I can’t think of a better subject on the eve of Halloween than Robert Johnson, the Mississippi blues guitarist who was said to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for learning to play guitar. It’s an old story. The myth that just won’t die. But how did this myth about a nefarious, midnight meeting at a Mississippi Crossroads between Johnson and Old Scratch that resulted in a contract, in which Johnson becomes a great guitar player and the Devil gets
his soul, become the story that defined the life of Robert Johnson? Well first, let’s look at the culture of the times.
Being Southern, I can tell you there are all kinds of superstitions about evil and the Devil that abound in the country. I still to this day make a cross on the windshield if a black cat crosses in front of my car and say, “Damn, cat!” to ward off evil spirits. I’m compelled to do this. I’ve seen this done since I was a child by three generations, and I’m not going to be the one to tempt fate. I don’t sweep the floor on New Years Day lest I sweep someone out of my life. Or wash clothes for the same reason. And I’m not aware of anyone putting a hex on me, but if they did, I’d know to circle my house with salt. Just saying.
In the Delta, there was a myth that if you went to the Crossroads at midnight on a full moon and held out your guitar, the Devil would tune it for you. So there’s that. Then there’s the Son House interview from the 1997 documentary, Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl?, where he said Johnson used to irritate everyone with his bad guitar playing. Then Johnson leaves Mississippi for six months, and when he comes back, he can play so well, Son House is in awe. Hence, the myth is born. Johnson said he had studied with someone in Arkansas, someone human, but the myth lives on to this day. Probably because his playing had improved so drastically.
There is so little known about Johnson’s short life it’s no wonder he became a man of myths. He recorded only 29 songs. He died at 27, supposedly poisoned by a jealous husband or boyfriend though there is a handwritten note on the back of his death certificate that reads he could have died of syphilis. While he lay dying, John Hammond was searching for him to invite him to play at Carnegie Hall. When the phone call came through, he was told he was too late. It took three days for Johnson to die. According to witnesses, he lay in misery for those three days. Even in death, Robert Johnson is a mystery. There are three headstones erected in three different cemeteries in Greenwood, MS for Johnson. One placed by Sony music, one by members of ZZ Top and one after 85-year-old-Rosie Eskridge said her husband helped bury Johnson. That one was erected in 2000.
But even with the mythology and mystery, the one thing that remains and can’t be denied is the music. Johnson was a master when he recorded. He recorded facing the wall. Some say because he was shy, but listen to how he uses the volume of his voice. Robert Johnson, the King of the Delta Blues Singers, the myth may have gotten his career started, but the music is what brings us back.