Close to midnight during the early 1930s, wannabe bluesman Robert Johnson stepped out of the shadows of the Mississippi swampland. In one hand he carried his beat-up acoustic guitar; in the other a bottle of rye whiskey to keep out the cold. He shivered slightly. Not because of the chilly air, but because he’d got an appointment with the Devil himself. Johnson was on his way to a lonely crossroads to sell his mortal soul in exchange for guitar expertise and fame.
In the Southern States of America, at the time, there had long been the belief among African Americans that entering a Faustian pact was a route to bettering your life. This was hardly surprising, considering their abject poverty and the fact that the slave trade was still in living memory. Most, however, were too God-fearing to even contemplate making a deal with Satan.
But not Robert Johnson. His thirst for fame and the good life was too great.
Just as a distant clock struck midnight, he stepped into the heart of the crossroads and waited. An owl hooted and there was the odd rustle in the undergrowth. Then, from behind him, came a voice. Johnson swung round to see a tall man, dressed all in black, and wearing shades and a top hat.
“Why, good evenin’ Robert boy. You come to make yo’ bargain?”
Johnson nodded and handed his guitar to the diabolic-looking man, who re-tuned it (to open “D” now known as the “Devil’s tuning”) and gave it back. After that, the man got Johnson to sign away his soul on a piece of parchment. Then looked down at the young black man’s feet and said, “Need yo’ shoes too, boy, take ’em off.”
Johnson complied and handed them to the man, then asked, “Why’d you need my shoes, sir?”
The man in black grinned, “Don’t you worry ’bout them boy, you get ’em back in Hell…”
With that he disappeared into the night. Not long afterward, Johnson was dazzling audiences with his brilliance on the guitar and soon became a famed recording artist.
While this story might sound like something out of Dennis Wheatley’s satanic novels of the 1960s, it’s actually the myth that underpins blues and rock music – even today. Anyone who decides to learn the electric guitar, and has their sights on becoming a rock star, is aware of the Faustian pact that lies behind the undertaking – even if only in the back of their mind.
Dig into Robert Johnson’s life and music, however, and you’ll find that this idea isn’t quite as preposterous as it sounds. Many of his lyrics give the game away. They hint at an involvement in Hoodoo, the spirituality and folk magic of the rural South, which originated in Nigeria and is very similar to the Voodoo of New Orleans and Haiti. Johnson’s classic Hellhound on my Trail (1937) is a prime example:
“You sprinkled hot foot powder, mmm, mmm,
around my door…it keep me with ramblin’ mind,
rider, every place I go.”
Such lyrics – which to the uninitiated might seem cryptic – can easily be unlocked with a little knowledge of Hoodoo. “Hot foot powder” is a herb and mineral concoction used in Hoodoo magical workings (known as “conjure”) to make people go away. You can still get it today from spiritual supplies stores like 13Moons.com (US) and Mandrake-Press.co.uk (UK). Because hot foot powder had been sprinkled around Johnson’s door, he just kept “rambling” and was never able to stay home very long.
Clearly, he may have used the idea of hot foot powder as a metaphor to describe his life as an itinerant musician. But the point is, it shows he was familiar with Hoodoo. This is no surprise, in fact, as the culture Johnson grew up in, although ostensibly Christian, still very much believed in magic, hexes and the notion that a terrible pact could be made with supernatural entities at an intersection.
Despite the extensive research that has been done into Johnson’s life, the facts remain sketchy. He was probably born on 8 May, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi – the result of a brief extramarital affair between Julia Ann Dodds and a local plantation worker called Noel Johnson. Music caught the young Robert Johnson’s interest at at a young age. His first instruments were the Jew’s harp and the harmonica. In 1929, before he got seriously involved with the guitar, he got married to 16-year-old Virginia Travis, but tragically she died in childbirth in 1930.
That year, the renowned bluesman Son House moved to Robinsonville, where Johnson was now living. His music had a profound effect on the budding young bluesman. The admiration, however, was not reciprocated. On hearing Johnson play, Son House declared:
“Such another racket you ever heard! It made people mad, you know. They’d come out and say, ‘Why don’t y’all go in there and get that guitar from that boy! He’s running people crazy with it.'”
