By: Amber Wilder
I first heard mention of Robert Johnson in season two, episode eight, of the television series Supernatural, appropriately titled “Crossroad Blues.” The focus of the episode is on people that make deals with crossroad demons in pursuit of fame and fortune. The way the deal works on Supernatural is that a box has to be buried with certain items at the point of crossroads. Once the demon appears, if the terms are accepted, a ten year deal is made. Many believe that Johnson made a deal to be the best guitar player of his time. Apparently, in accordance with the episode, he made a deal for talent instead of fame and fortune. His death is still shrouded in mystery. I believe this is because he died so young.
Robert Johnson died at the age of 27. However, if you believe the stories about some of the great musicians that sold their souls to the devil, they all died at 27. Could all of this be coincidence or superstition? There are reports that attribute his death to the deal that he made (a la Supernatural), while others purport that he was poisoned. The theory that he was poisoned has two versions. In the first version, he was infatuated with the wife of his employer who subsequently sent a bottle of poisoned alcohol over. In the second version, Johnson was sleeping with a married woman and she poisoned him. Neither theory has conclusive evidence of who poisoned Johnson, but the general consensus is that he was poisoned. His existence is still clouded in mystery because there are only two verified pictures of the man.
Several songs that hint at the possibility that Johnson sold his soul are “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Me and The Devil Blues,” and “Crossroad Blues.” All three refer to or mention the devil in some way. In “Me and The Devil Blues,” Johnson sang “And I said hello Satan,/ I believe it’s time to go.” I do not think he could be more blatant than that. Although his cause of death has not been confirmed, one can only speculate whether he was actually poisoned or if his deal was up, the devil sent his hellhounds to collect Johnson’s soul. In the episode, George Darrow, a man who sold his soul escaped hellhounds by spreading around a special powder to stall the hellhounds and keep them at bay. However, he was only able to keep the hellhounds away until he decided to help other people that made the same deals. In the song “Hellhound on My Trail,” Robert Johnson sang, “You sprinkled hot foot powder, mmm, around my door/ All around my door/ Your sprinkled hot foot powder, all around your daddy’s door./ It keeps me with ramblin’ mind rider/ Every old place I go, every old place I go.” The powder is used to keep evil spirits away, whether in a person or the devil.
In some cultures, protection against evil is very important. Otherwise, an individual is left susceptible to possession, hauntings, curses and possibly dying at the hands of evil. Whether this practice is rooted in superstition, old wives’ tales, or true occurrences, one can only imagine that something occurred to give this idea some validity at some point in time. In “Crossroad Blues,” Robert Johnson sang, “I went down to the crossroad/ Fell down on my knees/ Asked the lord above “Have mercy now/ Save poor Bob if you please.” I interpret the lines to say that Johnson regretted his deal and went back to the crossroads to ask the Lord to save him. Perhaps, his prayers were not answered or he was reminded of the deal he made. Those agreements are the deals that cannot be taken back for once they are made, they are binding.
I honestly believe that sometimes when these deals are made, the people that make them do not realize that these deals are irreversible. These deals are binding contracts with no allowances for modification. Instead of honing one’s desired craft, the fast track is taken. The medium of an artist should be dynamic not static. For example, the music of Michael Jackson and Ray Charles evolved with their growth over the years. They did not have the same sound in each song, album after album. The variety in their music was ever present. I believe the same can be said for Robert Johnson. Johnson’s music would have evolved into something far greater than the catalogue he left behind. It would be very interesting to listen to how his music would have evolved 10 and 20 years after his last recording.
In his music, Johnson talks about demons, the devil, and hellhounds. His music, when one really listens to the lyrics, can be troubling, but the way he sings and plays allows one to be sucked in so to speak. I can listen to Robert Johnson like I listen to Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. I listen to those two over and over for countless days in a row without fail sometimes. There is something haunting about Johnson’s music that continuously draws one in, at least for me. I do not know how to explain the feeling of listening to his music other than to say it is almost mesmerizing in a way. Johnson’s music is not saturated with synthesizers or false beats. It is just his voice and guitar. Perhaps, the reason I appreciate his music so much is because it tells a story, or maybe it is the raw sound of him and his guitar.
Today, a lot of people believe in the Illuminati and believe that many music artists sell their souls to the devil in order to become famous. There are pages and websites dedicated to artists who are said to be a part of the Illuminati and detailed theories behind the Illuminati itself and the artists. It appears the trend for what people view as evil has changed. Now, it is considered acceptable to sell your soul to the devil to make it in today’s music scene. Whereas, two or three decades ago that was looked upon unfavorably. A lot of people view the music business itself as evil and warn others away from it because it is very challenging to make money as a new artist. For many that seek the fame and fortune of the music business, if a hit record happens with the release of the first album, the record company reaps the majority of the profits. It seems that only if the artist is exceptional and signs the right contract will he or she experience any longevity in the music industry. Perhaps the reason why some artists choose to sell their soul is because they feel that since the record company is going to attempt to rob them of their of money, they may as well make a deal to have the talent and keep the money.
Whether Robert Johnson sold his soul or not, his music lives on. His music, in my opinion, is timeless.