The man behind the myth.
Many have heard the term “selling your soul to the devil”, especially when it comes to the blues. The contract is that if you sell your soul to the devil you will be given what you want on earth but when you die the devil keeps your soul for eternity, or so the legend goes.Very little is known aboutÂ the real Robert Johnson even down to his death and there are conflicting views as to where he was buried but one thing was fact. He was considered one ofÂ the finest blues performers of his time and in many ways still the bench-mark of today.
Johnson’s music is a beast unto itself, performing solo he could stomp a beat, play bottleneck guitar in one tempo and sing in a totally different tempo blending together to make one unique haunting sound and it was this that led people to believe he had sold his sole to the devil. Even his early death at the age of 27 led people to believe the devil had just come for him early.
Like I say, a lot about this man is myth and legend but I think I may be able to offer an insight into the truth.
Born in the Mississippi Delta on May 8th 1911 It was known in his local community that Johnson was a very good musician even coining the name of ‘the human jukebox’, whilst playing for small change or food amongst the cotton plantations, but nothing special. After disappearing for about a month Jonson returned with this new found ungodly talent. Blowing people away with rhythms and tones normally created by more than one man. This is the fuel for the belief of many that he had sold his soul to the devil.
I personally believe that he met someone with great teaching skills, who could see the gift this boy had and Johnson being a sharp student took all the knowledge on offer.
Being a very sharp individual he took the gossip of the day and turned it to his own advantage writing more and more songsÂ about the devil, further fuelling the fire and the legend was born.
Many reports say that Jonson lived a hobo’s lifestyle and on some level this may be true, especially in the early years. But then you see the odd rare photo and its clear to see that the man was wearing made to measure suits of the finest quality, the best money could buy. For a black man to dress like this in 1930s America during the depression is quite amazing, which goes to show that he was not only an exceptional musician but must have also been a self marketing genius.
Don’t forget toÂ bear in mind that even today blues players can’t achieve what Johnson created. Many have tried and some have come very close but when you hear songs such as “Crossroad Blues”, “Me and the Devil Blues” and the soul searching pain of “Love in Vain” you are instantly snarled up in Johnson’s musical web. But to hearÂ Johnson on the top of his game be sure to listen to the awesome “Preachin’ Blues”, a true blues master class.
Surely the devil can’t give gifts of this beauty? And if God played the bluesÂ I’m sure he would want to play like Robert Johnson.