By Matthew Wendler
Robert Johnson stood alone at a crossroads with his guitar. It was a cold night in Mississippi and the full moon was beating down overhead. Midnight was approaching and Johnson was feeling anxious, knowing it was almost time. Suddenly, Johnson felt a presence. Gravel crushed in the distance and emerging from the shadows of the crossroads was a tall dark figure. The man stood before him in silence.
Without saying a word, Johnson held his battered black guitar up to the figure, who quickly snatched it from his hands. The figure started tuning Johnson’s guitar, the strings now making soothing sounds Johnson had never once heard before. Before he knew what was happening, Johnson was alone again with the guitar back in his hands. He looked around, questioning if the entity he met was even real, and stared down at his old six-string. After taking a moment to adjust himself, he began to strum. Johnson was now a master at the blues, all at the cost of his eternal soul.
Johnson was born May 8, 1911, in Hazelnut, Mississippi. He developed a big interest in music at a young age and learned the basics of guitar from one of his brothers. Johnson favored the blues, which was widely regarded as devil’s music at the time. His interests resulted in a conflict with his step-father, who wanted Johnson to drop the music act and work on the family’s plantation.
At the age of 19, Johnson married a woman named Virginia Travis. It was at this point when he mostly put away his passion for music to focus on his wife and their unborn child. Unfortunately, Travis and their child both died while she was giving birth April 10, 1930. Her family blamed Johnson, claiming it was his doing for playing devil’s music. It wasn’t until after their death that he dedicated his life fully to music.
Johnson began performing on street corners in different towns. He was eventually given the opportunity to play on stage at a juke joint for a show set up by blues artists Son House and Willie Brown in Clarksdale, Mississippi. House allowed Johnson to play during one of their show’s intermissions. At this time, Johnson was considered greatly untalented. People would come up to House and ask him to make Johnson stop playing.
Johnson then disappeared one day. No one knew where he went or what became of him. He wouldn’t be seen for nearly a year and a half later.
Between 1931 and 1932, House and Brown were playing at another juke joint located in Robinsonville, Mississippi. To their surprise, they spotted Johnson walking through the entrance, carrying his guitar. Johnson went up to House and asked him for a chance to perform. With reluctance, House decided to give Johnson a shot.
“He was so good, when he finished, all our mouths were standing open,” House stated.
Johnson began traveling by train to different towns throughout the country, performing at any place he could. He moved to Texas in November of 1936 and started to have his songs recorded. A total of 29 songs were produced between two different studios. Johnson returned to Mississippi in 1937 and went on to continue playing at bars and nightclubs.
Johnson died Aug. 16, 1938 at the age of 27. His death remained largely unheard of until his death certificate was found in 1967. The cause of his death wasn’t listed.
The legend goes that Johnson sold his soul to the devil during his absence in exchange for being skillful with the guitar and that his early death was the result of effects that came from the transaction.
One reason this legend may have spawned is because much of his music appears to relate to this tale, including Hellhound on My Trail, Me and the Devil Blues, and Cross Road Blues. Many of these songs, however, appear to have a different meaning. Cross Road Blues, for example, is not about a soul exchange, but rather a hitchhiker begging for a ride. In addition, many other artists at the time performed songs of related themes.
Another reason this legend may have formed was due to his long absence from town and for how fast he mastered the guitar. During the time of his disappearance, Johnson actually met another blues artist named Ike Zimmerman, who took Johnson under his wing. Allegedly, Zimmerman would take Johnson to graveyards at night and give him lessons there due to how quiet it was.
The tale itself seems to have actually come from an earlier blues artist named Tommy Johnson, who has no relation to Robert. Tommy’s brother, LeDell Johnson, claimed in 1966 that Tommy told him the only reason he played as good as he did was because he made a bargain with the devil at a section of crossroads. Robert’s name seems to have become attached with the story over time.
As for Johnson’s death, a friend of Johnson named David “Honeyboy” Edward claimed he was poisoned after flirting with the wife of another man. This man worked at one of the bars he frequently played in. Edward claimed Johnson fell ill after drinking a bottle of whiskey served by this man and died three days later.
The details revolving around the story suggests Johnson most likely didn’t sell his soul. Tales of bargains with the devil have been told for centuries and are often prevalent in folklore and urban legend. There are; however, people who still hold to the belief that the story is true due to the vague and mysterious details known about Johnson’s life.
Johnson gained great notoriety in 1961 after Columbia Records released his complete collection of songs on an album called King of the Delta Blues Singers. He was also inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. To this day, there are only two known verified photographs of Johnson.
Allegedly, his last recorded words were handwritten right before his death. They were stated as follows:
“Jesus of Nazarath. King of Jerusalem. I know that my redeemer liveth and that he will call me from the grave.”