Early this mornin’, when you knocked upon my door
Early this mornin’, ooh, when you knocked upon my door
And I said, “Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go”
Me and the devil, was walkin’ side by side
Me and the devil, ooh, was walkin’ side by side
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman, until I get satisfied
She say you don’t see why, that you will dog me ’round
(spoken: Now, babe, you know you ain’t doin’ me right, don’cha)
She say you don’t see why, ooh, that you will dog me ’round
It must-a be that old evil spirit, so deep down in the ground
You may bury my body, down by the highway side
(spoken: Baby, I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone)
You may bury my body, ooh, down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit, can catch a Greyhound bus and ride
According to a legend known to modern blues fans, Robert Johnson was a young black man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi. Branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician, he was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. After tuning the guitar, the Devil played a few songs and then returned it to Johnson, giving him mastery of the guitar. This was, in effect, a deal with the Devil; in exchange Robert Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous.
This legend was developed over time, and has been chronicled by Gayle Dean Wardlow, Edward Komara and Elijah Wald, though Wald sees the legend as largely dating from Johnson’s rediscovery by white fans more than two decades after his death.
Folk tales of bargains with the Devil have long existed in African American and European traditions, and were adapted into literature by, amongst others, Washington Irving in “The Devil and Tom Walker” in 1824, and by Stephen Vincent Benet in “The Devil and Daniel Webster” in 1936. In the 1930s the folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt recorded many tales of banjo players, fiddlers, card sharks, and dice sharks selling their souls at crossroads, along with guitarists and one accordionist.
The folklorist Alan Lomax considered that every African American secular musician was “in the opinion of both himself and his peers, a child of the Devil, a consequence of the black view of the European dance embrace as sinful in the extreme”.
Johnson seems to have claimed occasionally that he had sold his soul to the Devil, but it is not clear that he meant it seriously. However, these claims are strongly disputed in Tom Graves’ biography of Johnson, Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, published in 2008. Son House once told the story to Pete Welding as an explanation of Johnson’s astonishingly rapid mastery of the guitar. Welding reported it as a serious belief in a widely read article in Down Beat in 1966. However, other interviewers failed to elicit any confirmation from House. Moreover, there were fully two years between House’s observation of Robert as first a novice and then a master.
Further details were absorbed from the imaginative retellings by Greil Marcus and Robert Palmer. Most significantly, the detail was added that Johnson received his gift from a large black man at a crossroads. There is dispute as to how and when the crossroads detail was attached to the Robert Johnson story. All the published evidence, including a full chapter on the subject in the biography Crossroads by Tom Graves, suggests an origin in the story of Tommy Johnson. This story was collected from his musical associate Ishman Bracey and his elder brother Ledell in the 1960s. One version of Ledell Johnson’s account was published in 1971 David Evans‘s biography of Tommy, and was repeated in print in 1982 alongside Son House’s story in the widely read Searching for Robert Johnson.
In another version, Ledell placed the meeting not at a crossroads but in a graveyard. This resembles the story told to Steve LaVere that Ike Zinnerman of Hazelhurst, Mississippi learned to play the guitar at midnight while sitting on tombstones. Zinnerman is believed to have influenced the playing of the young Robert Johnson.
Recent research by blues scholar Bruce Conforth uncovered Ike Zinnerman’s daughter and the story becomes much clearer, including the fact that Johnson and Zinnerman did, in fact, practice in a graveyard at night (because it was quiet and no one would disturb them) but that it was not the Hazlehurst cemetery as had been believed. Johnson spent about a year living with, and learning from, Zinnerman, who ultimately accompanied Johnson back up to the Delta to look after him. Conforth’s article in Living Blues magazine goes into much greater detail.
The crossroads detail was widely believed to come from Johnson himself, probably because it appeared to explain the discrepancy in “Cross Road Blues“. Johnson’s high emotion and religious fervor are hard to explain as resulting from the mundane situation described, unsuccessful hitchhiking as night falls. The crossroads myth offers a simple literal explanation for both the religion and the anguish.
There are now tourist attractions claiming to be “The Crossroads” at Clarksdale and in Memphis. The film O Brother Where Art Thou? by the Coen Brothers incorporates the crossroads legend and a young African American blues guitarist named “Tommy Johnson”, with no other biographical similarity to the real Tommy Johnson or to Robert Johnson. In the CW TV series Supernatural, the season two episode “Crossroad Blues” was based on the legend.
Blues musician and historian Elijah Wald generally sees the Devil legend as applied to Johnson as overblown. “It is common for white scholars to remark on the dark passions and superstitious terrors expressed in lines that in a juke joint would have produced laughter,” he writes. While agreeing with other critics about the “tortured poetry” of “Hellhound on My Trail“, he sees, for example, “Me and the Devil Blues” as an entirely other matter, ”working within a well-established tradition of blues Devil songs, full of “tongue-in-cheek braggadocio
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