Hey, y’all, and welcome to the Friday edition of Southern Macabre! I’m Aeryn and I’m so glad that you could join me today. Are y’all looking forward to the weekend? Tell me on Twitter what your plans are. I’m going to spend a lot of time with my family, pets, and working on Saturday.
So, it’s currently 10:58PM on Thursday the 28th and my goal is to upload this episode in about ten hours. I got the idea for this story from Sam and Dean Winchester (you get cool points if you know who they are). I researched it back then and found out there may have been some truth to it so let’s get into today’s story.
Music has always been an important part of southern culture, whether it’s blues, gospel, bluegrass, country, rock, and even rap. The Blues Trail cuts across Mississippi, Nashville is the home of Country, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama is home to the world-famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. It opened in 1969 and saw singers like Aretha Franklin, Cher, and Lynyrd Skynyrd recording albums there.
A state over and many years before, there was a man named Robert Johnson. If you drive to the spot where 49 and 61 meet in Clarksdale, Mississippi you’ll see an odd sight. Three blue guitars going around the top of the sign, just below the numbers. Why?
Legend says that one night, Robert Johnson was walking through Clarksdale when a stranger offered to tune his guitar. He accepted the kind offer and made a deal at the crossroads with him not realizing it was the devil. He became the best Blues player of his day and maybe ever.
Now you may be wondering who he was, but I bet more than anything you want to know if the legend could be true. Well, let’s dig around a little bit.
Robert Johnson was born on May 8, 1911, so after slavery and during segregation, to Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson. He learned to play the harmonica and jaw harp while he went to school in Memphis, Tennessee. I linked a video on the website in case you’re like me and don’t have any idea what a jaw harp is.
He married Virginia Travis, a sixteen-year-old girl, in February 1929. Sadly, she died in childbirth a short-time later. He never married again, but he did have two children with women he never married, something that was frowned upon in the 20s and 30s. He also stayed with women and used eight surnames when he traveled from town to town playing the Blues.
He recorded 29 songs between 1936 and 1937, some of which you can find on YouTube and music streaming services. This would mean if he did make a deal with the devil, it was likely before this time period considering the names of some of his songs. What are those names, you ask?
His songs included “Cross Road Blues”, “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)”, and “Hellhound on my Trail”. The “Cross Road Blues” talks about falling on his knees at the crossroads seeking salvation, but it doesn’t sound like he found it. He says he’s watching the sun going down and he’s running. Typically, the sun going down means he’s going to die. If he was saved and going to die then he wouldn’t have a reason to run away.
Now, “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” is a bit harder to discern, surprisingly. You have to listen to the end where he’s singing that the blues is like consumption, tuberculosis for y’all who don’t know, and it’s killing him.
Last, we have “Hellhound on my Trail”. You may be wondering what a hellhound is. It’s a small human-sized, black dog with glowing red eyes who drags people to hell. In Season 2 Episode 8 of Supernatural you can see a hellhound taking Robert Johnson to hell after he made his deal at the crossroads.
So, when and how did Robert die? On August 16, 1938 not far from Greenwood, Mississippi. There wasn’t an autopsy done, but there were firsthand accounts of what he looked like upon his death. He died after two days of severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and bleeding from his mouth. Some said it was syphilis, which he may have had if the rumors are true about him running around with many, many, many women. Another theory was that he flirted with a married woman and her angry, jealous husband poisoned him.
That doesn’t sound like hellhounds to me, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t get him when he died, if they are real.
So, is any part of this story true? Yes. Which parts? Well, that’s going to depend on your beliefs. Since this is a southern story and I’m a southern gal I’ll tell you what I believe happened.
Reading through the Bible there aren’t any accounts of the devil making deals with mankind. He deceived Eve in the garden of Eden, but he was the only one receiving any benefit from that transaction. He didn’t give Eve something in exchange for her eating that apple.
In my opinion, Robert was born and he lived his life. If he never believed in Jesus then he went to hell. This is because of Eve eating the apple, not because he made a new deal with the devil. That would be like someone having the title to a brand-new truck and signing a contract with you stating they get the truck they already own. No one is going to do that!
If his instrument playing improved it’s because he practiced or he sought someone out who was better than him. Then that person taught him what they knew. That’s how anyone gets better at a skill, they practice and they learn. No devil required.
The story of Robert Johnson selling his soul may be a modernization of the German legend Faust. Johann Georg Faust lived from 1480 to 1540 and was very successful, but very miserable. This is where truth ends and legend begins. The devil sends his representative, Mephistopheles, to talk to Faust and make a deal with him. Early stories say he was irrevocably damned and carried to hell by the devil himself.
Later stories told of a beautiful young woman who died and pleaded on his behalf while he constantly strives to “be good”. At the end of his life, he is welcomed into heaven.
You can see a short scene from the Faust play in Tombstone. I put a link to the clip on the website in case you want to see it. I thought it was pretty funny, but Tombstone is one of my favorite movies.
That’s going to do it for today. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. If you did, be sure to follow so you never miss an episode and leave a review on Apple or Goodpods. Y’all are awesome and I appreciate each and every one of you. I hope y’all have a great weekend and don’t make any deals with the devil. I’ll talk to y’all again next week. God bless, y’all!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yd60nI4sa9A – “Cross Roads Blues” by Robert Johnson
https://youtu.be/eeoieuHIOXM – Clip from Season 2 Episode 8 of Supernatural about Robert Johnson
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ewn7DSiH1uY – Faust scene in Tombstone. Fast forward to 1:25 if you want to see the part I referenced.