Blue devils and the legend of Robert Johnson

1. A shady connection

Barely in time for Black History Month, and in light of Thursday’s post about A ‘Coon Named Legba, I want to correct a few common misconceptions about Robert Johnson and his supposed pact with the devil.

I hope no one will be too shocked by the news that the 1988 movie Crossroads is a wildly inaccurate guide to the life and death of the historical (as opposed to the mythic) Robert Johnson. For example, in the movie, Willie Brown is a harmonica player, still living in the 1980s. In real life, Willie Brown was an older mentor to Johnson, one of the three or four greatest bottleneck guitarists of the first generation of Delta bluesmen to make it onto record. He died in 1952.

Johnson was far from the only ambitious bluesman of the 20s and 30s to exploit the bad man image, including the European-derived myth of the pact with the devil. According to the recollections of people who knew him, Johnson lived up to the image, constantly fighting and womanizing and using several aliases to keep ahead of the law. But neither “Cross Road Blues” nor “Me and the Devil Blues” were among his signature songs. None of his friends, former flames or traveling companions who were interviewed by blues fans from the 1960s on had ever heard about a pact with the devil.

The connection between the figure of the devil in southern Afro-American folklore and the Yoruba/Dohomean deity Legba is probably valid. But outside of places like New Orleans and the Georgia Sea Islands, explicitly African elements of hoodoo are submerged in a thoroughly Christian milieu. It would be much more accurate to say that a bluesman like Johnson was living out the Christian archetype of the Prodigal Son than to maintain that he was some kind of underground practitioner of an alternate faith. That is to say, he might have been anti-Christian at times, but he wasn’t non-Christian.

Johnson died too young to go through the complete cycle, but many of his contemporaries (Son House, Skip James, Ishmon Bracey, etc.) periodically swung between the two poles of blues singer/sinner and sanctified Christian. The lyrics to Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” are powerful precisely because they exploit this tension and ambiguity. The narrator begins,

I went to the cross road,
fell down on my knees,
I went to the cross road,
fell down on my knees.
Asked the Lord above “Have mercy,
Save poor Bob, if you please.”

So the cross road initially appears to be a Christian image. The strongest echo is of a revival service, with the narrator as a sinner repenting and seeking grace. In the following verse, Johnson seems to echo the parable about the man fallen by the wayside, waiting for a Good Samaritan who never comes:

Mmmm, standin’ at the cross road,
I tried to flag a ride.
Standin’ at the cross road,
I tried to flag a ride.
Didn’t nobody seemed to know me,
everybody passed me by.

Only in the third verse do we catch a note of premonition, but longing for love and/or worry about where the narrator will sleep overshadows it.

Mmm sun goin’ down boy,
dark gon’ catch me here.
Oooo ooee eeee,
boy, dark gonna catch me here.
Ain’t got no lovin’ sweet woman that, love and feel my care.

And then (given the severe time constraints occasioned by 1930s record-cutting techniques) we’re already at the last verse. Johnson seems more interested in reminding his listeners of his relationship to the famous Willie Brown than in suggesting any supernatural partnership:

You can run you can run,
tell my friend, boy, Willie Brown.
You can run,
tell my friend, boy, Willie Brown,
Lord that I’m standin’ at the cross road baby,
I believe I’m sinkin’ down.

2. Singing in tongues

So where did the Robert Johnson-crossroads myth come from? Over-enthusiastic blues scholars, steeped in West African mythology (where the crossroads is indeed a potent symbol) simply invented it in the 1960s. According to blues scholar Gayle Dean Wardlow (Chasin’ That Devil Music, Miller Freeman Books, 1998), it was Pete Welding who, in 1966, first proposed a “selling his soul” interpretation to the song “Cross Road Blues” in an article in Down Beat. I confess I haven’t seen that article, but I do resent the oft-encountered implication that blues songs were primarily autobiographical. Some were, but many were not. I’m bothered by what I see as a persistent unwillingness to accept blues artists as fully creative lyricists who were capable of adopting alternate personas. In fact, their lyrical creativity is well documented: as in modern rap, the ability to extemporize was highly prized. Further, most blues singers employed a variety of dramatic techniques, including alternating voices and dramatic monologues; an authentic blues song is worlds away from the purely personal mode of a contemporary singer-songwriter. We know from an interview with the musician, for example, that Bukka White’s first-person “Fixin’ to Die Blues” was written in the “expected voice” of an alcoholic he once knew.

