The Story of Bluesman Robert Johnson’s Famous Deal With the Devil Retold in Three Animations

in Music | July 21st, 2015

So many hugely successful and talented musicians have died at age 27 that it almost seems reasonable to believe the number represents some mystical coefficient of talent and tragedy. But several decades before Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, or Amy Winehouse left us too soon, Robert Johnson—the man who pioneered selling one’s soul for rock and roll—died in 1938, at age 27, under mysterious and likely violent circumstances. He was already a legend, and his story of meeting Satan at the crossroads to make an exchange for his extraordinary talent had already permeated the popular culture of his day and became even more ingrained after his death—making him, well, maybe the very first rock star.



Johnson’s few recordings—29 songs in total—went on to influence Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, 27 club member Brian Jones and so many others. And that’s not to mention the hundreds of Delta and Chicago blues guitarists who picked Johnson’s brain, or stopped short of selling their souls trying to outplay him. But Johnson, begins the animated short above (which tells the tale of the bluesman’s infernal deal) “wasn’t always such an amazing guitarist.” Legend has it he “coveted the talents of Son House” and dreamed of stardom. He acquired his talent overnight, it seemed to those around him, who surmised he must have set out to the crossroads, met the devil, and “made a deal.”

The rest of the story—of Robert Johnson’s fatal encounter with the jealous husband of an admirer—is a more plausible development, though it too may be apocryphal. “Not all of this may be true,” says the short film’s title cards, “but one thing is for certain: No Robert Johnson, No Rock and Roll.” This too is another legend. Other early bluesmen like Blind Willie Johnson and Robert’s hero Son House exerted similar influence on 60s blues revivalists, as of course did later electric players like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and B.B. King. Johnson was a phenomenal innovator, and a singular voice, but his repertoire—like those of most blues players at the time—consisted of variations on older songs, or responses to other, very talented musicians.

Most of the songs he recorded were in this vein—with at least two very notable exceptions: “Cross Road Blues” (or just “Crossroads”) and “Me and the Devil Blues,” both of which have contributed to the myth of Johnson’s pact with Lucifer, including the part about the dark angel coming to collect his debt. In the latter song, animated in a video above, Satan comes knocking on the singer’s door early in the morning. “Hello Satan,” says Johnson, “I believe it’s time to go.” Much of what we think about Johnson’s life comes from these songs, and from much rumor and innuendo. He may have been murdered, or—like so many later stars who died too young—he may have simply burned out. One blues singer who claims she met him as a child remembers him near the end of his life as “ill” and “sickly,” reports the Austin Chronicle, “in a state of physical disrepair as though he’d been roughed up.”

Johnson scholar Elijah Wald describes his history like that of many founders of religious sects: “So much research has been done [on Johnson] that I have to assume the overall picture is fairly accurate. Still, this picture has been pieced together from so many tattered and flimsy scraps that almost any one of them must to some extent be taken on faith.” Johnson’s “spiritual descendants,” as Rolling Stone’s David Fricke calls his rock and roll progeny, have no trouble doing just that. Nor do fans of rock and blues and other artists who find the Robert Johnson legend tantalizing.

In the film above, “Hot Tamales,” animator Riccardo Maneglia adapts the myth, and quotes from “Crossroad Blues,” to tell the story of Bob, who journeys to the crossroads to meet sinister voodoo deity Papa Leg, replaying Johnson’s supposed rendezvous in a different religious context. In “Crossroad”‘s lyrics, Johnson is actually “pleading with God for mercy,” writes Frank DiGiacomo in Vanity Fair, “not bargaining with the devil.” Nonetheless—legendary or not—his evocation of devilish deals in “Me and the Devil Blues” and gritty, emotional account of self-destruction in “Crossroads” may on their own add sufficient weight to that far-reaching idea: “No Robert Johnson, No Rock and Roll.”

