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American Folklore: The Devil Went Down to… Mississippi? A Bluesy Legend

written by: Sarah Degnan Moje • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 8/31/2014

Did Robert Johnson really sell his soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent? Read the legend and then decide what you think!

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    589px-ClarksdaleMS Crossroads It is evident in our literary and media culture that the idea of selling one’s soul to the devil is a commonly used storyline. Take a look at "Young Goodman Brown" or “The Devil and Tom Walker" for classic early American literature examples of this Faustian theme in America. Tune in to a re-run of “The Devil’s Advocate" or even the short-lived “666 Park Avenue" to see this theme play out on television today.

    And what of music? Many influential writers have written songs referencing the devil, perhaps most notably that Rolling Stones hit “Sympathy for the Devil." However, many of your young scholars may not have heard of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, whose mysterious life and untimely death been deemed a “real" case of selling one’s soul in American folklore.

    The Origin of the Tale

    Robert Johnson, often considered the grandfather of rock and roll, only recorded 29 songs before his early death. Six of those songs centered around deals or pacts with the devil. Johnson used to practice his music while sitting on gravestones in a country church and this may be how his reputation for selling his soul began. No doubt about it; he played well, almost too well in the eyes of some musicians, which led them to claim that Johnson had conspired with the devil, signing away his soul for musical talent.

    This rumor was further fueled when Johnson died at a young age, directly after a nightclub performance. While the cause of death was listed as poison, he was poisoned by the husband of a woman he had been seeing. Many claimed that it was indeed the devil who slipped him the mickey, as it were, and came to take his soul away to hell. One cannot listen to Johnson’s haunting and hell-hounded music without wondering, in the back of the mind, if the legend could possibly be true.

    So, as yourself, and your students, what do they believe? Download the PowerPoint here and have fun discussing this legend with your class.

References

  • This is a photo of "The Crossroads," where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil. The intersection of U.S. Routes 61 and 49, at Clarksdale, Mississippi. Originally posted to Flickr by JMazzolaa at http://flickr.com/photos/35017512@N05/3754056188