“Me and the Devil Blues”: Robert Johnson and the crossroads (Satan 5)

Satan is very much a part of popular culture in the West. His story has heavily influenced the portrayal of evil in film, as we shall see, but the devil also makes his appearance in our music, including the blues and its offspring, rock-n’-roll. The profound influence of Robert Johnson, a Delta blues (or country blues) performer of the 1930s (who made just two recording sessions in 1936 and 1937), was not fully felt until the re-release of several recordings in 1961 (which the likes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Zeppelin, and others have expressly identified as a profound influence on their work).

(For Johnson’s lyrics, cited in part below, go here. For sound clips from the songs discussed below, scroll down to see the CD information for King of the Delta Blues (in this case on Amazon). Eric Clapton has recently released a tribute album (is that word still used) with new performances of Johnson’s songs: Me and Mr. Johnson (2004).)

The powers of evil make their appearance in a variety of ways in Johnson’s songs, some with more frightening effect than others (all of Johnson’s music is “haunting” in some way). In a devil-made-me-do-it sort of way, “Me and the Devil Blues” expresses the notion that some evil power outside of Johnson is responsible for his more violent behaviour towards a woman friend:

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.”

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

. . .

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

Less disturbing, in some ways, are songs like “Hellhound on my trail”, which nonetheless express Johnson’s angst in raw terms drawn from ideas associated with the powers of hell and the hell-hound successor of Cerberus (the guard-dog of the underworld in some Greek mythology) :

I gotta keep movin’
I gotta keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail
Blues fallin’ down like hail
Umm mmmm mmm mmmmmm
Blues fallin’ down like hail
Blues fallin’ down like hail
And the days keeps on worryin’ me
there’s a hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail. . .

All I needs is my sweet woman
and to keep my company hey hey hey hey
my company

The notion that the crossroads or intersection outside of town was a magical place where the-powers-that-be were especially potent has a long history. But a specific legend grew up in the context of the emergence of the blues which also attached itself to Johnson himself. In particular, there was the notion that in order to gain exceptional skill at playing the blues, a person might meet the devil at the crossroads and make a deal, with the soul being the precious item in the devil’s sight. The lyrics in Johnson’s own “Cross road blues” apparently have very little, if anything, to do with this notion:

I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
Asked the lord above “Have mercy now
save poor Bob if you please”

Still, the overall legend nonetheless attached itself to this performer, who was known for playing the guitar like noone else could. (This is partly because of the shared name with Tommy Johnson, another blues artist who supposedly claimed that he did sell his soul to the devil). It is this legend of selling one’s soul for exceptional guitar skills that is enacted in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? (2000).

Selling one’s soul to the devil has a much longer history going back to medieval legends that Goethe incorporated in his eighteenth century poetic story of Faust, as we will see later. The film The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) re-tells a similar tale in a new setting, with Jabez Stone making a contract with Mr. Scratch, the devil (a remake with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin ran into financial difficulties and is yet to be released):

[examining the contract]
Jabez Stone: What does it mean here, about my soul?
Mr. Scratch: Why should that worry you? A soul? A soul is nothing. Can you see it, smell it, touch it? No. This soul, your soul is nothing against seven years of good luck. You’ll have money and all that money can buy. (Full script online here).

The legend of selling one’s soul, which continues as part of Satan’s story, is also reflected in the Simpsons episode in which poor Homer sells his soul to the devil for a doughnut (Treehouse of Horror IV). In this case, though, Homer actually robs the devil of his due in the long run.

6 thoughts on ““Me and the Devil Blues”: Robert Johnson and the crossroads (Satan 5)

  1. Tina

    The theatre company I work for in Atlanta, 7 Stages, is about to open a play about Robert Johnson, entitled Come On In My Kitchen. I haven’t seen it yet, but it should prove to be interesting…

  2. Nathan Butler

    I Play the Blues not from sheet music but from scales and Feel to the traditional 12 bar pattern both guitar vocals and harmonica. I can Say honestly that I have had may supernatural experiences encounters through dreams and waken states. How ever I think that what the “Devil” has wanted to do in Music has been done, the seed has been sown so to speak, who says its the Devil any way look @ all the good blues and Rock music brings joy and happiness to peoples lives if some one is gifted then all good gifts come from the Source of Life be that Good or Bad thats our choice, and there can be debating from both sides. I believe that Robert Johnson is crying out to God not Satan @ them Delta Cross Roads and God Heard him.

    Nathan S Butler

    http://www.myspace.com/presley_rich

  3. Lance M Jackson

    I got stones in my passway
    An ma road seem dark at night….

    my enemies have betrayed me….

    you laid the passway for me
    now what are you tryin to do….

    An when you hear me howlin in the passway, rider
    please opna door an let me in

    this song, though without mention of the devil, to me is roberts’ most frightening song. There are unspecified “enemys” out to get him (me in the lyrics, so that when one sings along it’s about ME). I have made a line drawing of robert in his passway. In order to make a painting of it I would have to remain in a state of forbodeing terror for long periods of time. Much longer than the two minutes and twenty seven seconds it takes poor bob to sing it.

    “Ahm cryn PLEEAASE
    Please let us be friends”

    Lance

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