Related Content:

B.B. King Explains in an Animated Video Whether You Need to Endure Hardship to Play the Blues

Keith Richards Waxes Philosophical, Plays Live with His Idol, the Great Muddy Waters

Legendary Folklorist Alan Lomax: ‘The Land Where the Blues Began’

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (17)

  1. Allan Evans says . . .
    July 21, 2015 / 5:47 am

    This myth is a baby-bottled version crafted for provincial suburbanites who need it to help them fathom how a talented musician developed by listening to others and had no need to sell his soul. The talent was there and needed little time to develop. Focus on this trashy fantasy keep people from exploring his influences and how he used them. I’m sure had he lived longer, he would have moved to Chicago and plugged his axe into an amp.

  2. Scott Barretta says . . .
    July 21, 2015 / 12:04 pm

    There’s no evidence that Johnson ever talked about having made a deal with the devil to people he knew — Honeyboy Edwards, Johnny Shines and Robert Lockwood, who all played with him, said that they never heard anything like this from him.

    And he was hardly “already a legend” — he was someone who was admired by local audiences and whose recordings sold relatively modestly (the biggest seller was 10,000). The “legend” was largely the concoction of white fans, starting with John Hammond, who tried to get Johnson to perform at his Spirituals to Swing concert in NYC, only to discover that he had died.

  3. Crystal says . . .
    July 21, 2015 / 2:38 pm

    Dear Mr. Jones! Your article glaringly inaccurate!

    First of all, you should do a little more research when referring to religious deities. “meet sinister voodoo deity Papa Leg” It’s actually Papa Legba and he is not exactly considered sinister. A trickster yes, but sinister no.

    Second, the video is a blatant copy cat of scenes from “Angel Heart” which is a fictional representation of Hollywood Voodoo and hasn’t not a single drop of truth to it.

    Finally, Vodou (as it is correctly spelled) doesn’t even have a Devil in it’s ranks so how can Vodou even relate to Mr. Johnson’s blues legend?

    It’s misrepresentation like this that gives a very true and thriving Religion a bad name.

  4. Tre' Chicago Bluesman says . . .
    July 21, 2015 / 4:46 pm

    The thing about Robert Johnson is he had real talent but he was stifled by his contemporaries who he admired and at that time most of the talent in his area was based on how talented the one he viewed and admired had at that time

    So if what you see around you is all you have to go on then your ideas remain the same as what you see and what you get every time you see it nothing changes

    it doesn’t take much talent to make people want to go see somebody perform even if it is really good or not

    after a while the decision is based on what else do these people have to do

    at that time not much was available to be offered

    if it wasn’t a tap dance show or a few guys and gals hoofing around it was somebody playing on some instrument somewhere somehow someway no matter the expertise or the greatness.

    Robert’s fortune came when some how he ventured to a place where things were very different maybe he got a ride or hitched a train no matter he came to this place and the place was Chicago and he wound up on the south side of Chicago this is where the missing recollection of where Robert Johnson disappeared to came into history but no one can answer the question

    in my research I have found out it was Truly a trip to Chicago not only did Robert see the difference in the culture of his own transplanted peopled but he witnessed a total change in there demeanor, dress and action everything was faster and more defined especially the music and the swing of it

    he began to learn quickly the swagger and collection of being so Kool and clever in the placement of performance and storytelling and creativity of song that when got back to the rural south people were astounded

    and they figured the magic had to come from somewhere and in that time people contributed his master mimicry and amazing talent to transfer what he learned into a spirited description of playing like the devil

    they said when he played he could posses anyone near him with his new found magic in his vocal and guitar abilities.

    This kind of devilry still goes on today especially here in Chicago and I can prove it.

