Robert Johnson: Father of Rock ‘n Roll Famous for Selling His Soul to the Devil

It is a well-known fact that so-called rock ‘n roll music is greatly influenced by blues. But more specifically, rock music of the 60s and later was heavily influenced by the music of a blues musician who was known to have sold his soul to the devil for his supposed musical talent. Known as Robert Johnson, his recordings in 1936 and 1937 are thought to display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting that has influenced many famous rock musicians, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

According to Greil Marcus, the famous journalist and cultural critic, “A good musical case can be made for Johnson as the first rock ’n’ roller of all.”[1] However, Johnson’s music—if it can be called that—not only sounds surprisingly amateurish, but rather crude and grating. Even among Johnson’s own peers or his audience, the black blues-listening community who should have been best disposed to judge the quality of his talent, Johnson barely made an impression.

As Elijah Wald, if one of Johnson’s black blues fans were asked about him in the first twenty years after his death, “the response in the vast majority of cases would have been a puzzled ‘Robert who?’” The same lack of recognition extended to other black musicians: “As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note.”[2]

Rather, the cult status of Johnson’s “talent” was cultivated over time and associated with the mystique of the supposed demonic source of his music by musicians who were themselves steeped in occult influences. Johnson's mysterious and poorly documented life and possible murder at age 27 have given rise to much legend, including that of a Faustian bargain, where he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads to achieve fame and success.

According to the myth, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Johnson was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by the devil as a large black man, who took the guitar and tuned it, then played a few songs before returning the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. In exchange for his soul, Johnson was supposedly able to create the blues style that made him famous.

A film version of the legend was released in 1986 called Crossroads, and starring Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca and Jami Gertz. The film was written by John Fusco and directed by Walter Hill. Fusco was a traveling blues musician prior to attending New York University's Tisch School of the Arts where he wrote Crossroads as a masterclass assignment. The screenplay won first place in the national FOCUS Awards and sold to Columbia Pictures.

In the film, Robert Johnson and Willie Brown sell their souls to the devil named name "Scratch”, who changed his name from "Mr. Legba”, a deity of Haitian Vodun known as the “guardian of the crossroads.” Vodun is derived from the devil-worshipping African cult of brought to the Caribbean by African slaves, and then later mixed with Roman Catholicism, and European mysticism and Freemasonry.

In 1982, Elton John released a UK B-side titled "Hey, Papa Legba". The Talking Heads made a song named after him, which can be found on their 1986 soundtrack to True Stories, about David Byrne film exploration of voodoo. A 1985 episode of the TV series "Miami Vice" centers around a malign vodou priest by the name of Papa Legba. There is extensive referencing to voodoo in the Sprawl trilogy by William Gibson. In the second book, Count Zero, Papa Legba stands at the gateway to cyberspace as the "master of roads and pathways."

As far back as the Golden Dawn, the cult of voodoo was mentioned as Obeah, a  folk magic religion found among those of African descent in the West Indies, with parallels to Palo, Vodou, Santería, and Hoodoo. Aleister Crowley declared  in the Book of the Law Ch 1 verse 37: "Also the mantras and spells; the obeah and the wanga; the work of the wand and the work of the sword; these shall he learn and teach" A wanga is a magical charm packet found in the folk magic practices of Haiti, and as such it is connected to the West African religion of Vodun.

Hoodoo, which was practiced under great secrecy among African Americans in the Mississippi Delta, spread throughout the United States. Many blues musicians have referred to hoodoo in their songs. Popular examples include "Louisiana Hoodoo Blues" by Ma Rainey, "Hoodoo Lady Blues" by Arthur Crudup, and "Hoodoo Man Blues" by Junior Wells. "Who Do You Love?" Bo Diddley contains a series of puns about a man hoodooing his lover. He also recorded an album titled Got My Own Bag of Tricks (1972), a reference to a hoodoo magic. In Chuck Berry's song "Thirty Days" he threatens an ex-lover, telling her that he "...talked to the gypsy woman on the telephone [...] she gonna send out a world wide hoodoo..." Woody Guthrie wrote the lyrics for "Hoodoo Voodoo", a song later performed by Wilco and Billy Bragg. Creedence Clearwater Revival made reference to it in their hit song "Born on the Bayou" with the lyrics, "And I can still hear my old hound dog barkin', chasin' down a hoodoo there...."

There is dispute, however, as to how and when the crossroads story was attached to Robert Johnson. All the published evidence, including a full chapter on the subject in the biography Crossroads by Tom Graves, suggests an origin in the story of another blues musician, named Tommy Johnson. To enhance his fame, Tommy cultivated a sinister persona, and according to his brother LeDell, claimed to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for his mastery of the guitar.[3]

Tommy Johnson died in 1956 and was buried in the Warm Springs Methodist Church Cemetery, outside Crystal Springs, Mississippi. In 2001, his family commissioned a headstone through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, a Mississippi nonprofit corporation, which was paid for by Bonnie Raitt. The large memorial was not placed on his grave for several years because of a dispute , which was resolved in October 2012. However, on the night of February 2, 2013, the headstone was desecrated, apparently smashed by a sledge hammer or some similar device.[4]

In the Coen brothers’ film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a character named Tommy Johnson, played by actor Chris Thomas King, describes selling his soul to the devil to play guitar. The Tommy Johnson character plays a number of songs originally recorded by the blues musician Skip James and accompanies the Soggy Bottom Boys, a band consisting of the film's three main protagonists plus Johnson, on “Man of Constant Sorrow”.

