The history of the blues is a bit like scripture. It’s full of stories of trials and tribulations, and draws on the hard-won wisdom of a people set free after ages of enslavement. It has its prophets and sages; its deluges of Biblical proportions (Mississippi River, 1927); even its three kings: B.B., Albert and Freddie. And, of course, it has its Devil.
The Devil plays a surprisingly large role in the history of blues music. Blues musicians sing about him. They have been castigated for fraternizing with him. Blues has even been called “the Devil’s music”—both by its critics and fans. And, if you believe the rumors, some performers have cut a deal with Satan—including the most famous blues musician of them all: Robert Johnson.
Johnson is that grand rarity in the music world—a recording artist from the 1930s who can sell millions of records in the modern day. He left his stamp on the work of almost every later blues musician, and Johnson’s influence has also crossed over into the fields of rock, pop, folk and jazz. “From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up,” Bob Dylan writes in his memoir Chronicles. “I immediately differentiated between [Johnson] and anyone else I had ever heard.” “Up until the time I was 25,” Eric Clapton admits, “if you didn't know who Robert Johnson was I wouldn't talk to you.”
But the rumors of Johnson’s dealings with the devil are even more famous than his recordings. I’ve found that people who know nothing else about the blues, have often heard that story. When I tell a casual acquaintance that I write about the blues, a frequent response is: “Wasn’t there that fellow who sold his soul to the devil?” Or: “I saw that movie about the guy who learned to play the blues from the devil.”
The movie in question is the 1986 film Crossroads, about a Juilliard guitar student traveling to Mississippi to learn more about the legend of Robert Johnson and his pact with the devil. The film is full of hokum and misinformation, but kept moviegoers captivated, especially with its culminating guitar battle between the Juilliard student (with behind-the-scenes help from Ry Cooder) and an emissary of Satan (played by real-life guitar wiz Steve Vai).
Blues scholars tend to look at these Hollywood-enhanced stories with distaste and embarrassment—sometimes with scorn and anger. Elijah Wald in his book Escaping the Delta, tells blues fans to “get over the cliché.” “I do not see why, except because some disenchanted urbanites want to create a mystical Delta fantasy, we need to single out Robert Johnson for satanic honors,” he writes. “If the Devil was real to him, the same was true of John Milton and Paganini, of Jelly Roll Morton and any other believer in the powers of light and darkness.” Wald adds his verdict: imposing these simplistic views of a world caught in a battle between the God and Devil on to “Delta dwellers of the 1930s” is “condescending bullshit.”
Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch go even further in their book Robert Johnson: Lost and Found. “There is no verifiable link between Robert Johnson and the Devil,” they confidently proclaim. “The historical evidence is tainted by hearsay, dubious research, compromised methodology, and questionable reporting.” Patricia Schroeder, in her book on Robert Johnson, finds this whole devil story revealing—but about Johnson’s misguided fans and followers. “The idea that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil reflects the youth, the threatened masculinity, and the countercultural attitudes of the musicians who recognized his musical genius and are largely responsible for popularizing his music.” It is a romantic vision “created from 1960s rebelliousness and nostalgia.”
Can this be true? Is it possible that the most famous story in the whole history of the blues needs to be scrapped? Is it a relic of the 1960s, and not an authentic survival from the 1930s? Certainly this is the main thrust of a whole generation of revisionist scholars who have turned their attention to Robert Johnson. But I’m not quite convinced. Let’s look into the evidence and the history behind this often-told tale, and see what they tell us.
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