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Blues: Robert Johnson

Page history last edited by geoff hanley 10 years, 9 months ago

 

Me and the Devil Blues

Early this mornin'                                                            

when you knocked upon my door

Early this mornin', ooh

when you knocked upon my door                                  

And I said, "Hello, Satan,"                                                  

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I believe it's time to go."

Me and the Devil

was walkin' side by side

Me and the Devil, ooh

was walkin' side by side

And I'm goin' to beat my woman

until I get satisfied

She say you don't see why

that you will dog me 'round

spoken: Now, babe, you know you ain't doin' me

right, don'cha

She say you don't see why, ooh

that you will dog me 'round

It must-a be that old evil spirit

so deep down in the ground

You may bury my body

down by the highway side

spoken: Baby, I don't care where you bury my

body when I'm dead and gone

You may bury my body, ooh

down by the highway side

So my old evil spirit

can catch a Greyhound bus and ride

RobertJohnsonBluesFoundation.org 

 

Robert Johnson    

If someone claims to be a fan or scholar of the blues but is unable to summarize the story of Robert Johnson, he/she is not of true blues fandom.  Though it’s hard enough to identify with “a musical form borne out of African American experience, [that] articulates the existential crisis of a people living in a country that historically suppressed their equal, personal and institutional status” (Richard 19).  In other words, one must live it to know it.  It is equally crucial to identify with the legendary question that will never be answered.  Did he sell his soul to the devil?  His name alone may not hold as much symbolism in the song “Crossroad Blues”.  Another recognizable trait may be that it was popularized in the blues revival of the 1960’s with the new title “Crossroads” by Eric Clapton.  Perhaps if he had not died at such an early age, his myth and legend would not be so appealing or “if the complete details of Robert Johnson’s life were known . . . our curiosity would probably cease to exist” (Dicaire 30).  What we do know about Johnson remains to be another aspect of the blues.  As the blues were apart from the spirituals, his songs were of personal experience.

Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1911.  The few facts known about his life outside of music would and do suit well to blues lyrics.  He was from a family that did not include his real father, that is, he was product of an affair with another man.  With the tension of the disapproving step-father, the profitless sharecropping, and no goals in sight “Johnson was much happier to sit and practice his guitar or harmonica all day than go out and break his back in the cotton fields” (Dicaire 26).  By the time he was 18; he had already lost his first wife in childbirth and was in the process of leaving the second.  His sites were set clear on that of becoming the blues wanderer.  It had been over 50 years since work songs and spirituals had taken new paths of which he wanted to be involved.  It may not seem like the American dream, but for the African American in the south with an interest in the blues, becoming the wanderer was the best and often the only option.  It was through his travel among fellow musicians that he ran across influential teachers and mentors though such as Son House, Charley Patton, and Willie Brown.

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With Johnson’s relentless vision and interest in other musicians, he is known to have developed guitar playing skills never before witnessed and still today virtually unmatched.  So much that his recordings are still questioned as to whether or not he was playing by himself.  This is where the myth holds significance.  Legend has it that he was somewhat picked on by other musicians in that he would never truly be able to play the blues.  “What is known is that a man with no previous skill became a master guitarist in about a year and a half” (Gates 134).  His childhood mentor, Son House, also commented on his return after being gone for a year “Little Robert proceeded to put on a performance that left House and Brown stunned.  Little Robert – his full name was Robert Johnson – was finally showing his true genius.  House would say later, ‘That boy could play more blues than [any] of us’” (Guralnick 72).  Would it seem out of place to rank an illegitimate son of a sharecropper’s wife as a genius of music?  Is it too farfetched to be only 50 years out of slavery and to compare a black man to Mozart when it comes to the gift of natural technique?  Also, what cannot be forgotten is Johnson’s alcohol abuse, his lyricism, and of course his promiscuity.  Many would think that no one with such habits should be deserving of such a natural talent unless another path had been taken.  Thankfully, before the angry husband/bar-owner laced his whiskey with strychnine, Johnson made those recordings. 