The legend was subsequently attributed to Robert Johnson and developed over time, and chronicled by Gayle Dean Wardlow, Edward Komara and Elijah Wald, who sees the legend as largely dating from Johnson's rediscovery by white fans more than two decades after his death.

In actuality, Johnson’s fame begins with King of the Delta Blues Singers, a compilation album by American blues musician Robert Johnson, released in 1961 on Columbia Records. It is considered one of the greatest and most influential blues releases ever. In 2003, the album was ranked number 27 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The album became a symbol of hip taste in the 1960s, appearing in the album cover photo to Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home amid various emblems of bohemian culture.[5]

The album was instigated by John Hammond, who became one of the most influential figures in 20th century popular music. His father was a brother of Ogden H. Hammond, ambassador to Spain, and uncle to politician Millicent Fenwick. Hammond's mother was the former Emily Vanderbilt Sloane, the great granddaughter of the famous railroad tycoon, Cornelius Vanderbilt. His sister Alice married musician Benny Goodman in 1942, whom he had helped receive a record deal with Columbia Records in 1933.

Hammond became a talent scout, after hearing Billie Holiday. He remarks that he was astounded to discover that she was the daughter of Clarence Holiday from Fletcher Henderson's band. With Columbia Records in the late 1950s, he signed Pete Seeger and Babatunde Olatunji to the label, and discovered Aretha Franklin, then an eighteen-year-old gospel singer. Musicians Hammond signed to the label included Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen.

Hammond was instrumental in sparking or furthering numerous musical careers, including Harry James, Charlie Christian, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Big Joe Turner, George Benson, Freddie Green, Leonard Cohen, Arthur Russell, Jim Copp, Asha Puthli and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

In 1961, Hammond heard folk singer Bob Dylan playing harmonica and signed him to Columbia and kept him on the label despite the protests of executives, who referred to Dylan as "Hammond's folly". He produced Dylan's early recordings, "Blowin' in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall".

Hammond had given Dylan an advance copy of King of the Delta Blues Singers, who was “mesmerized” by the intensity of the recordings.[6] Dylan, who himself hinted that he sold his soul to the devil for fame in 60 Minutes interview[7], wrote that:

When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard. The songs weren't customary blues songs. They were so utterly fluid. At first they went by quick, too quick to even get. They jumped all over the place in range and subject matter, short punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story-fires of mankind blasting off the surface of this spinning piece of plastic.[8]

Songs from the album were repeatedly covered throughout the decade by many artists, notably Eric Clapton, founder and member of many legendary groups including Cream, who recorded "Ramblin' On My Mind" on John Mayall's 1966 classic Bluesbreakers album, and "Cross Road Blues" with his own power trio Cream on the 1968 album Wheels of Fire.

Eric Clapton considered Johnson “the most important blues musician who ever lived.”[9] He recorded enough of his songs to make Me and Mr. Johnson, a blues-rock album released in 2004 as a tribute to Johnson, which was also used in the film Sessions for Robert J. Clapton earlier recorded "Crossroads", an arrangement of "Cross Road Blues", with Cream in 1968, leading some to consider him "the man largely responsible for making Robert Johnson a household name."[10]

Keith Richards said in 1990, “You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.”  When Keith Richards was first introduced to Johnson's music by his bandmate Brian Jones, he asked, "Who is the other guy playing with him?", not realizing it was Johnson playing one guitar. "I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realise he was doing it all by himself," said Richards, who later stated that "Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself." "As for his guitar technique, it's politely reedy but ambitiously eclectic—moving effortlessly from hen-picking and bottleneck slides to a full deck of chucka-chucka rhythm figures."[11]

Tony Sanchez, a friend of the Rolling Stones, describes that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and their girlfriends Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg, “listened spellbound as Anger turned them on to Aleister Crowley’s powers and ideas.”[12] Kenneth Anger, controversial underground filmmaker and co-founder of the Magic Circle with Anton Lavey, which evolved into the Church of Satan, commenting on Anita, said, “I believe that Anita is, for want of a better word, a witch… The occult unit within the Stones was Keith and Anita… and Brian Jones. You see, Brian was a witch too.”[13] The home of Brian Jones, where he drowned in his own pool in 1969, was described by Marianne Faithfull as “a veritable witches’ coven of decadent illuminati, rock princelings and hip aristos.”[14] In rare footage of a television special named Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, Mick Jagger tears off his shirt to reveal a Baphomet tattoo.[15]

Brian Jones had been introduced to the Master Musicians of Jajouka, who had been discovered in Morocco by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, founders of the Beat movement, who also had a profound interest in the occult. Their mutual friend Paul Bowles described his association with the Master Musicians of Jajouka in Days: A Tangier Journal, and with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Bowles travelled throughout Morocco in 1959 recording traditional Moroccan music.

