Music News

Devil Music

I stand at the crossroads, baby,
now there's no turnin' back:
I'm here to make a deal,
so let the Devil deal the pack!
--Blue Bob Crawford

I don't believe in the devil, but I believe Robert Johnson did. And according to root doctors--voodoo priests of the rural South--the first step to selling your soul is thinking you actually can.

Often incorrectly credited as a founder of the Delta blues, Johnson was actually its last great practitioner; an unparalleled guitarist and existential lyricist who said he had made a pact with the devil at a haunted crossroads in the Mississippi bayou.

Johnson wasn't the only bluesman ever purported to have traded his soul for supernatural prowess--a decade before him, noted guitarist Tommy Johnson (no relation) made the same claim. And if Chicago blues great Howlin' Wolf never overtly fueled the speculation that he was possessed, he certainly did little to discourage it.

Yet no blues player's life and music wear a darker cloak of occult mystique than Robert Johnson's. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings sold 400,000 copies within six months of its 1990 release. True, the Johnson box set was smartly marketed and rode the crest of a revived interest in roots music. But in attributing gold-record sales for a Delta bluesman more than 50 years dead, there can be no discounting the allure of black magic.

The tale of Johnson's trip to the crossroads has become a minor legend in the American pop-culture mythos, popularized by Cream's remake of his song "Crossroads Blues." And then there was the 1986 movie Crossroads, a sort of Karate Kid Goes to Mississippi that stars Ralph Macchio as a guitar protege who helps a fictional, former Johnson sideman named Blind Dog Fulton break his own contract with the prince of darkness.

Biographical information on Johnson is notoriously sketchy, but this much is known, or at least commonly believed: Johnson was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He moved to Memphis to live with his stepfather when he was 3, and during his six years there, his brother taught him a little guitar. Johnson picked up the instrument again in his late teens and did a few juke-joint gigs, but he wasn't known to play exceptionally well. In fact, he stunk it up.

"Such a racket you never heard," Delta-blues founding father Son House told Living Blues magazine in a 1977 interview. "It'd make people mad, you know. They'd come out and say, 'Why don't y'all go in and get that guitar away from that boy! He's runnin' people crazy with it!' I'd scold him about it. 'Don't do that, Robert. You can't play nothing.'"

When Johnson was 20 or 21, his 15-year-old wife died in childbirth, and he promptly disappeared for two years. Unsubstantiated reports place him in the backwood swamp lands of Mississippi, keeping company with root doctors--the direct spiritual descendants of west African griots, or village shaman. Root doctors were the high priests of Hoodoo--a religious gumbo of Voodoo, fundamental Christianity and folk superstition that permeated the Delta-blues culture. Muddy Waters once said, "We all believed in Hoodoo."

Johnson emerged from the swamps a changed man. Once insecure and socially awkward, he now had a magnetism about him, and he became a ladies' man. People noted that his fingers looked longer than before. And one other thing--in just two years, Robert Johnson had become the greatest blues guitarist anyone had ever heard. Here's Son House:

"We were all playing there one Saturday night, and all of a sudden somebody came through the door. Who but him! He had a guitar swinging on his back. . . . I said, 'Well, boy, you still got a guitar, huh? What do you do with that thing? You can't do nothing with it.' . . . He said, 'Let me have your seat for a minute.' And man! He was so good! When he finished, all our mouths were standing open. I said, 'Well, ain't that fast! He's gone now!'"

So you can make your own call. Maybe Johnson just disappeared into the bayous and practiced his ass off for two years. Or maybe his belief in Hoodoo was so deep that he convinced himself that he'd sold his soul and became a remarkably better player for it.

Or maybe, just maybe, Robert Johnson met the man.
I spent a recent Saturday at the Tempe library, reading up on Hoodoo; I learned that in the South, the devil goes by many names--in Louisiana, he's "Papa Lebat"; in Missouri, he's "Scratch"; and in Mississippi, he's known as "Legba"--the same name given to a powerful, evil god in the Afro-Haitian pantheon who walks the Earth in human form and acts as a gateway between this dimension and the spirit world.

I also learned that in the Hoodoo faith, it's not that hard to trade your soul. I'm certainly not advising anyone to play with fire here, but I know that you must be curious, and I aim to satisfy.

So here, in six easy steps, is how Johnson would have done the deal:
First, you need a bone from a black cat. Cut your nails to the cuticle--if they bleed, all the better--and put the trimmings in a small bag with the cat bone. Take your guitar (or instrument of choice) to a deserted crossroads a few minutes before midnight on a full moon (Mill and University will not suffice). Fall down on your knees and chant these words six times: "Attibon Legba, open the gate for me."

Next, sit cross-legged and start playing your favorite song. At the stroke of midnight, you will hear approaching footsteps. Do not look up until they stop in front of you and a hand reaches down to take your guitar. Standing before you will be a tall, well-dressed black man. Do not speak to him. He will take your guitar, tune it and play a song. When he's done, your soul is no longer your own.

Just so you know, the lyrics to Robert Johnson songs like "Hellhound on My Trail" often portray him as a man haunted by demons and the recognition of self-evil; he seemed hardly able to enjoy his success. And another thing--remember that Legba is a trickster. Just because he makes you the best guitarist of your time doesn't mean you'll have a good life. Or even a long one. Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 27, done in by a jealous husband who poisoned him with passagreen, a potion extracted from mothballs that kills slowly and ugly. So be careful what you wish for, and keep in mind that Johnson may have written his own best epitaph in "Me and the Devil Blues":

Early this morning,
You knocked upon my door.
And I said, "Hello, Satan.
I believe it must be time to go."
--David Holthouse

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse