Midnight, at the crossroads of highways 49 and 61, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. He handed his guitar to … let’s just call him the Devil, who tuned it, played a few songs and handed the instrument back to Johnson and he became one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time.
In fact, he’s ranked fifth out of the top 100, by Rolling Stone magazine. Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the first induction ceremony and even won a Grammy, posthumously.
But, before that legendary meeting with the devil … he sucked.
Young Robert Johnson would hang out at a local juke in Mississippi to watch Son House and Willie Brown play the blues. During their breaks, Johnson would pick up one of the guitars and “play”. But, he was terrible. People complained, saying he was driving them crazy with that noise and they made him stop.
But then, he disappeared for a year and when he returned, he was unbelievably good. He was a master with the slide and could sing and play like nobody’s business. When he played, it was like the strings were talking to your soul.
How could that possibly happen? Well, he had that deal with the devil of course.
When Johnson left the area, he met a damn good guitar player named Ike Zimmerman. Shortly after that he moved in with Ike and his family and Ike became Johnson’s instructor. Johnson practiced incessantly and many nights, he and Zimmerman would sit on tombstones in a graveyard and play through the night, so as not to disturb anyone.
He did this for a year; uh … or two? There’s some confusion about Johnson’s birth year. No one is sure whether he was born in 1911 or 1912, so his age when he returned may have been off. It’s quite possible he was gone for two years. Two years of learning, practicing, playing, and immersion on one instrument.
The short time away and the graveyard stories helped fuel the legend, but then there’s this: an unrelated guitarist named Tommy Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil, as told by his brother LeDell. When Robert Johnson returned with such incredible talent, that story LeDell told of Tommy Johnson, was then rumored for Robert Johnson. You know how people talk and the whole grapevine thing.
Well, you just can’t buy marketing like that, so Robert Johnson did nothing to dispel the rumors. It was a great story. People would come from all around to see him play; this man who made a deal with the devil at the crossroads.
His death is also a bit of a mystery. Murder, poison, and so on. He was also part of the “27 Club”, dying at the age of 27, just like Jim Morrison, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. Weird, right? Even his burial site is a mystery. There are three separate locations with monuments claiming he’s buried “here”.
Hmm … legends will be legends, I guess.
The devil doesn’t come to us with a red face and horns. He comes disguised as everything we ever wanted. We just have to go through a bit of hell to get it. Practice, toil, work, dedication, repetition, and aching fingers day after day for two years could sound quite like hell. But, passion … driven by a love for something so strong, makes it feel like heaven
So, who’s ready to make that deal?