuffed, as was the case of Jesus and Satan in the wilderness or the Buddha versus Mara the Fiend, while at other times, the demon succeeds in his manipulations, as was the case of the serpent with Adam and Eve in Eden.
But, to backtrack a bit, the role of the demon is not so singularly cast. In the larger spectrum, the demon represents supernatural aid (or affliction). In any mythic story, the hero is offered a call to adventure, which he/she either accepts or refuses. If accepted, the hero may then (though not necessarily) be greeted by a guide of sorts, a wise and powerful figure offering to help the traveler on his/her journey. For instance, the image of the fairy godmother in many fairytales or the spirit of Virgil serving as guide through Dante’s tour of the afterlife fit the more benevolent constructs. As author Campbell says, “such a figure represents…the benign, protecting power of [the hero’s] destiny”.
However, it is the demonic device that serves as the counterbalance to such benign helpers, the conniving miscreant attempting to derail the hero from his/her path, and not further him/her along it. According to Leeming, it is “the world which is represented mythically by a devil figure who attempts to disrupt the [hero’s] lonely vigil”. Still, what sets these demon figures apart from typical enemies the hero must vanquish is their approach. Instead of some grotesque beast, the tempting demon approaches surreptitiously, draws his strength from being so covert, maybe even goes so far as to at first appear well-meaning; he functions to dupe the hero, not outright slay him, for the hero can plan for an attack, can see it coming, whereas the hero is left blindsided by the demon’s expert trickery. Whereas other foes symbolize a battle between bodies and wills, the schemer symbolizes a battle between intellects and jeopardized morality (Campbell 1949).
Nevertheless, however much a detractor the schemer may ostensibly be, he still serves as an inadvertent aid in the hero’s eventual adventure, for he often represents the culmination, the apex or final hurdle, the arch-enemy, if you will. If the hero can successfully recognize the demon’s machinations and outwit him, said hero is that much grander for it, all the more heroic. Of course, from a purely aesthetic position, the hero who falls prey to the demon’s schemes does tend to make for a better story or impart a more poignant lesson. Perhaps the most (in)famous version of the pact-with-the-devil parable is that of Faust. Originating in 16th Century Europe and most adequately popularized by the play of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the tale relates how German alchemist Johann Georg Faust offers the Satanic figure Mephistopheles his soul upon death in exchange for the ultimate understanding of life. Even when first committed to paper centuries ago, the fable was ancient, cobbled together from aspects of various folklores. Still, it has remained the timeless archetype for all subsequent variations, becoming so melded with current culture as to have the word Faustian apply to any kind of morally vague dealing. And right down the line, the story of Robert Johnson serves as America’s best reinterpretation of the Faust tragedy.
Objectively speaking though, what is the appeal of not only the case of Johnson, but the Devil-dealing device itself? Why is it, with only this surrounding legend to back him, that Johnson assured a place in history? Well, what is the Devil? The Devil, the ultimate evil, is everything forbidden to us, everything that is off-limits, everything we fear, the capacity for every wicked thing both within and outside of us, and right off the bat, innately ingrained, it strikes a chord in our collective at once abhorrent…and intriguing. By attempting to make the figure so indomitably repugnant, a sort of full circle revolution has been achieved, endowing what was intended to be a warning with a magnetic desire tugging our insatiable curiosity. Therefore, many stories featuring the Devil serve as an extension of this, almost as a manner of correcting the error of granting the Devil his charm. In the case of the naïve hero who makes an ill-advised deal with the Dark One, the message is clear: what he offers might sound good at first, but in the end, you’ll find he’s only deceived you, that you in fact have lost while he’s laughing to himself over your eternal misfortune. Succinctly: is dabbling with the Devil really worth it in the end? This coup de grace is exemplified in the Johnson legend both by his premature death and the circumstances surrounding it, particularly the vivid imagery of Johnson crawling on the floor, begging through his delusions to keep the rising banks of the lake of fire at bay.
Without the folktale of Robert Johnson’s midnight deal with Ol’ Scratch at the crossroads, would he be remembered at all today? Probably not, as the decades immediately following his death indicated; Johnson’s legacy would likely only amount to a footnote. But a footnote to what? If Johnson had continued to labor in obscurity, what music would there be to chronicle our shifting times? Would the birth of what is called rock music have happened at all? To create a genealogy of current popular/rock music, all points converge at Johnson, so many elements taken for granted stemming almost single-handedly from this lone man’s story. Take him out of the equation, and the link between country-blues and rock is essentially deleted. But, if modern music can base its existence on Johnson, and the sparking point of Johnson’s relevance was myth, then what does that say of music being so intertwined with myth? And, to take away the middle man, doesn’t that testify to the notion of culture and myth cyclically affecting one another? Suffice to say, if not for Mr. Johnson and his myth, what would our world today not only sound like, but be like?
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: Princeton University Press, 1949.
Koda, Cub. "Robert Johnson.” All Music Guide.
Leeming, David Adams. Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Delta Haze Corporation. Robert Johnson.