Robert Johnson Is An Early Member Of The 27 Club, And His Death May Be Due To A Deal With The Devil
The 27 Club is a romanticized but tragic group of talented musicians whose lives ended at the age of 27, usually due to drug or alcohol-related overdoses. Robert Johnson, a man credited with inventing the Delta blues sound, is the rare member of that club who also makes the list of people who made deals with the Devil.
Robert Johnson's mysterious death came after he allegedly went to the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarkesdale, MS, and exchanged his soul for the ability to play the guitar. A year after recording highly influential blues tracks, Johnson died, and people started speculating that the Devil had come to take what was due to him. Some believe a disease caused his death, while other believe a romantic rival murdered Johnson.
We may never know all of the facts about his death, but maybe we can find an answer to the question: did Robert Johnson make a deal with the Devil?
- Photo: shogun coredump / YouTube
He Was A Terrible Guitar Player Until He Disappeared For A While
Son House, bluesman and friend of Johnson, told documentarian Peter W. Meyer that his friend was a horrible guitarist until his visit to the crossroads. According to House, Johnson would ask other men that played blues to let him play with them. He was fine with the harmonica, but his guitar playing supposedly made people crazy.
After disappearing - for what some claim was only overnight, while others say it was several weeks - Johnson sat down and played guitar for David Honeyboy Edwards. Edwards told people it was like nothing he'd ever heard before.
- Photo: Visit Mississippi / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0
Some Say Poisoned Whiskey And Infidelity Are What Killed Him
Mother Jones reported that Johnson's mother told people her son died from being given poisoned whiskey while he played a gig in Greenwood, MS, in 1938. Some say a woman gave him the poisoned drink, while others say the owner of the bar he was playing in thought Johnson was having an affair with his wife.
David Honeyboy Edwards, bluesman and friend of Johnson, believes the poisoned whiskey story. Edwards also claims he took Johnson to a friend's house when he began feeling ill from the poison. Johnson died a few days later with the death certificate marked "No doctor."
Johnson Told His Mother About His Deal With The Devil Before He Died
After being poisoned, one story says Johnson's mother came to his side on his deathbed in 1938. In his last words, he is alleged to have told her he had been waiting for her before handing her his guitar. He then asked his mother to hang the guitar on the wall, calling it the devil's instrument, and said he was done with it.
Johnson's mother says he was dead when she turned back from hanging the guitar on the wall:
When I went in where he at, he layin' up in bed with his guitar crost his breast. Soon’s he saw me, he say, “Mama, you all I been waitin for.” “Here,” he say, and give me his guitar. “Take and hang this thing on the wall, cause I done pass all that by. That what got me messed up, Mama. It’s the devil’s instrument, just like you said. And I don’t want it no more.” And he died while I was hangin his guitar on the wall.
- Video: YouTube
Lyrics In Johnson's Songs Are About Dealing With The Devil
In "Me and the Devil Blues," Johnson wrote and sang about "Me and the Devil Was walkin' side-by-side" as he is on his way to see his woman. He also refers to the Devil as the reason for his actions in that song.
On another song, "Cross Road Blues," Johnson talks about falling on his knees at a crossroads and asking the lord to help a man named Bob. Another lyric is "I got the crossroad blues this mornin', Lord, babe, I'm sinkin' down." Some people point to these as evidence of Johnson's deal with the Devil.
- Photo: Grant E. Hamilton / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
A Bluesman Named Henry Goodman Claims To Have Seen The Deal With The Devil In A Vision
At a diner in Rosedale, MS, writer Rolf Potts was handed a crumpled paper that contained a vision from bluesman Henry Goodman concerning Johnson selling his soul to the Devil. The waitress believed the account meant the crossroads Johnson visited were those located and the intersection of Highway 8 and Highway 1 in Rosedale; other stories claim it was the intersection of US 49 and 61 is where Johnson's infamous deal with the Devil occurred.
Goodman's vision included allusions to Johnson lyrics, with the Devil telling him to fill his stomach with tamales for the journey. Johnson had a song called "They're Red Hot" that has the lyric "Hot tamales and they're red hot, yes she got'em for sale".
In the vision, the Devil is the first one to call Johnson the King of the Delta Blues, a name that would accompany his legacy of music.
- Photo: Visit Mississippi / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0
A Note On The Back Of The Death Certificate Has Syphilis As The Cause
Johnson's death certificate says "no doctor", but a note on the back of it lists his cause of death as syphilis. The note is believed to have been written by the owner of the home in which Johnson died after being taken there by friend Honeyboy Edwards.
It is not known how the homeowner would know if Johnson died from syphilis complications.