    I am a bluesman I have seen this happen over and over again I have seen people especially foreigners white, Chinese, Japanese, German ect ect ect male and female these people come to Chicago time and time again to see and learn what has already been established as the best blues throughout in the world we teach we train we are the champions

    This is the Mecca we taught the Rolling Stones, Elvis, Eric Clapton, ect ect ect The devil is in the design Robert Johnson was blessed with a gift to be all that he can be enlisting in the services of the Chicago Blues army of trained veterans.

    as evll as the other thing about his death the jealous husband tried to poison him by placing dush powder in his drink he got real sick and started throwing up and howling like a wolf this is an old adage to help overcome a lot of things like being drunk and other ailments he stood up and staggered out the door of the establishment and made a statement I’ll be back Mother Fu**er and I’m bringing the Devil with me You is a dead man the jealous husband was also the owner of the bar he and some others men followed Robert down the road to put an end to his Magic they were on a mission to kill him so grabbed him and began to fight him Robert was strong and he could fight he used his guitar to diminish the men so they tried to stab him with pocket knives they were not so successful Robert ran from the men and got home where he fell down on his bed and was trying to retrieve his pistol the men came into his home and shot him to death this was the end of Robert Johnson he was buried two time once in his the nearby town where was killed but people was so superstitious they mover his body to his home town and buried him there all adding to the mystery and magic of a man who’s talent, lifestyle and legend was attributed to his friendship with the Devil but in reality his gift was gift from God.

    Tre’ Facebook Bluesman Tre
    Robert

  5. Fabrice Ziolkowski says . . .
    July 21, 2015 / 10:55 pm

    I’m so fed up with this proto-Faustian nonsense promoted by white fans. Robert Johnson would have had to be one big fool to make a deal with the Devil in which he died penniless at 27. If anyone has made a deal with the Devil, it’s Mick Jagger who is still prancing around at 73, raking in millions and has led a very “satisfied” existence. When he dies, we know where he’ll end up.

  6. jc vitte says . . .
    July 22, 2015 / 4:44 am

    Robert Johnson listened to the ones who came before him, same as every great player, devised his own style, and became a accomplished entertainer, and a regular in that area. How big a “star” he was in his own time has to be tempered by the era, and the rarity of organized entertainment to his audiences. His exposure to the “rest of the world” came at the same time as the blues genre’ was “exposed”. Apparently, the timing was right for his brand of entertaining, and he used and abused it, like so many before and since. Sadly, as the story goes, he messed with the wrong man’s wife, and that man ended his life. Its a great story, thank you for bringing the history to light by retelling the tale.

  7. gpk says . . .
    July 22, 2015 / 5:42 am

    There is no documented instance of any friend or contemporary of Robert Johnson claiming he sold his soul for his talents. The story exists solely in the writings of white music critics’ speculating about matters they did not research. Gayle Dean Wardlow, one of the major researchers of Delta blues, makes this clear in his book Chasing the Devil’s Music. Themes and symbols of good and evil run through the blues, just as they do through most of literature. A badman image and provocative lyrics were used to create commercial appeal, just as they are today. Johnson was an artist who knew his audience and loved his elders, and his playing clearly shows he loved his guitar. The real evidence of his life shows that the death of his wife in childbirth deeply grieved him, that he showed great determination in pursuing music afterwards, was interested in many kinds of music, women and travel. Someone should make a movie about that man.

  8. Chuck Weiss says . . .
    July 23, 2015 / 2:22 am

    Haha, you nailed it sir!!! Necrophiliacs, shame shame!!! Just some more crackpots re-writing history!!! Curse the millinials !!!!

  9. Chuck Weiss says . . .
    July 23, 2015 / 2:44 am

    People have been trying to make this movie for about fifty years! Good luck!!!! He was a superb artist, one of a kind, but hardly an innovator! He did not invent Rock and Roll! It was there before him and hopefully you will do the research for your next attempt to change history!!!

  10. Dave Dick says . . .
    January 16, 2016 / 9:02 am

    One important fact..of which there are very, very few concerning Robert Johnson…that seems to be missed by all the comments here is that he actually wrote and recorded a song called “Crossroads”..thats where this legend has come from, or at least his part in it.

    If those that played with him say he didnt mention it, then its pretty unlikely he even used it as a sales technique [unlike say Peatie Wheatstraw, who billed himself as “The Devils Son In Law”]..

    So ..all made it by others well after his death…

    I find all these references to “middle class white musicians and reviewers saying such and such ” to be incredibly divisive and backward looking. By this point we should be recognising the genius of his playing and singing, which by a miracle of timing [recording techniques] we can still hear today….he was a remarkable artist …any of you folks ever tried to play and sing like him?…..