Unhappy with the backbreaking work he was now doing as a sharecropper on the plantations, Johnson eventually left Robinsonville and headed deep into the Mississippi Delta, where he tried his luck playing “Juke Joints”, the tumble-down shanties where people danced, drank and listened to music.
During his time in the Delta something strange happened, which transformed him from a mediocre (at best) guitar player into a brilliant one. When he returned to Robinsonville, Son House was astonished by his development. “He was so good!” he recalled. “When he finished, all our mouths were standing open. I said, ‘Well, ain’t that fast! He’s gone now!'”
This was when rumors began to circulate that Johnson had traded his soul with the Devil…
Not only had he suddenly become a virtuoso guitar player, but he had also gained extraordinary charisma. His performances regularly moved audiences to tears, and he attracted many blues players, destined to become famous in their own right, as his disciples. In short – his career was on the up.
The idea that you could sell your soul to the Devil in exchange for fame was common currency among bluesmen in the 1930s. It had been part of black culture for years. The Rev LeDell Johnson (no relation to Robert) described how his brother Tommy Johnson (1896-1956), like Robert Johnson, left home scarcely able to play guitar and came back an accomplished musician:
“Now, if Tom was living, he’d tell you. He said the reason he knowed so much, said he sold hisself to the Devil. I asked how. He said, ‘If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ‘fore 12.00 that night so you know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself. A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.'”
Son House was adamant that Robert Johnson had done the same thing, as were many other blues players.
By 1936, Johnson had been spotted by a scout for the American Record Company. The label duly put him in the studio to record a string of songs that were to become classics in the blues and rock field. These included Terraplane Blues, Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil) and Crossroads Blues. The latter song, covered by Cream in 1968, is plainly about desperately trying to hitch a ride from a crossroads before nightfall, after which, if you were black, there was the ever-present danger of running into a white racist lynch mob. But in the popular mind, Crossroads Blues has come to epitomize the idea of a bluesman making a Faustian pact for fame.
Whether he sold his soul or not, being a recording artist brought Johnson a good deal of fame. He now found eager crowds nearly everywhere he played. In 1937, he recorded another set of songs, including Me and the Devil Blues, Little Queen of Spades and Love in Vain (covered by the Rolling Stones in 1969).
But on 16 August, 1938, when Johnson was 27, the Devil came to collect his due. Or, at least, that’s what many said (including Son House). And you can’t blame them because, as irony or “diabolic coincidence” would have it, the talented blues artist met his end at a country crossroads, near Greenwood, Mississippi. He made his pact at a crossroads, and died at one. He’d been playing for a few weeks at a country dance and it is thought he had been poisoned by the husband of a woman he’d been having a fling with. The exact details of his death, however, are unknown. Some say he died alone, while others say he died in the presence of others, talking of black dogs or even howling like a dog. The exact location of his grave is hotly disputed. Three different markers have been put up at cemeteries in the Greenwood area.
But how much truth was there in the legend that Johnson traded his soul with the Devil at a lonely Mississippi crossroads?
Again, we need to look to Hoodoo for the answer. Behind the Faustian pact mythos lies the Hoodoo lore of the crossroads. In Southern black communities, during Robert Johnson’s time, it was commonly held that you could go to a crossroads to meet the Devil. This concept has its roots in the African belief that a guardian spirit inhabits the crossroads. The Yoruba tribes of Nigeria called this spirit Eshu, while the Fon of Dahomey called it Legba (in Voodoo he’s known as Papa Legba). This spirit is the intermediary not just between the supreme deity and the gods, but also between humans and the gods. In all Africa-derived religions around the world – such as Voodoo, Santeria and Macumba – the crossroads deity is always first to be honored in any ceremony.
