The Devil’s Music
The history of the blues is a bit like scripture. It’s full of stories of trials and tribulations, and draws on the hard-won wisdom of a people set free after ages of enslavement. It has its prophets and sages; its deluges of Biblical proportions (Mississippi River, 1927); even its three kings: B.B., Albert and Freddie. And, of course, it has its Devil.
The Devil plays a surprisingly large role in the history of blues music. Blues musicians sing about him. They have been castigated for fraternizing with him. Blues has even been called “the Devil’s music”—both by its critics and fans. And, if you believe the rumors, some performers have cut a deal with Satan—including the most famous blues musician of them all: Robert Johnson.
Johnson is that grand rarity in the music world—a recording artist from the 1930s who can sell millions of records in the modern day. He left his stamp on the work of almost every later blues musician, and Johnson’s influence has also crossed over into the fields of rock, pop, folk and jazz. “From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up,” Bob Dylan writes in his memoir Chronicles. “I immediately differentiated between [Johnson] and anyone else I had ever heard.” “Up until the time I was 25,” Eric Clapton admits, “if you didn’t know who Robert Johnson was I wouldn’t talk to you.”
But the rumors of Johnson’s dealings with the devil are even more famous than his recordings. I’ve found that people who know nothing else about the blues, have often heard that story. When I tell a casual acquaintance that I write about the blues, a frequent response is: “Wasn’t there that fellow who sold his soul to the devil?” Or: “I saw that movie about the guy who learned to play the blues from the devil.”