“In the 1975 book Mystery Train,” Wardlow continues, “Greil Marcus ‘symbolically’ implied Johnson mastered the guitar because of his alleged pact with the devil . . . In 1982, Peter Guralnik added the Ledell Johnson story of Tommy [Johnson] ‘selling his soul’ at midnight at a Delta crossroad.” Tommy Johnson – no relation to Robert – was another master bottleneck guitarist with a decidedly more desperate tone to his lyrics. He also died young, but not under such mysterious circumstances as Robert did: he fell victim to the blue devils of “Canned Heat” (i.e. sterno) and “Alcohol and Jake” – the titles of two of his songs which, according to his contemporaries, did indeed draw heavily on his own circumstances. (See below for more on the blue devils.) Thus it was Tommy – not Robert – Johnson who was portrayed in the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? as having made a pact with the devil.

The only Robert Johnson song to explicitly elaborate upon a connection with the devil is “Me and the Devil Blues.” Though again, some ambiguity remains: is it Satan himself, or is the narrator simply saying his woman is the devil in disguise?

Early this mornin’
when you knocked upon my door.
Early this mornin’, ooh
when you knocked upon my door.
And I said, “Hello, Satan,
I believe it’s time to go.”

But in the second verse, the narrator owns up and admits that it is he who is bedeviled, and he who bedevils others:

Me and the Devil
was walkin’ side by side.
Me and the Devil, ooh
was walkin’ side by side.
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman
until I get satisfied.

While the listener is still recovering from the shock of that boast, Johnson shifts gears. The narrator has the woman speaking up – and psychoanalyzing him. She says he suffers a compulsion he hasn’t come to grips with; he protests that she’s to blame. It’s not clear which of them decides to blame the devil. By the end of the song, the narrator is defiantly proclaiming his own devilish identity. The segue to the last verse exemplifies the “linked verse” technique of blues composition at its best.

She say you don’t see why
that you will dog me ’round.
[spoken:] Now, babe, you know you ain’t doin’ me
right, don’cha?
She say you don’t see why, ooh
that you will dog me ’round.
It must-a be that old evil spirit
so deep down in the ground.

You may bury my body
down by the highway side.
[spoken:] Baby, I don’t care where you bury my
body when I’m dead and gone.
You may bury my body, ooh
down by the highway side.
So my old evil spirit
can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.

It probably go without saying, but the deity Legba is neither evil, nor is he associated with an afterlife destination “deep down in the ground.” This is as Christian a song as anything Black Sabbath ever wrote.

3. Blues as spiritual ju-jitsu

Another Robert Johnson song, “Hellhounds On My Trail,” partakes much less of specifically religious imagery than it may appear to. The eponymous hounds were actually intended to evoke the police and their bloodhounds, according to Wardlow, who traces the verse to a record by an obscure East Texas bluesman. Given the widespread use of bloodhounds during slavery, when church songs often contained coded messages about the Underground Railroad, it’s hard not to hear some echo of an otherwise lost spiritual here.

Diverse roots (or as the philosopher Giles Deleuze would say, multiple rhizomes) are at work here. A modern listener might need reminding that in Johnson’s world the police were anything but enforcers of justice. Instead, they represented an oppressive and brutal system designed to thwart the ambitions and crush the spirits of African Americans. The word “blues” is Anglo in origin, dating from the late 19th century. Its original usage denoted the blue devils that are said to appear to an alcoholic going through delirium tremens. It would not have escaped the attention of African Americans that the police in their blue uniforms were the most visible counterpart to the now-generalized inner torments known as the blues. I can think of a couple lyrics offhand that come close to spelling this out: Bessie Smith’s “In the House Blues,” and the barrelhouse standard known usually as “Vicksburg Blues,” which Howlin’ Wolf turned into “.45 Blues” (with the reference to policemen judiciously removed). But doubtless there are many more.

People on both sides of the sinner-sanctified divide would have agreed about the absolute necessity of spiritual resistance to this internal and external oppression. In fact, what really distinguished the ‘sinners’ was their insistence on individualism and self-expression, as opposed to the collective, communitarian spirit of the black churches. Although it might be a bit of a stretch to say that bluesmen and women were revolting against the accomodationist stance of the churches, explicit, satirical critiques of church people are not hard to find in the recorded blues. Blues singers tended to stereotype preachers as charlatans, only interested in a free meal ticket and easy access to women. Of course, bluesmen often portrayed themselves as rakes and scoundrels too, but the subtext of the many “Preaching Blues” songs is, “at least I’m not a hypocrite.”

Robert Johnson’s own “Preaching Blues,” subtitled “Up Jumped the Devil,” is a fascinating exception to this pattern. More than that, it is a masterpiece, musically as well as lyrically. In it, Johnson suggests a fusion of church and blues through words that, for me, come closer to true Hoodoo Man conjuring than anything else he recorded. The preacher is evoked through Johnson’s style of vocal delivery alone, and the Devil is nothing but the blues personified: a malevolent force that only a visit to the distillery can exorcise.

Mmmmm mmmmm,
I’s up this mornin’,
a blues walkin’ like a man.
I’s up this mornin’
a blues walkin’ like a man.
Worried blues,
give me your right hand.

