• Fiona Dodwell

Robert Johnson: Deals with the Devil

81 years ago today, Robert Johnson became a part of the 27 Club. We look back at his strange past.

Robert Johnson was an American Blues singer, musician and songwriter who inspired many with his unique style and skills on the guitar. Born May 8th, 1911, he released a selection of music during the '30s that has become much-loved and respected amongst Blues fans. He spent a great deal of his lifetime playing on street corners, in bars and public parties, but sadly, like certain other artists throughout history, Johnson's music became more known and appreciated after his death.

In modern times, many artists have listed Johnson as an influence, including Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. It is not just his musical talent, though, that has become legendary where Johnson is concerned – a much darker tale has followed his name through the years. The story often told is that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil himself in order to become a great blues musician: he attended a crossroads at night where he was met by the Devil in the guise of a large, black man. The Devil took the guitar in his hands, tuned the guitar, and handed it back to Johnson, who then became an instant master at his craft. From there the legend grew, and it has remained an integral part of Johnson's story every bit as much as his musical career – but where did the story come from?

The concept of a “deal with the devil” is not exclusive to Robert Johnson – other famous figures throughout history are said to have made this same pact in order to gain riches, success or talent. One such tale belongs to Led Zeppelin band member, Jimmy Page, one of the world's most famous guitarists. It is said that Jimmy Page had an immense interest in the occult, and that he even purchased the same house that used to be owned by occultist Aleister Crowley. In order for him to become as great as he was at his chosen instrument, legend tells us that Page (and possibly his band mates too) allegedly struck a deal with the Devil. Much of what is out there regarding this is based on conjecture, unverified accounts and legend, however, the story remains attached to Page and adds to his mystique and to our imaginations. (There is even a book, 'The Zeppelin Curse' by Lance Gilbert, which explores this very topic in-depth).

Another famous case of a pact with the Devil relates to famous violinist Niccolo Paganini from the 18th Century. According to one article, “The main reason [there are rumours of a Devil pact] was because of his unexplained monstrous talent on the violin. Since he was so gifted, there was no other logical explanation other than a devious deal with the Devil. We know now that in reality his virtuosic playing level most likely came from a rigid practice schedule. But, the former sounds so much cooler." This idea was also supposedly coupled with the fact that Paganini was “diabolical” in appearance and omitted a rather “dark aura.” Another version of Paganini's tale is that his own mother made the deadly pact with dark forces when he was just a child.

There are many other alleged cases throughout history - not just from the field of entertainment, but from the world of politics and the witchcraft trials of many years ago. So, whilst not exclusive to musician Robert Johnson, it certainly is one of the more famous cases of a Devil pact for wishes granted.

Robert Johnson was from Mississippi, and long harboured dreams and ambitions about making it big through music. An avid guitarist and lover of Blues, he played long hours and devoted himself to his craft. Trawling through various books and websites, it becomes evident that there has been little published about his life, with much information either conflicting or unsubstantiated. He apparently worked on farms and plantations in his earlier years, he married twice – with one or both wives sadly dying in childbirth. He was a keen musician who wanted to take on the world with his instrument, and it was after a very significant improvement in his guitar playing that rumours of a pact with the Devil became rumored.

When Johnson played on street corners and parties, people were impressed: he seemed to have a talent beyond his years – beyond, perhaps, his own early imaginings. He attracted large crowds wherever he stopped to play and it amazed those who knew him as the shy and retiring boy that he usually was when not performing. Maybe it was that Blues music, back in the early day, was seen as the “devil's music” (because people blamed it on leading people astray) or maybe it was because Johnson had suddenly (overnight, it seemed) become hugely talented and popular despite earlier struggles that roused people's suspicions. Whatever it truly was, however it came about, the idea of Johnson striking a deadly deal has become fully immersed in the biography we all know of him today.

The account of Johnson's dark deal itself is met with confusion and has different versions, with one story having him meeting the Devil at a graveyard at midnight, another at a crossroads, and yet another at Highways 1 and 8 of Rosedale, Mississippi. It is a legendary story almost impossible to unravel, not least because Johnson was a well-travelled individual who would tread through many areas of America during his lifetime when playing music. Also, much of the story of his life was handed down orally, with little factual accounts to back rumours up.

Regardless of the legends about Johnson striking up a dark deal with the Devil, the simple truth is that Johnson probably managed to become the talent he was through hard work and dedication. Society in times past often tried to attribute exceptional things to supernatural forces, and this case is likely no different. Robert Johnson was a talented man from a difficult time, and no matter how he cultivated the talent to impress audiences wherever he played, the truth is probably less sinister than legend has us perhaps believing.

On August 16th, 1938, Robert Johnson died from unknown causes. He joined the ranks of other famous figures by passing away at the tender age of 27 - a number that seems to have some significance, considering the large number of entertainers who have died at the same young age.

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