Legend has it that he sold his soul to the Devil in order to become the greatest blues singer and guitarist of his time. Whether said Faustian deal actually occurred or not is unknown, but one thing’s for certain. Despite meeting his untimely death at 27, Robert Johnson was, and still is one of the most influential American musicians of all time. Many great rock and blues acts have recorded his material, and the purported deal with the Devil only adds to the mystique.
It isn’t quite clear when Robert Johnson was born, but the most probable date would have been May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. As was the case with most African-Americans at the time, Johnson grew up poor in a segregated society. He would remain poor in the years to come, living the life of an “itinerant bluesman”, traveling from city to city, playing his songs wherever and whenever he could, mostly at bars, juke joints and even in street corners. Some of these songs include “Terraplane Blues”, “Cross Road Blues”, “(I Believe I’ll) Dust My Broom” and “Me and the Devil Blues.” These songs, and many others, were recorded between 1934 and 1938 at several inexpensive, crude studios in Texas.
Accounts vary when it comes to Johnson’s supposed deal with the Devil. Most of them, particularly that of fellow blues legend Son House, used it to validate Johnson’s rapid improvement as a guitar player. Yet there are others who believe there was no such deal that had taken place. While Johnson did write quite a few songs that mentioned the Devil by name, most of his contemporaries attest that he had never spoken of such a pact. In fact, the song most associated with the legend (“Cross Road Blues”) sounds more like an ode to the life of an itinerant bluesman than a song about meeting up with Satan at an intersection.
The exact circumstances of Johnson’s death are a mystery even to this day. Most accounts pin the blame on a tainted bottle of whiskey, which resulted in Johnson suffering for three days in extreme pain, and finally dying on August 16, 1938. Some have said that Johnson was poisoned with strychnine, but this has been disputed by contemporaries and researchers alike. There are even some who believe that Johnson’s pact with the Man Downstairs, if true, resulted in Johnson becoming so powerful that it took him a good three days to expire – a lesser man would have died nearly instantly.
It’s little wonder why “(I Believe I’ll) Dust My Broom” became a garage band standard in the ‘60s, or why the likes of Cream and Led Zeppelin made latter-day classics out of, or based on Johnson’s recordings. In the 1930s, he was influencing present and future generations of bluesmen with his innovative guitar-playing and emotive blues-wailing. And unbeknownst to him, he was helping lay down the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll music at a time when many of the genre’s greatest performers weren’t even born yet. Robert Johnson may or may not have sold his soul at the crossroads, but the soul of his music lives on.