And the blues fell mama’s child
tore him all upside down.
Blues fell mama’s child
and it tore me all upside down.
Travel on poor Bob,
just cain’t turn you ’round.

The blu-u-u-u-ues
is a low-down, shakin’ chill.
[spoken:] Yes, preach ’em now.
Mmmmm mmmmm,
is a low-down shakin’ chill.
You ain’t never had ’em, I,
I hope you never will.

Well, the blu-ues
is a achin’ old heart disease.
[spoken:] Do it now. You gon’ do it? Tell me about it.
Well the blu-ues
is a low-down achin’ heart disease.
Like consumption,
killing me by degrees.

I been stuttering, oh, oh drive,
oh, oh, drive my blues –
I been stuttering,
I’m ‘onna drive my blues away.
Goin’ to the ‘stil’ry.
Stay out there all day.

4. Real devils, real contests

All too many white blues fans appear deaf to the racial subtext of blues music. They literally don’t want to hear about it: the blues is good time party music, they say. It’s for everybody, regardless of race.

Well, yes. And it is also potent medicine of the homeopathic variety, as countless blues artists have testified. But if the classic country blues songs seem deep and eerie beyond words, it is because they represent a passionate attempt to escape the devils of poverty, racism, violence, alcoholism, alienation and hopelessness. A consideration of the specific social and cultural matrices from which the music emerged should not diminish its universal appeal.

The immense, inland delta formed by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers has been called “the most southern place on earth.” It is a thoroughly domesticated landscape, a sea of perfectly flat cotton fields stretching from horizon to horizon, interrupted only by mosquito-ridden streams and backwaters. Its floodplain soil is hundreds of feet deep: rich black earth with nary a stone. As so often in the Third World, great natural wealth has permitted the growth of a powerful and vindictive elite who traditionally possessed no sense of responsibility toward land or people. Why conserve? The river and soil will last forever.

Thus, violence or the threat of violence against black sharecroppers was intense and pervasive throughout the period when the greatest bluesmen and women were getting on record. In this climate, explicit references to racism were off-limits, at least in the recording studio. But the desire to escape is palpable in songs like Johnson’s “Walking Blues” and “Traveling Riverside Blues,” and songs about guns (“32-20 Blues”) fairly crackle with electricity. I personally find these sorts of themes far more challenging to contemplate than the sadly diminished echoes of African religion.

Robert Johnson was a brilliant guitarist, and yes, he mastered the instrument quite quickly. But there seems to have been no shortage of musical geniuses in the Delta region in the first four decades of the 20th century. Johnson’s stature among modern-day, white blues fans seems to derive as much from the myth as from the songs. In the case of the latter, Johnson was lucky to have been remarkably well recorded, and to have found many posthumous fans among top-selling rock musicians who covered his songs. In real life, Johnson is said to have had a relatively weak voice, but you don’t hear that on the record. The poor quality of surviving sides by greats like Charley Patton and Willie Brown militates against their ever achieving even the limited form of mainstream popularity accorded to Robert Johnson.

For hard-core country blues fans like me, Johnson doesn’t hold a candle to fellow-Delta natives Son House and Johnny Shines. These men didn’t have the sense to play up the bad man image and to die young, and thus will remain forever unpalatable to the youth culture that grew up with rock ‘n’ roll. But House, Shines and others who managed to live to a ripe old age had the satisfaction of enjoying what those who died young never could: escape. Not only from the daily humiliations of Jim Crow-era apartheid, but even from the bipolar disorder that was African American society under Jim Crow.

The first- and second-generation bluesmen and women who survived into the 1970s and beyond may never have earned have earned great wealth, but they did at least get the satisfaction of mentoring and playing to fanatically respectful audiences of mostly white people. They got their dignity back, and with it, I would guess, experienced the confirmation of their individualistic ethos. The choice between church and blues became less stark, less black-and-white. If the recorded statements and relatively tranquil later lives of the majority of the “elder statesmen of the blues” are any guide, in the last decades of the 20th century blues artists no longer felt themselves to be stranded at a lonely crossroads, forced to choose between go-along-to-get-along and self-destructive defiance. Unlike Willie Brown, Charley Patton, and Tommy and Robert Johnson, they were able finally to beat the devil at his own game.
__________

Note: transcriptions have been modified from those that appear on-line at The Robert Johnson Notebooks, which gives little hint about the extent of scholarly disagreement about some of these lyrics. The “stuttering” interpretation of verse 5 of “Preaching Blues” is my own, but it seems to fit the song’s dis-ease imagery. The website’s interpretation, “I’ve been studyin’ the rain” is extremely far-fetched, in my opinion.

Posted in ,

Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

2 Comments

Leave a Reply