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Robert Johnson: The Man Who Sold His Soul to the Devil

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Robert Johnson, a legendary blues musician of the early 1900s, left an indelible mark on the world of music with his unique playing style and hauntingly imaginative lyrics. Yet, much of his life remains shrouded in mystery, giving rise to outlandish myths that continue to captivate fans. In this exploration, we delve into the enigmatic tale of Robert Johnson, from his humble beginnings to the enduring myths surrounding his talent and the profound impact he had on generations of musicians.

A photo booth portrait of the blues musician Robert Johnson. It was taken around 1930 and is one of two confirmed photographs of him. Credit…© 1986 Delta Haze Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

The Mysterious Beginnings:

Born in the early 1900s, Robert Johnson’s life is a patchwork of scant historical records and oral history. Only two confirmed pictures of him exist, and details about his upbringing are elusive. Despite a humble start at the age of 19, Johnson’s self-assured demeanor and relentless pursuit of opportunities to perform set the stage for a remarkable journey.

The Turning Point:

A pivotal moment in Johnson’s early career occurred during shows by blues legends Son House and Willie Brown in Robinsonville. Despite initial struggles and jeering from the audience, Johnson’s determination prevailed. Months later, he reappeared at another House and Brown show in Banks, Mississippi, astonishing everyone with his transformed and masterful guitar playing.

The Devil’s Pact:

One of the most enduring myths surrounding Robert Johnson is the belief that he sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroad in exchange for supernatural musical abilities. While historical records indicate that Johnson learned to play from blues guitarist Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman, the devil myth persists, fuelled by elements of Johnson’s life and music.

The Crossroads and Hoodoo:

The crossroads myth is perpetuated by Johnson’s own lyrics, which often allude to “spirits,” “evil,” and explicitly mention the devil. Songs like “Hellhounds On My Trail” contribute to the mystique, as do references to African hoodoo, a spiritual practice rooted in the black community’s African ancestry. In “Come On In My Kitchen,” Johnson mentions a “nation sack,” connecting his music to the mystical traditions of hoodoo.

The Rise and Tragic End:

In 1936, Robert Johnson finally secured a recording opportunity in San Antonio, Texas, with the American Record Company. His first single, “Terraplane Blues,” marked the beginning of a promising career, but success was short-lived. Johnson passed away at the young age of 27, leaving behind a legacy that would influence musical giants like B.B. King, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin.

Robert Johnson’s life remains an enigma, a testament to the power of myth and the enduring appeal of his music. From his humble beginnings to the fateful crossroads and untimely death, Johnson’s story transcends the ordinary, leaving an indelible mark on the blues genre and inspiring generations of musicians. The legacy of Robert Johnson lives on, a testament to the enduring power of his supernatural musical prowess and the mysteries that surround his all-too-brief life.

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