Goethe and Christopher Marlowe gave us the drama of Dr. Faustus, the learned man who sells his soul to Satan for earthly rewards. It is a timeless tale – the temptations of sin for short-term gain – oh-so-germane to battered New Orleans in view of our latest swatch of politicians, captured by the feds on corruption charges and bound for jail.
The most rooted myth of blues music is the devil at the crossroads – the evil spirit who offers the wandering singer-and-guitar man success for Satan’s gain.
The Depression-era Mississippi Delta singer Robert Johnson personifies the myth, as much for his lyrics as the stories surrounding his brief life and death. In “Me and the Devil Blues,” Johnson sang in a floating whine: Early this morning When you knocked upon my door And I said, “Hello Satan I believe it’s time to go.”
The idea that Johnson had met Satan already carries through the tune. The most famous song in Johnson’s small canon is “Hell Hound on My Trail,” which exists in a category unto itself.
I got to keep movin’ I got to keep movin’ Blues fallin’ down like hail.
I had to listen carefully several times to persuade myself he was saying “hail” rather than “hell.” A long, descending moan follows. The guitar lines go from a thudding to a high keening wail as he sings:
And the days keep on worrying me There’s a hellhound on my trail. Hellhound on my trail.
In a short book called Searching for Robert Johnson, Peter Guralnick, the esteemed biographer of Elvis and Sam Cooke, writes: “Although the song is Johnson’s crowning achievement, virtually no attempts to cover it have ever been made. Even putting down the words on paper scarcely suggests the stark terror of the song and no matter how many times I’ve listened to it, it still seems to come out of a void, it still seems impossible to imagine a recording engineer saying, ‘Could we have another take of that one, Bob?’ though indeed there must have been another one (even if none has survived).”
In a famous audio outtake at Sun Studio in Memphis, a young Jerry Lee Lewis, riding the crest of “Great Balls of Fire” (with all of the devilish intimations boiling in those lyrics) harangues his boss and producer, Sam Philips – the guy in charge of his paycheck – insisting that the song is sinful and he, Lewis, was wrong to sing it even as Philips tells him that young folks are happy, dancing to that song. The guilt had gotten to Lewis, who was raised in a Pentecostal church, playing duets with his cousin Jimmy Swaggart.
Robert Johnson died, apparently poisoned by a jealous husband in a juke joint outside of Greenwood, with unconfirmed reports that he was down on all fours, barking before he died. He never gave an interview; comparatively little is known about his life. Not even Guralnick is certain how the story of his meeting the devil materialized.
The blues has its pendulum swings of sin-and-repentance. Thomas Dorsey, the fabled composer who worked closely with the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, got his start as bluesman Georgia Tom. An early New Orleans blues vocalist, Lizzie Miles, renounced her musical past, explaining in 1959: “I only attend church and spend the rest of my time in prayers for these troubled times all over the world, making penance for my sins and trying to serve God as I should.”
In Blues and Evil, the scholar Jon Michael Spencer makes a persuasive case for a coded language in the music. “Early blues were in effect the spirituals of an ‘invisible’ postbellum black religion that de-mystified Christianity.” Blues singers could challenge the prevailing order as outlaw figures, given the license that society has traditionally granted artists. The same folk who danced to gritty blues at Saturday night functions showed up for church the next day, often dancing in the same way to church songs with similar rhythms.
The devil haunting the bluesman’s crossroads was not a demonic figure “of European lore,” writes Spencer, “rather the personality of the African trickster-god and his African-American derivatives, which functioned as models for heroic action.” Papa Legba, the voodoo loa who held the keys to the crossroads, comes to mind. “But the devil, according to black lore, was also believed to have prowled the earth as a rabbit, terrapin, serpent, bat, toad, grasshopper, housefly, blue jay, yellow dog, black billy goat and especially a black cat.”
So when you put on the CD of Robert Johnson: The Complete Collection, listen for the devil.