The Legend of Robert Johnson

The tale of Robert Johnson is a notably eerie one. He was an incredibly influential Delta Blues singer-songwriter and musician from the early 20th Century, with his works being recorded in 1936 and 37. The man had notable talents for his singing and guitar skills as well a talent for writing songs that were certainly ahead of their time, songs such as Sweet Home Chicago, Cross Road Blues and Love in Vain. He didn’t live long though and died an untimely death at the age of 27 on August 16th, 1938.  This, along with his uncanny skill on guitar has given birth to the legend that Robert Johnson sold his soul to play guitar.

He was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1911 though throughout his life he was either moved or travelled all across the region of the “Deep South”. When he was a young boy he learned to play the harmonica and mouth harp exceptionally well however it was often noted that he was no good at the guitar, Son House himself stated that he was an “embarrassingly bad guitarist”. This was during his time in Robinsonville, shortly after he moved to the area of Martinsville, closer to where he was born and was taught to play by Ike Zimmerman who was also rumoured to have possessed his skills supernaturally by playing in graveyards at midnight. After this Robert returned to Robinsonville and surprised everyone (including Son House) with his new talents.

That alone would be plenty of fuel to give birth to a legend, but his songs began to further add to that fire. Three songs in particular, Me and the Devil Blues, Hellhound on my Trail and Cross Road Blues spurred on the myth of his deal with the devil. According to the tales he went down to the crossroads (of which several spots have been pointed out as the definitive one) and met with a large dark figure, the devil himself. Robert gave the devil his guitar, the devil took it, played a few tunes on it and gave it back to him, giving him the power to play in exchange for his very soul. The devil in the story has also been tied to the Haitian Vodou Loa (spirit) Papa Legba who is said stand at the spiritual crossroad between the Loa and man.

The myth was further perpetuated given his death at a young age. He died near Greenwood, Mississippi of unknown causes. The most popular theory is that he was poisoned by the jealous husband of woman with whom he had flirted. Johnson has been recalled as somewhat of a ladies’ man, supposedly having won over a woman’s affections in each town he had played, many of which were already in relationships.

There are a number of sites where he was believed to have been buried; three of these sites house memorials for him. One at the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City, Mississippi, another at Payne Chapel near Quito, Mississippi and finally one at the Little Zion Church north of Greenwood. Though perhaps we’ll never know what happened for certain the legend has stayed with us and Robert Johnsons work has gone on to influence many artists since.

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