  11. Jesse David says . . .
    February 6, 2016 / 11:21 pm

    Wow…you people think you know something don’t you. I too once knew not what is. In today’s age of disbelief the devil has convinced the world that he does not really exist. You are by no means “fools” but merely without experience of what is. Who can speak in authority of what he has not seen? 3 years ago I saw and heard. I said NO. No to what? you think. Unless you experience it you would never ever believe. I would laugh in your face if you told me what I have seen and heard 3 years ago. I do not speak of it…I can not.
    The world scoffs at what they can not understand. I too used to laugh and thought the supernatural was folklore.
    Yay yay yay …I hear your ignorant snickers. I was you…right with you 3 years ago. I certainly do not claim to know ANYTHING of Robert Johnsons story. I have a theory and may be correct but maybe not. If Robert did indeed do this “deal” I believe he realized the scope of his error and tried to backout. “Eternity is a long time” as I heard it. Snoop dog sings a song and the world sings along never ever thinking it could be of any reality. (Snoop)A voice spoke to me saying. (devil) bow down to me I’ll make you better. (Snoop) How long will I live
    (devil) eternal life and forever
    (Snoop) will I be the G that I was
    (devil) I will make you a lot better than can imagine or dreamed of. So close your eyes let me take control. Snoop says My eyes closed.
    But the devil speaks a line to Snoop I believe pertinent to the possible Robert J story. The devil says to Snoop. “When you starts that trippin’ ..that ass is mine”
    We will never know Roberts reality but if true and I KNOW it can be complete and total reality. He cried out to JESUS for mercy and the devil said “Robert.
    .that ass is mine”
    Now of course non believers…as I “was”. Can in NO WAY ever possibly concieve this as reality. I get that. I do not expect you to believe me. I wouldn’t have 3 years ago. But now….well. Let’s just put it this way. If I could tap you on the head with a magic wand and you saw what I saw and heard what I heard. You would drop to your knees in trembling fear and cry to God Almighty. Before Jesus showed up to me the devil paid me no mind. Why? Because before that time he ( devil) owned me. But now…I belong to Jesus. It’s all true folks. You know it’s funny 3 years ago if I read what I just wrote I would have laughed and thought ” what a dumbass” That’s true. But now I am the person I once laughed at. Maybe I will meet Robert J in heaven…who knows. I will be there….
    .will you?
    Oh btw Lil miss voodoo in your comments. …you think you’re some kind of authority on spirits? If you are speaking to spirits NOT in Jesus name. …..you’re a damn fool. I challenge you to this. The next time you speak to spirits say to them ” I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to tell me your name ” and then and ONLY then you will understand the true nature of your foolishness. You will be singing a different tune. Be careful my friend “they” ” spirits” are true tricksters. Again I say 3 years ago I was a damn fool. I have seen with my own eyes what is from above…. and below. Eternity is a long time.
    Be careful folks….it’s all true.

  12. Brad says . . .
    February 24, 2016 / 8:53 pm

    First off.. I am a believer. However, I don’t feel Robert Johnson sold his soul. He was clearly in love with the blues and put himself in and around the blues. Son House particularly. As Son House is quoted saying Robert Johnson couldn’t play anything but awful racket then he vanished for 8 months. When he returned he couldn’t be touched. Now he may very well have sold his soul.. or he could have practiced his tail off or had an in the dark teacher. He was already determined to play the blues and seemed passionate about being the best. People telling him he couldn’t for me was the kick start of his musical desire. I’m sure Johnson just put in the hard work and 8 months is a long time in terms of a person already familiar with the instrument learning to really play. Especially if their mind is right and focused on playing. It wasn’t as if just picked a guitar up that day and the next evening he was playing as well as anyone at that time.

  13. Robert Murray says . . .
    February 29, 2016 / 4:45 am

    The Johnson Myth arose during the British Blues Boom and was generated from the UK where there was at the time a growing interest in the occult, particularly in the self-appointed mystic Aleister Crowley, who held such fascination for Jimmy Page. There was also the tendency of white culture to impose a literary form over myths that passed through oral traditions, hence the application of the Faust story to explain the swift rise to fame of skinny white boys who had the temerity to play the blues (the usual suspects, but especially Led Zep).

