Robert Johnson and His Deal with the Devil

Robert Johnson, or at least the mythical version of him, is pervasive in American pop culture. He is considered a “Faustian” character, which essentially means the story surrounding him involves making a deal with Mephistopheles (a demon) or Satan himself. Deals like these typically were said to take place at crossroads, often seen as a metaphorical or actual liminal space, a place where change happens.

The legend goes that Johnson fell distraught after his first wife died in childbirth and he turned to his love of music to cope but he was horrible at the guitar with an unpleasant voice. Johnson was said to have disappeared for a length of time and then returned with great musical skill and a wonderful, mournful singing voice. At a crossroads, marked with the three guitar statue (above), Johnson supposedly met a man who gave him these abilities–in return for his soul. People point to some of his songs like “Cross Road Blues” and “Hell Hound on My Trail” as evidence that he had made the deal with the devil and the hellhounds were there to collect.

Johnson only recorded three records and died at the age of 27 in 1938 due to “mysterious” stomach pains. Of course, the legend would have us believe that the Devil had come to collect his dues. Most people, however, believe that he was poisoned (one way or another) due to flirting with or having an affair with a married woman. Either way, he died very young after putting out only a little bit of music and had only a couple of photos ever taken of him. He’s a figure shrouded in mystery due to how little is known about him but he lives on in our collective imagination, still recognized as the King of the Delta Blues.

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