Folklore and Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson is perhaps the most enigmatic figure of the Blues.  It could be because his short life left so many questions unanswered, or maybe it is the myth surrounding the man.  Did Robert Johnson sell his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads?  Unfortunately Robert Johnson will never be able to answer this question for us.  The myth came from a blues musician that greatly inspired Robert Johnson, Son House.  House tells a story that between sets Robert used to pick up his guitar and play so poorly that the audience would demand he stop.  Johsnon was often ridiculed for his guitar playing, so he left one day.  "So when we'd get to a rest period or something, we'd set the guitars up and go out...so we'd go out and get in the cool, cool off some.  Robert, he'd get the guitar and go to bamming with it, you know?  I'd say, just leave the guitar alone. but quick as we were out there again we'd hear the guitar making all kind of tunes: BLOO-WAH, BOOM-WAH- a dog wouldn't want to hear it. His father would get at him dogged him so much that he ran away."[1] Upon returning Robert Johnson could play with such a prowess that few have ever matched.  Son House recounts the story: “When that boy started playing, and when he got through, all our mouths were standing open. All! He was gone!”[2]  Son House did suggest that the only way Johnson could have become so talented was to have sold his soul to the devil.  However, Elijah Wald author of Escaping the Delta, does not believe that House seriously meant what was said.  “House did not emphasize the point with any seriousness, nor did he repeat it whenever he told the story.”[3]  Steven LaVere once asked Willie Coffee if Johnson ever talked about selling his soul.  Coffee answered: “Yes, he did I never did thin he’s serious, because he’d always, when he’d come in her with us, he’d come in with a lot of jive, cracking jokes like that.  I never did believe in it.”

            Whether Johnson ever did sell his soul remains uncertain. However, the myth surrounding him afforded him great popularity.  His music would influence countless number of musicians.  He influenced Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Jimmy Page, Paul Butterfield even Dylan.  “Johnson’s position looms large in the history of the blues, as a musician whose influence was central to the development of the genre.”[4]

[1] Elijah Wald. Escaping the Delta. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Dr. Cohelo. Boston University Lecture.