Where is Satan in our music nowadays? It’s been a while since I’ve seen Lucifer. It’s been a minute since I’ve heard any new songs about Mephistopheles. The Accuser has remained uninvoked.
Bring God back into our schools? I tell you no. I want to bring music back to the days of Robert Johnson.
For those who don’t know, Johnson is generally regarded as King of the Delta Blues Singers. Johnson was a ’30s blues singer and guitarist, whose skill and pioneering in blues guitar went on to influence blues rock legends like Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Brian Jones, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, and Bob Dylan. Johnson is likely one of the greatest guitarists of all time. He could play guitar in any style that existed at the time. He used his guitar ability to literally revolutionize blues as an entire genre. He could learn the guitar parts of any song he heard by ear and replay it after only a few listens. He also was one of the first people to use his voice microtonally. He sang in and out of regular pitch, adding a dimensionality and mournful emotion to his songs. He also used his guitar as another voice in a solo song, in much the same way that B.B. King would later use his guitar, Lucille. In between sung verses, Johnson would play the guitar in such a way as to almost sing back to himself with musical notes.
But Johnson is also famous for something else. When he first started gigging at bars and clubs, and playing on street corners, he was considered to be pretty horrible at the guitar. After failing to improve in any meaningful way, Johnson disappeared. Six months later, he returned as one of the best guitarists to have ever existed. While some attribute this increase in skill to his intensive study with a guitar player in Arkansas, most people believe that Johnson got this skill in a more supernatural and Faustian way. Johnson is one of the most famous musicians rumored to have made a deal with the Devil. In this account, Johnson sold his soul to the Father of Lies at a Mississippi crossroads to be the best at blues guitar. A few years later, Johnson died, at age 27. This comet-like rise and fall of talent, coupled with an early death, only served to contribute to the superstition.
In my opinion, it doesn’t really matter if Johnson struck a deal with Old Scratch or if “making a deal with the devil” was really just another way of saying that Johnson was a ramblin’ man. I love the artist because he is a great musician and because I like to listen to his songs. But what I think is important and interesting is the idea behind him. I can’t name any musician alive today who is rumoured to have traded their eternal soul to The Evil One for musical talent. I think that this means modern music is missing a certain degree of mysticism and obscuring fog.
Even 40 years ago, and about 40 years after Johnson, The Beatles played up the idea that Paul McCartney had died in 1966 and was replaced by a lookalike. This is a really cool idea for fans of the band to toy with. There’s the supposed death of Avril Lavigne to consider, but I can’t tell if fans are being ironic or not with that one.
The closest thing I can think of is the urban legend about Marilyn Manson’s rib, which isn’t really the same thing.
We don’t have to believe it, but if I asked John Mayer how he got so good at guitar, and he told me that the Son of Perdition tuned his guitar, imbuing him with musical powers, that would be pretty neat. But, so far, that hasn’t happened.
Until then, I’ll stick with Johnson’s soul-pact at a 1930s Mississippi crossroads with a tall dark stranger to play the blues.
Featured Image by Columbia Records