One of the greatest Blues musicians to walk the face of this earth, he was a true pioneer, but we know very little of the King of the Delta Blues, Robert Johnson. His death remains a mystery and his songs such as, ‘Me And The Devil Blues’ feel eerie in their lyrical essence, making us question whether Johnson truly sold his soul to the Devil.
Robert Johnson was born in Mississippi on May 8th, 1911, and some recall he was relatively well educated, considering his background. He often moved between cities and performed his music to crowds, but he never achieved much fame, most of it was achieved posthumously. As far as we know, Johnson could’ve been a ladies man with his apparent charismatic charm, which could justify his death. Some have claimed that he could’ve been poisoned by a jealous husband/boyfriend of a woman that he had flirted with earlier, others believe that he could’ve died of syphilis.
There may be certain things we will never know about this young man that suddenly died only at the age of 27. But there is a theory, which is that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil. His music certainly does make us lean towards this theory, although we can only lean on to it to a limited extent, because they are just lyrics after all. The myth goes that Johnson was so determined to become a successful Blues musician, that he took his guitar to a crossroads near Dockery Plantation at midnight. At these crossroads he met a big black man (the Devil) who tuned the guitar and played a couple of songs on it before he gave it back to Robert Johnson.
In the song ‘Me And The Devil Blues’ he says:
“And I said hello Satan
I believe it’s time to go.”
There is a lot of space for interpretation here, and he might’ve not literally sold his soul to the Devil as some might like to believe. Blues historians have argued that perhaps he was referring to himself as the child of Satan, since he was a Blues musicians and the Blues were the work of the Devil. Others have argued that this was due to his roots as an African- American, where ‘selling’ your soul to the Devil, was actually making some sort of pact with trickster African God Legba, who just like the Devil is also associated with crossroads. The fact that Johnson mastered the guitar in such a short amount of time with scarce resources to do so, indicates us towards this theory, however, it is a weak one.
“Me and the Devil
Was walkin’ side by side”
Perhaps the most believable theory that I stand by (although the theory of him literally selling his soul to the Devil sounds the most interesting) is the fact that when he mentions the ‘Devil’ he is actually talking about white people. Evidently there was racial segregation in the 1930s, and Johnson would not be allowed to directly say that he doesn’t like white people, therefore they were the ‘Devil’. It makes the most sense to go with this theory.In fact, it is probably safe to say that the reason he didn’t reach much fame during his lifetime was because he was black.
We will never know the true circumstances regarding Robert Johnson’s sudden death. Could it have been poison? Syphilis? Legba? Or… the Devil himself coming to claim Johnson and send him for an eternity to the promised land, Hell?
“It must-a be that old evil spirit
So deep down in the ground
You may bury my body
Down by the highway side
Baby, I don’t care where you bury my body
when I’m dead and gone”