Robert Johnson is a modern legend for many reasons, beginning with the fact that he died at 27 years of age, qualifying him for an early membership in the forever 27 club. He was an artist and performer who was not successful in his lifetime, but whose influence on subsequent generations of musicians and music lovers has been almost incalculable.
He created his own songs, often borrowing melodies or phrases from the large blues lexicon that existed at that time, but demonstrating an originality and force of personality that was unusual in his era and still amazes today’s listener. His idiosyncratic manner of singing his inventive and sometimes poetic lyrics has been copied by Mick Jagger, Alan Wilson, and many others in the history of rock and roll. He lived a lifestyle that provided a model for rockers decades later.
But more than anything else, it’s his guitar playing that has astounded would-be players who have tried to copy him and found it a daunting task. A list of guitarists that have found him a source of inspiration and influence would be very long, and it seems that there was always a need to account for his high level of skill and creativity. The story that was told both during his lifetime and after his death to explain how he acquired such prowess is that he traded his soul to the devil for the ability to play as he did.
But the idea of a person selling his or her soul to the dark powers for a superhuman ability is not a new one with Johnson – it’s called the Faustian myth. The story goes way back into the mists of early Christianity, but Goethe’s rendition – known simply as Faust – marks the introduction of the legend into popular and common literature and knowledge. As for Robert Johnson’s particular devil story, it seems to have a couple of different origins.
It was said that he was an ordinary player with no special distinguishing talent until, as a young man, he inexplicably vanished from his usual haunts for an extended time. When he finally came back to Mississippi, he had changed. He could play the acoustic guitar (there were no electric models then, at least that he would have used) with a slide and a picking style that made him sound like at least 2 players at once. He could captivate a dancehall or a jukejoint with just his instrument and his voice, and he employed his gift to make a living all over the south and up into the midwest. People explained the sudden change by saying he must have sold his soul to the devil, and the story stuck.
Johnson undoubtedly played it up and didn’t deny it, to his career’s advantage, but he also fueled the rumor through his songs. He sang about having a hellhound following him around, and about spooky events down at the crossroads (the traditional site of the satanic transaction), and about burying his body by the side of the road. It’s not hard to see, from the vantage point afforded by time, why ordinary folks might have thought him capable of striking such a deal. He was a charismatic, powerful, and immensely talented singer and player, and he died much too young under suspicious circumstances. His place in the forever 27 club was earned by the events of his legendary life, as well as his age when he died.
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