Did Robert Johnson Sell His Soul to the Devil?

Robert Johnson with cigarette and guitar

Did Robert Johnson sell his soul to The Devil? It’s a hell of a story, isn’t it? A young blues musician with an enthusiasm for his craft that was way greater than his ability, seemingly vanishes off the face of the planet only to resurface sometime later with the kind of talent that most people would kill for. How did he get it? What witchcraft could’ve turned this, some might say, below-average artist into the greatest guitar player/songwriter to ever pick a tune? Could it have been a God-given talent? Or did Robert Johnson sell his soul to The Devil?

Well, no. Of course, he didn’t. Don’t be bloody stupid, but it is a terrific story, yet what’s even better is what actually happened to turn a man who could’ve been just a footnote in blues history into the most important artist to ever pick a few chords.

The Robert Johnson that is now so revered in the world of blues was quite a harmonica player but, apparently, couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket when it came to playing the six-string. According to delta legend Son House, when he met Johnson in 1930, he was so bad at playing the guitar that whenever he started picking, people would literally scream for someone to take the thing off of him and save them from the awful noise he was making. This didn’t deter Johnson in the slightest. Instead of packing it all in, he headed out across the Mississippi delta in search of other musicians he could sit in with and learn from.

Sadly, records from this time are sketchy, to say the least, so there are no points of reference as to who took Johnson under their wing and helped him hone his craft, but when he returned to Robbinsville in 1932, aged just 21, the transformation was staggering. According to Son House, who Johnson played for when they met up again, along with Willie Brown, neither man could believe that this was the same musician who’d nearly deafened everyone in a five-mile radius only a couple of years earlier.

He was so good. When he finished, all our mouths were standing open.”

This is, undoubtedly, where the seeds were planted for the legend of him selling his soul to The Devil sprang up, and it makes sense. Here was a young man who was known for just how awful he was, suddenly reappearing with a talent so far beyond anything anyone could’ve imagined him possessing that it was only a matter of time before tongues started to wag. In fact, Johnson had already been accused of being in league with Old Nick a few years earlier when his first wife, Virginia Travis, died during childbirth. Her family said the reason for this tragedy was because he had chosen to focus on songs that didn’t praise God, known as “..selling your soul to The Devil.” And it’s not as if Johnson did anything to deny or help disprove these insane theories as one of the teachers that we know he worked with during his time in the wilderness was Isaiah ‘Ike’ Zimmerman, who himself was rumoured to have learned how to play guitar by visiting graveyards at midnight. So it all made for a riveting tale when Johnson suddenly showed up with the ability to play like The Devil himself.

Johnson was no idiot either. Though he never confirmed the story himself, he sure as hell didn’t deny it. This was, probably, down to the fact that he reasoned more people would be interested in seeing him perform if they thought they were witnessing something supernatural than they would if they thought he was just a great guitar player. And when he hit the studio to record the 41 songs that would be his entire life’s work, one would stand out as ‘proof’ that he’d made a Faustian pact.

“Crossroads” is an amazing track and one that has been covered by everyone from Eric Clapton to that weird pub band your Uncle Charlie plays in, and it seemed to give those who hadn’t had the chance to see Johnson perform live all the proof that they needed that he was in possession of an otherworldly ability. The strange thing is that nowhere in the lyrics does he refer to any pact with Satan. The first verse does revolve around a man going to the fabled Crossroad, falling on his knees, and begging God for forgiveness, but the rest of it is the protagonist failing to hitch a ride, becoming afraid when it starts to get dark, and wishing he had a woman to share in his distress. Yet, people read into it what they wanted, and as soon as they heard it, they just assumed it was Johnson pleading with his maker to save him from the deal he had made.

This was all horse shit, of course, but once again it made good copy and helped Johnson further stake a claim as the must-see bluesman in the South.

Yet, it was his death that seemed to convince everyone that Robert Johnson had sold his soul and that the Devil wouldn’t be cheated out of a deal. On August 16, 1938, Robert Johnson passed away, though it would take almost 30 years for anyone to know what had happened to him. It seemed as if he’d just vanished off the face of the planet, but while researching his life, Gayle Dean Wardlow discovered that he had been found dead by the side of a road. Of course, this being a time where a dead black man would hardly raise an eyebrow in the South, there was no formal autopsy done, so people just jumped to the conclusion that while travelling this road, The Devil had popped up and taken his due.

Of course, this is bull-honky. Over the years, enough people have done enough research that we can now safely say that Robert Johnson was poisoned. Who by and why, we will never know, but the safe money is on a jealous husband, slipping a little something into a bottle of whiskey that he then got his wife — who Johnson had either been flirting or having an affair with — to pass it to him. In fact, Sonny Boy Williamson claimed he was there on the night in question, at a country dance in Greenwood, and when he saw Johnson lift the bottle to his lips, knocked it clean out of his hands and warned him to never drink from anything he hadn’t opened himself. Johnson, who was partial to a drink or seven, warned Williamson never to touch his drink again and proceeded to finish the whole thing. Later that night, he started to feel sick, and three days later, he passed away. By all accounts, it wasn’t pretty.

So, did Robert Johnson sell his soul to The Devil? Well, no. Of course he didn’t; that would be silly. What really happened was that he took the time to learn his craft by taking two years to study under some of the best bluesmen ever to grace the Mississippi Delta. But because the last thing anyone did back then was keep any record of what was going on, outside of Isaiah ‘Ike’ Zimmerman, his other teachers will remain lost to the annals of time. This is a shame, as their effect on Robert Johnson helped mould a below-average musician into someone whose playing is still held up as the benchmark for what any budding student of the blues should aspire to. If you listen to him now, even in this day and age, he is like a breath of fresh air. He sang from his soul, proving that he can’t possibly have sold the bloody thing in the first place and could pick a tune that would make angels weep.

No, Lucifer didn’t do anything for Robert Johnson. It was a raw talent that was finely honed that made him so goddamn good, and a love for whiskey, an irate husband, and an eye for the ladies that saw his life ended at the age of 27.

Still…it’s a really good story…isn’t it?

Robert Johnson the devil

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