On the crossroads

On the crossroads

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Robert Johnson (Third Part)

The Devil Legend

In a few words the legend goes like this. Robert, as a poor young man, living in the discriminating Deep South, was growing with a burning desire; to become a blues musician. After he tried and failed, he was told to take his guitar and go on the crossroads near the Dockery Plantation at midnight. There after he performed a ritual, a big black man appeared. The mysterious man was the Devil. He took the guitar from Johnson's hands and tune it. After that he played some blues and returned it to him. According to the legend, the tuning gave young Robert the mastery of the guitar and the blues. But the catch for acquiring this master skills was his “everlasting soul”. After a few years the Devil came to collect and Robert died in agony from a mysterious cause at age 27.

Stories concerning deals with Satan and demonic entities are very common in Christian legacy. The concept is simple. A person with an ambition or in a state of dire need calls, with a certain ritual, the king of hell or one of his minions and trades his soul. Afterward he is granted his wish and the Devil comes and collect his dues after a certain time. In Western European folklore we have many examples of this kind of deal and the most renowned legend is the story of Faust. In this story an old man, Faust, is trading his soul in exchange of his youth and when the time comes he tries to cheat the Devil and he is punished for his attempt to outsmart him. But in Robert Johnson's case we have to keep in mind some considerations about the myth.

Statue of Papa Legba
First of all the legend of the “deals with the Devil” in the African American folklore differ in many points from the Western European Faustian myth. This is due to the connection of the African tradition with Christianity created a different myth. In western African tradition people were going to the crossroads in order to acquire knowledge from a deity called Papa Legba. This deity is an important figure on the Hoodoo. He is the intermediate between humans and the Loa and he is he first and last spirit which is invoked on every ceremony. In this context we can assume that when a bluesman told that he had sold his soul to the Devil, he meant something completely different from what he have in mind.

Another aspect he have to consider is that every blues musician regarded himself as a “Devils child”, because blues music was considered sinful by the African American community at the time. The bluesman thoughted to have special abilities over women and this contributed in the creation of this myth.

After all Johnson never mentioned any kind of deal. Johnny Shines, who knew Johnson well, confirmed that Johnson never told anyone that he sold his soul. On the contrary another Blues pioneer, Tommy Johnson, had repeatedly stated that he had a contract with the Devil.

Finally the almost complete lack of information about Johnson's life is another factor on which the Faustian myth grew long after his death. Furthermore there are some people who incline that Robert Johnson speaks of his deal with the devil in his songs especially in "crossroads". But the lyrics "I 've been to the crossroads, fell down on my knees..." can also been refered to a hitchhiker who is trying to "flag a ride". In any case this legend helped the circulation of Robert Johnsons true legend; his music. And the story of a man who changed music forever...

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