    It is also a simplification of what is a complex aspect of black culture through the easy explanation of ‘satanism’. Johnson was a target for this myth-making because of the importance of his music to young white musicians who were all too eager to subscribe to the myth themselves, as they had little information which would disabuse them of this potential slur. Yet if we didn’t have the Johnson Myth, would we have had better music?

  14. Whatever says . . .
    June 24, 2016 / 9:51 pm

    I’m a little taken back how people are bashing the article on technicalities.
    1) voodoo is satanism. Many parts of the world and in different religions every spiritual being is either good and godly or it’s a deception and bad.
    2) Robert was the guy that sold the story not some friends of his. In an interview he did Account he sold his soul to the voodoo religion. That’s not godly administrations right there.
    3) there’s a reason why people like jimmy page, Johnny depp, Bowie, and other famous musicians that have ties to occult doctrines was so fascinated by this man.
    So lighten up on the other he’s stating what’s been said not saying everything is 100% fact.

  15. EVERYONE SELLS THEIR SOUL says . . .
    August 9, 2016 / 10:07 am

    Everyone in music has sold their souls. Katy Perry just came out with the song and video “RISE” obviously talking about Satan and his rise about the Last War that he is going to face Jesus and fight but obviously even he knows he is going to lose! For Satan a soul is like gold and billions of dollars to us… He hates God and anything having to do with God. And God loves us so much that the enemy hates us as people and only seeks to kill steal and destroy. Kardashians, Kanye West, Beyonce, etc these are just the starters… there are so many others like Justin Bieber Taylor Swift. People will do anything for fame and fortune and its sad that people seek the materialistic and things of carnality(of the flesh) that obviously all come to an end and they eventually end up with NONE of it BURNING AND BEING TORMENTED IN HELL. Whilst God will come and save those who seek forgiveness and repent and seek the Lord Jesus and not the things of this Earth. Worldy things and desires are all from the devil. Dont you know that the dollar bill has “In GOD we trust”, ALWAYS thought how can they write that on money and how can these people say they worship God when they sell their souls… HAHA I realized that they mean GOD as in Satan because their GOD is Satan. DONT YOU KNOW THAT SATAN IS THE “GOD” OF THIS WORLD??????? But dont be fooled and dont buy into his lies because the devil is nothing but a liar DUH, he is no GOD and will never be anything like our amazing graceful and loving Heavenly Father God. Okay I’m done …

    GOD BLESS <3

  16. Beata says . . .
    August 9, 2016 / 10:08 am

    YESSSSS GET EM. ITS ALL TRUE . check out my comment by “EVERYONE SELLS THEIR SOUL” !!!! :)

  17. Toad says . . .
    September 27, 2016 / 8:34 pm

    Elijah Wald, quoted in the article, has a comment on his web site that really gets to where the Robert Johnson sound comes from (in the quote, Wald is focused on his vocals, but the same sort of things apply to his guitar playing). Robert Johnson came along rather late in the game for these acoustic Delta blues recordings–many now-legendary musicians had already issued lots of records that were selling well, and Robert Johnson has distinct, obvious elements of many of those people’s sound.

    That doesn’t mean he wasn’t great–he was. But his sound didn’t come from a flash of inspiration out of the blue or the depths of hell, it came from the same place musicians are still getting their sound: listening to records and assimilating what he heard.

    Here’s the quote: “[Son] House was a major influence on both Johnson and Waters, but by the time Johnson recorded he was not trying to sound like House—an older player who had been unsuccessful on records—but rather like Leroy Carr, Casey Bill Weldon, Kokomo Arnold, Lonnie Johnson, and Peetie Wheatstraw, who were the big blues recording stars in the mid-1930s, and whose vocal styles he imitated on most of his records. (For example, the ooh-well-well falsetto yodel he often used was imitated from Wheatstraw and Weldon.)”

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