 Cross Road Blues

 

 

I went down to the crossroad

fell down on my knees

I went down to the crossroad

fell down on my knees

Asked the lord above "Have mercy now         

save poor Bob if you please"

Yeeooo, standin at the crossroad

tried to flag a ride

ooo ooo eee

I tried to flag a ride

Didn't nobody seem to know me babe

everybody pass me by                                                              

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Standin at the crossroad babe

risin sun goin down

Standin at the crossroad babe

eee eee eee, risin sun goin down

I believe to my soul now,

Poor Bob is sinkin down

You can run, you can run

tell my friend Willie Brown

You can run, you can run

tell my friend Willie Brown

(th)'at I got the croosroad blues this mornin Lord

babe, I'm sinkin down

And I went to the crossroad momma

I looked east and west

I went to the crossroad baby

I looked east and west

Lord, I didn't have no sweet woman

ooh-well babe, in my distress

RobertJohnsonBluesFoundation.org

 

 This path is what often co-exists with any mention of Robert Johnson.  He was known to “depict in his lyrics the fight against darkness and light, making his music more intriguing” (Guralnick 28).  If three of his twenty-nine songs weren’t somewhat insinuating an interaction with Satan, the devil, etc. . . ., maybe there would not have been the question of a talent that was developed with an evil spirit.  Maybe if he hadn’t written songs like “Hellhound on My Trail”, “Me and the Devil Blues”, and most important in his story, “Crossroad Blues”, this would not be an issue.  But without anything but a handful of songs, two pictures, storytelling lyrics, and vivid imaginations used to interpret the meaning, the idea of selling one’s soul to the devil in order to master the blues will continue to hold weight in the other half of his story.  However, there is an argument that his song about the crossroads is not about a deal with the devil but a plea for mercy. 

 

Then again, there is another approach.  In the “Crossroads and the Myth of the Mississippi Delta Bluesman”, Richard states that “one could suggest that the crossroads myth of the blues man in covenant with the devil serves in [a] functional capacity as well” (20) regarding this other figure in a variety of ways.  In one aspect, the “Yoruba trickster Esu” is a helpful being of ancient West African descent who is a “musical instructor, one who teaches the musician to become a voice of his people or grants the young man access to musical knowledge” (20).  On the other hand, the devilish character has been preserved on different levels concerning both black and white interpretation.

 

 On the black side, there will always be the issue that blues and religion, seculars and spirituals, Satan and the Christian, just don’t mix.  The blues had often been disregarded from the beginning as a music that would not accept theological reliance upon a higher power called God.  There were many blues musicians who were known to struggle specifically for this reason.  There are also many arguments that make up for a lost hope in having both, such as Cone’s contention “that the blues and the spirituals flow from the same bedrock of experience, and neither is an adequate interpretation of black life without the commentary of the other” (100).  This is not to say that there are not a vast amount of differences but it does make up for complete opposition.  On the white side, such distinctions between blues and spirituals through one artist, “one has to wonder whether bluesmen, or perhaps commentators outside the blues community, perpetuated this myth in order to gain acceptance with a white audience” (Richard 24).  There is also the thought that such songs were written in the ‘double meaning’ form.  While many spirituals, slave calls, blues lyrics, and forms of literature were known to represent a hidden text, Johnson’s lyrics of devilish description may have been only for ears suitable in interpreting that the devil was the white man.   

 

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Works Cited

Cone, James H. The Spirituals and the Blues. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991.

Dicaire, David. Blues Singers. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 1999.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis and Cornel West. The African American Century. New York: The Free Press, 2000.

Guralnick, Peter, et al., The Blues: A Musical Journey. New York: Amistad, 2003.

Richard, Melissa J. "The Crossroads and the Myth of the Mississippi Delta Bluesman." Interdisciplinary Humanities 23.2 (2006): 16-26.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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