Did Robert Johnson Really Sell His Soul to the Devil?
One night at a Mississippi juke joint in 1930, Son House and Willie Brown played their infamous Delta Blues tunes to a packed house. During the intermission, a young, bright-eyed, 19-year-old Robert Johnson conjured up the courage to take hold of the musician’s instruments and show the crowd what he got. To his surprise, the crowd was displeased with his performance. Even Son House admitted that his guitar playing was severely below par, and he was a better harmonica player if that. Following these events, Son House disappeared for approximately three years before making an appearance on a stage again, but this time he had mastered the Blues. This came as a surprise to those that knew him before his disappearance, but folks began to discredit his talents with stories and myths. The most famous story that many people recognize today is that he sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61. To support these theories of Robert Johnson, the songs he did record complimented these tales quite well. A few of his titles included “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Cross Road Blues,” “Up Jumped the Devil,” and “Me and the Devil Blues.”
Although Robert Johnson is credited with being the first musician to bargain with the Devil, it began with Tommy Johnson, a musician with no relation to Robert Johnson. A relative of Tommy’s recalls his stories as such,
“you go to where a road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ‘fore 12:00 that night so you’ll 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.”
The only difference between Robert Johnson’s story and Tommy Johnson’s accounts was the age at which they died. After a career that lasted him just over five years, Robert Johnson died at the age of 27, whereas Tommy lived well into his sixties.
This concept of making deals with the Devil can be traced back to the late 15th century, starting with Dr. Johann Georg Faust. He was an alchemist, and he dabbled in what was considered as “black magic.” The story first came to life when Christopher Marlowe wrote the play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus in 1589, where he portrays Faust as a dark character who makes a deal with a demon in exchange for 24 years of service. Faust then lives a bountiful life, but he is faced with a tragic death at the end of his agreement. Pan Twardowski, another tale in Polish folklore, arose at approximately the same time. This story can be found in several cultural settings, and it is no surprise that it made its way into American pop culture, such as music, during the 20th century.
In the case of Robert Johnson, many family members have come forward to dispel these rumors and have advocated that the truth be told about Robert Johnson. During the time that he was missing, Johnson returned home, where he ran into Ike Zimmerman. Zimmerman took Johnson under his wing, and from years of practicing, Johnson became the legendary Blues musician that we know today.