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Why Has The Devil Got All The Best Tunes?

October 26, 2016

Nestled on a small wooden stand that is parching in the searing Southern sun, the three guitars strung on to the telegraph pole at the intersection of highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, are like antenna ready to pick up any errant vibrations. These may be the crackly frequencies of a passing car radio or the sighs and screams of the underworld, for the instruments stand at “The Crossroads”, the place where blues legend Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.

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It is one of the greatest of urban myths, a staple of African-American culture and the music industry that has endured since first coming to light in the early 20th century, to the extent that the unholy pact remains a defining feature of Johnson’s biography. It is said that Lucifer took Johnson’s guitar, tuned it in ways not known to mortal, or at least god-fearing man, sang several choruses and duly returned the diabolical axe to the awestruck apostate. From that point on Johnson acquired supernatural – miraculous may be the wrong word given the sacrilege of the story – powers as a musician. Destined to die at the shockingly young age of 27 Johnson nonetheless is the most iconic exponent of the blues, and the fine body of work he has left behind contains a number of songs that live on from beyond his grave.

All of the romantic yearning of Kind Hearted Woman Blues, the simmering sexuality of Come On In My Kitchen and the unabashed hedonism of Drunken Man Blues, songs that were all recorded by the Mississippian between 1936 and 1937, provided the quintessential templates for both lyric writers and composers who understood that black American folk culture had an intellectual and emotional charge that can move people anywhere in the world. The blues is a specific musical language and outlook on life with universal ramifications.

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Which is perhaps the reason why the Johnson ‘crossroads’ myth has exerted such a powerful hold on popular consciousness for so long.

It is basically Faust with a funkier groove, an adaptation of the biblical admonition that it does not profit a man to sell his soul for the whole world. Hence the idea of an itinerant player such as Johnson, a man who seldom enjoyed security and stability in his life, seeking the ultimate prize in music – the ability to play licks beyond the reach of others because they have come from the hand of he who is not like others, Satan – can’t fail to strike a chord with anybody who embraces the concept of good and evil in an imaginative if not surreal way.

Johnson classics such as Hellhound On My Trail bespeak persecution that is rooted in natural imagery, namely the sight of ‘the blues fallin’ down like hail.’ Yet it is logical to ascribe this very eerie scene to divine intervention, a fatalistic sign sent from heaven, when one considers the ubiquity of both god and the devil. There is no hiding from either one.

Fittingly, Johnson the travelin’ man is unable to escape from the emissary of evil. He is mercilessly tracked by the hellhound, which has a bitter resonance for African-Americans terrorized by the devil dogs of slave drivers and subsequently the police intent on breaking up peaceful demonstrations during the push for Civil Rights in the ‘50s.
Gospel music was of paramount importance at that crucial juncture in the history of black America, and its relationship with the blues was complex, the two forms representing light and dark, righteous and sinful, sacred and profane. They were also like two sides of the same coin. They were bound by depth of feeling, intensity and ecstasy.

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(image credit: Joe Mazolla)

Beautiful melodies from the black church were being recast into the secular world to create love songs of enormous sensuality, if not desire, so that the praise of My Lord could reveal the love of My Babe.

More pertinently, the devil and the world that birthed him appeared increasingly relevant to a society tarnished by man’s inhumanity to man. In the early ‘70s Curtis Mayfield, one of the greatest of all soul singers whose roots in gospel ran deep, sang ‘If there’s a hell below, we’re all gonna go’, adding another layer of meaning to the Johnson myth by acknowledging that forked tongues are not only lurking at a Mississippi crossroads under cover of the night. ‘Sisters, niggers, whities, jews, crackers’ don’t worry: the double–talking devil is in low and high level corruption, exploitation, discrimination, and above all in the grand institutions, be it the schoolroom, the police station or the White House, that are supposed to take a stand against these vices.

However, the devil is a sexy beast. Everybody likes the sweet taste of sin. Temptation exists to test sanctity. Call him the bad boy, rebel or outcast, but the prince of darkness, whether it is Dracula, Petey Wheatstraw or Kysor Sozhe, is a five star seducer-charmer to whom weak flesh is drawn like a moth to a flame. How could evil not play a part in popular music, given the wealth of dramatic imagery it freights?

Many of the great blues and R&B stars, who drew on Johnson’s legacy, from Howlin’ Wolf, barking at the moon, to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, creeping out of his coffin so that he can put a spell on you, play upon this in no uncertain terms. Funk and heavy metal did the same – think of Iron Maiden raging on about 666 – and latter day hip-hop and soul music of a more provocative nature follow suit. It makes perfect sense for D’Angelo, the gifted son of a preacher man, to sing Devil’s Pie because the world is so wildly obsessed with material gain at the
expense of the weak and vulnerable, or the naïve and vain, and as Curtis Mayfield would say, that’s you and yours, black or white.

Nothing seems more appropriate in an age of Pop Idolatry, where thousands of souls are willingly put up for ritual televised mortgage.

Every religion has a story of genesis, and if the blues is a belief system that has sustained people for over a century it has to have a creation myth. Robert Johnson at the crossroads is thus a tale worth telling, and a song worth singing. As they say, the devil got the best tunes.

By Kevin Le Gendre author of Soul Unsung: Reflections On The Band In Black Popular Music [Equinox]

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