This blog comes to you from a guest writer on thenumbernineblog- FazedWalrus. Enjoy!
In an eloquent testimonial included in the liner notes to the box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (Columbia Records, 1990), disciple Eric Clapton said,
Robert Johnson to me is the most important blues musician who ever lived….I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.
It seems however (early on at least), that the great bluesman Son House was somewhat less impressed with Robert Johnson. Robert would frequently show up to study performances by Son House and his partner Willie Brown. During their breaks, Robert would pick up one of their guitars and try to play:
And such a racket you never heard! It’d make the people mad, you know. They’d come out and say, ‘Why don’t y’all go in and get that guitar away from that boy! He’s running people crazy with it!’ I’d come back in, and I’d scold him about it, ‘ Don’t do that Robert. You drive the people nuts. You can’t play nothing. Why don’t you play that harmonica for’em.’ But he didn’t want to blow that. Still, he didn’t care how I’d get after him about it. He’d do it anyway.
So how is someone transformed from “you can’t play nothing” into “the most important blues musician who ever lived”? How far must one travel to pursue their passion, to achieve the pinnacle of their potential – to make it to the “toppermost of the poppermost”? … Hamburg, Germany? … Laurel Canyon, California? … The intersection of highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi? …
… and what is the price that must be paid when you get there?
According to Son House, Robert Johnson embarked on such a journey. And his transformation was amazing!
The folks would come out and say, ‘Why don’t you all go in there and make that boy put that thing down. He’s runnin’ us crazy!’ Finally he left and ran off from his father and mother and he went (… someplace). He was gone about six to eight months.
When he came back, me and Willie Brown was playing and he walked in. He said, ‘Can I hit a lick or two?’ I said now don’t come back with that Robert. I said you know that people don’t all want to hear that racket. He said, ‘Let them say what they want to say. I want you to see what I learned.’
When he finished all our mouths were standing open.
He sold his soul to the Devil to play like that!
So where did he go? Whom did he meet? And just what in the hell happened there? After all this time, is there any way to really know?
Maybe there is. The American travel writer, essayist, and author Rolf Potts tells of some information that was provided to him (seemingly “out of the blue”) in March of 2004. A waitress in Rosedale, Mississippi handed him a transcription of a vision that had appeared to bluesman Henry Goodman. Potts re-posted his experience on his blog on June 16, 2015. The transcription of Goodman’s vision follows:
Robert Johnson been playing down in Yazoo City and over at Beulah trying to get back up to Helena, ride left him out on a road next to the levee, walking up the highway, guitar in his hand propped up on his shoulder. October cool night, full moon filling up the dark sky, Robert Johnson thinking about Son House preaching to him, “Put that guitar down, boy, you drivin’ people nuts.” Robert Johnson needing as always a woman and some whiskey. Big trees all around, dark and lonesome road, a crazed, poisoned dog howling and moaning in a ditch alongside the road sending electrified chills up and down Robert Johnson’s spine, coming up on a crossroads just south of Rosedale. Robert Johnson, feeling bad and lonesome, knows people up the highway in Gunnison. Can get a drink of whiskey and more up there. Man sitting off to the side of the road on a log at the crossroads says, “You’re late, Robert Johnson.” Robert Johnson drops to his knees and says, “Maybe not.”
The man stands up, tall, barrel-chested, and black as the forever-closed eyes of Robert Johnson’s stillborn baby, and walks out to the middle of the crossroads where Robert Johnson kneels. He says, “Stand up, Robert Johnson. You want to throw that guitar over there in that ditch with that hairless dog and go on back up to Robinsonville and play the harp with Willie Brown and Son, because you just another guitar player like all the rest, or you want to play that guitar like nobody ever played it before? Make a sound nobody ever heard before? You want to be the King of the Delta Blues and have all the whiskey and women you want?”
“That’s a lot of whiskey and women, Devil-Man.”
“I know you, Robert Johnson,” says the man.
Robert Johnson, feels the moonlight bearing down on his head and the back of his neck as the moon seems to be growing bigger and bigger and brighter and brighter. He feels it like the heat of the noonday sun bearing down, and the howling and moaning of the dog in the ditch penetrates his soul, coming up through his feet and the tips of his fingers through his legs and arms, settling in that big empty place beneath his breastbone causing him to shake and shudder like a man with the palsy. Robert Johnson says, “That dog gone mad.”
The man laughs. “That hound belong to me. He ain’t mad, he’s got the Blues. I got his soul in my hand.”
The dog lets out a low, long soulful moan, a howling like never heard before, rhythmic, syncopated grunts, yelps, and barks, seizing Robert Johnson like a Grand Mal, and causing the strings on his guitar to vibrate, hum, and sing with a sound dark and blue, beautiful, soulful chords and notes possessing Robert Johnson, taking him over, spinning him around, losing him inside of his own self, wasting him, lifting him up into the sky. Robert Johnson looks over in the ditch and sees the eyes of the dog reflecting the bright moonlight or, more likely so it seems to Robert Johnson, glowing on their own, a deep violet penetrating glow, and Robert Johnson knows and feels that he is staring into the eyes of a Hellhound as his body shudders from head to toe.
The man says, “The dog ain’t for sale, Robert Johnson, but the sound can be yours. That’s the sound of the Delta Blues.”
“I got to have that sound, Devil-Man. That sound is mine. Where do I sign?”
The man says, “You ain’t got a pencil, Robert Johnson. Your word is good enough. All you got to do is keep walking north. But you better be prepared. There are consequences.”
“Prepared for what, Devil-man?”
“You know where you are, Robert Johnson? You are standing in the middle of the crossroads. At midnight, that full moon is right over your head. You take one more step, you’ll be in Rosedale. You take this road to the east, you’ll get back over to Highway 61 in Cleveland, or you can turn around and go back down to Beulah or just go to the west and sit up on the levee and look at the River. But if you take one more step in the direction you’re headed, you going to be in Rosedale at midnight under this full October moon, and you are going to have the Blues like never known to this world. My left hand will be forever wrapped around your soul, and your music will possess all who hear it. That’s what’s going to happen. That’s what you better be prepared for. Your soul will belong to me. This is not just any crossroads. I put this “X” here for a reason, and I been waiting on you.”
Robert Johnson rolls his head around, his eyes upwards in their sockets to stare at the blinding light of the moon which has now completely filled tie pitch-black Delta night, piercing his right eye like a bolt of lightning as the midnight hour hits. He looks the big man squarely in the eyes and says, “Step back, Devil-Man, I’m going to Rosedale. I am the Blues.”
The man moves to one side and says, “Go on, Robert Johnson. You the King of the Delta Blues. Go on home to Rosedale. And when you get on up in town, you get you a plate of hot tamales because you going to be needing something on your stomach where you’re headed.”
So just who (or what) was this “Devil-man”?
Satan? … Meh, too obvious.
Santa? … Don’t be silly! That was just a typo. No one has ever sold their soul to Santa. Well, maybe Rudolph and an elf or two, but that is a topic for another blog.
An agent of the Illuminati, well-versed in advanced mind control tactics? … Yeah, right. Please take your nutty conspiracy theories and tin foil hat elsewhere!
Or was it something else entirely – mysterious, and essentially unknowable to we mere mortals? As Jason Rewald says on thedeltablues site:
Who knows the truth though? Science says (Robert Johnson) got that good through diligent practice, and a natural ability. But the blues was never about Science, was it?
Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938 at the age of 27, but there is “no reason to get excited” about that!
Sources and citations:
Rolf Potts – Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in Rosedale, Mississippi (Note: This seems to be a re-post of an earlier article, as per “Falling Stars!“)