They were introduced to them by Mohamed Hamri, who was a Moroccan painter and author and one of the few Moroccans to participate in the Tangier Beat scene. After Hamri introduced Gysin to the Zahjouka village, Gysin became a lifelong promoter of the Sufi trance master musicians who lived there. Brian Jones met Hamri when he visited Morocco in 1967 and developed a close friendship. In 1968, Gysin and Hamri took Jones to the village to record the master musicians in the ground-breaking release Brian Jones Presents The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka.

Like a number of other influential rock musicians, Led Zeppelin were heavily indebted Robert Johnson. Robert Plant referred to Johnson as, “to whom we all owed our existence, in some way.”[16] Led Zeppelin recorded “Traveling Riverside Blues,” which drew from Johnson’s original and quoted a number of his songs; the accompanying music video showed images from the Delta, which Johnson often wrote about.

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page composed a never-used soundtrack for Lucifer Rising, by Kenneth Anger, who also introduced Page to the godfather of twentieth century Satanism, Aleister Crowley, after which Page became the owner of one of the world’s largest collections of Crowley memorabilia, including becoming the owner of Crowley’s notorious Boleskine estate on the shores of Scotland’s Loch Ness.

Page was helped in founding the Equinox Bookstore in London by Eric Hill, OTO member and resident Crowley expert of Weiser Books. As explained by Gary Lachman, founding member of the New Wave band Blondie and now author, in Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, “tales of pacts with the devil followed Zeppelin throughout their career, and stories of orgies, black masses and satanic rites were commonplace, mostly centered around the infamous Chateau Marmont off the Sunset Strip.”[17]

Fleetwood Mac was also strongly influenced by Johnson in the group's early years. Guitarist Jeremy Spencer contributed two covers of Johnson-influenced songs to the group's early albums, and lead guitarist Peter Green later recorded Johnson's entire catalogue in two albums, The Robert Johnson Songbook and Hot Foot Powder.

Sam Dunn's documentary Metal Evolution cites Johnson as the "great grandfather to all things heavy metal", with members of the bands Rush and Slipknot agreeing that he played a major role in the development of rock music.

The legend of Johnson’s “talent” continues to be magnified by the culture mythmakers. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included four of Robert Johnson’s songs in a set of 500 they deemed to have shaped the genre: “Sweet Home Chicago” (1936), “Cross Road Blues” (1936), “Hellhound on My Trail” (1937), “Love in Vain” (1937)

Marc Meyers, of the Wall Street Journal, wrote that "His 'Stop Breakin' Down Blues' from 1937 is so far ahead of its time that the song could easily have been a rock demo cut in 1954."[18] In 1990 Spin magazine rated Johnson first in its list of "35 Guitar Gods"—on the 52nd anniversary of his death. In 2008 Rolling Stone magazine ranked him fifth on their list of "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. In 2010 Guitar.com ranked him ninth in its list of "Top 50 Guitarists of All Time"—72 years after he died. In 2008, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Johnson fifth on their list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”

 



[1] Greil Marcus. Mystery Train. (E.P. Dutton, 1975) p. 18.

[2]Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2004).

[3] David Evans. Tommy Johnson. (Studio Vista, 1971). p. 22.

[4] “Tommy Johnson headstone desecrated – Pomeroy Blues & Jazz Society". Pomeroyblues.org. (February 3, 2013) [http://www.pomeroyblues.org/2013/02/03/tommy-johnson-headstone-desecrated/]

[5] James Miller. Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977. (Simon & Schuster, 1999), p. 185.

[6] Dylan describes the impact the Johnson recordings made on him in his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, (2004), pp. 281-288.

[8] Bob Dylan. Chronicles: Volume One. (Simon & Schuster, 2004)

[9] Andrew Buncombe. “The Grandfather of Rock’n’Roll: The Devil’s Instrument.” The Independent (July 26, 2006).

[10] "Bo Diddley's 'Before You Accuse Me' influential as the master. Listen to the Story. KPLU 88.5. (March 23, 2012).

[11] Marc Myers, "Still Standing at the Crossroads". Wall Street Journal, (April 22, 2011).

[12] Tony Sanchez, Up And Down With The Rolling Stones, (Da Capo, 1979) p. 147.

[13] Alex Maloney, Rock Music: The Citadel of Satan, (Xlibris, 2011) p. 59.

[14] Gary Lachman, Turn Off Your Mind.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Fresh Air” NPR (recorded in 2004)

[17] Lachman, Turn Off Your Mind.

[18] Marc Myers, "Still Standing at the Crossroads". Wall Street Journal, (April 22, 2011).

 

 

Further Reading:

Possessed: Voodoo’s Origins and Influence from the Blues to Britney

Comments

Its a very interesting article.  There are so much things which we dont know.  thanks for the research.

Saw the initials in the article, and was instantly reminded of Toronto's Drake music lable/clothing stuff. His symbol is an owl, and he's signed to Warner Brothers records. insight?

 

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