The crossroads deity is also a trickster. And unpredictable character, whose jokes and tricks are normally mischievous and benign, but do sometimes turn malicious. This aspect would explain why the Christians, when they arrived in Africa, associated him with the Devil. The blacks who were taken to America during the slave trade retained this association, particularly in the Southern States. But for them, this “Devil” wasn’t necessarily the evil force of Judeo-Christian belief. He was also a teaching spirit that could bestow devotees with physical or mental skill.
So could it be that Robert Johnson really did go to a lonely crossroads – not to sell his soul, but to summon Papa Legba in a Hoodoo rite to acquire guitar excellence and fame?
According to writer and musician Julio Finn – who has played with many illustrious bluesmen, including the late Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf – this could well have been the case. “Did Robert Johnson seek out or meet a Hoodoo doctor during his wanderings in the bayous, who initiated him into the cult, thus providing him with the knowledge to invoke Legba, the master of the crossroads?” he asks in his 1992 book, The Bluesman. “Did he make a pact with this ‘Devil’ in order to play ‘the Devil’s music’? We’ll never know. [But] his fellow musicians believed him, seeing nothing implausible in the undertaking.”
All that can be said for certain is, within the span of a couple of years, Robert Johnson went from playing guitar so badly it hurt people’s ears, to being a charismatic performer in a class of his own. Not only did younger bluesmen like Johnny Shines and Robert Jr Lockwood accept that this was down to making a pact with the Devil, but so did the older, more experienced player Son House. Whatever the truth, we can be sure that all those who pick up a guitar to learn rock and blues will always be aware that it was not God “who gave rock & roll to you”, but the Devil…
Further Notes on the Devil’s Pact
Origins of Hoodoo
Hoodoo is an American term, originating in the 19th century or earlier, for African-American folk magic. Some authorities believe the word derives from “Juju”, meaning sorcery in Africa, while others say it is simply an adulteration of the term Voodoo. As a system of magic, Hoodoo has its roots in African mythology and religion, which arrived in the New World with the slave trade. Other influences include the herb and plant lore of Native American shamanism and the folklore of European Christian and Jewish immigrants.
Hoodoo folk magic is typically concerned with worldly, rather than spiritual matters. For a fee, a Hoodoo “doctor” will create a mojo hand (talisman) to help his or her client in matters of love, sex, money and health – or even to bring such things as gambling luck or to remove hexes. The mojo hand usually comes in the form of a red or green drawstring bag. During a ritual, the Hoodoo doctor fills the bag with various herbs, roots, powders, stones, and feathers, as well as personal items from the client (such as a lock of hair). Depending on its purpose, the mojo hand is then carried by the client, or is deposited in an appropriate place until it brings about the change in circumstances desired by the client.
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of rock band Led Zeppelin made many references to Robert Johnson in their songs. The Lemon Song from Led Zeppelin 2 (1969), for example, openly borrows the Johnson line “You can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice runs down my leg”. And a lyric in The Ocean, from Houses of the Holy (1973), makes a direct reference to Johnson’s Hellhound on my Trail. Rumor has it that Robert Plant keeps a vial of dirt from the crossroads where Johnson allegedly sold his soul (although the exact location of Johnson’s crossroads, like the whereabouts of his grave, is hotly disputed).
The idea of selling your soul to the Devil for fame has taken a murderous twist. On 22 July, 1995, three teenage wannabe rock stars, of death metal band Hatred, lured 15-year-old virgin Elyse Pahler into a eucalyptus grove near her home in Arroyo Grande, California. Without warning, Joseph Fiorella, Royce Casey and Jacob Delashmutt mounted a murderous attack on the unsuspecting girl, stabbing her with a six-inch knife and stomping on her until she was dead. Her body wasn’t found for eight months. But one of the youths later admitted that they’d been back to the corpse on a number of occasions to have sex with it.
After their eventual arrest, the youths told investigators that they believed they could win themselves a one-way-ticket to Hell by committing the ultimate crime against God – sacrificing a virgin. “It was to receive power from the Devil to help them play guitar better,” Chief Investigator Doug Odom told reporters. “By making the perfect sacrifice to the Devil, (the boys thought) it might help them go professional.” All three were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Drawing of Robert Johnson by Imogen Shreeve.