Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38, N.K.J.V.)
The story of Robert Johnson is certified legend among fans of the music known as “the blues.” What makes the story so tantalizing? Oh, it might have something to do with the theory that Johnson literally sold his soul to the devil in exchange for becoming the greatest blues guitarist in the world.
Johnson was born in Hazleton, Mississippi, in 1911. Many of the details of his early years are sketchy, but it is believed that he received his schooling in Memphis, Tennessee. He married a sixteen-year-old named Virginia Travis in 1929 and fathered a child through her, but both child and mother died during the attempted childbirth. Virginia’s family believed that the deaths were God’s punishment upon Johnson for the fact that he was already beginning to play secular music, blues music, in the “juke joints” that dotted the south.
By all accounts, Johnson started out with little or no talent for the guitar. He frequently tagged along with Son House and Willie Brown, two of the most famous blues players of the time, but it was obvious that Johnson wasn’t in their league musically. In interviews later given by House, he said that absolutely no one wanted to hear the young Johnson play the guitar.
House also admitted, though, that at one point Johnson disappeared for about a year and a half, and when he rejoined House and Brown he was a completely different player. In the span of a little over a year, Johnson had gone from being a terrible guitar player to playing the instrument better than anyone else could. The mystery surrounding Johnson, how he had gotten so good so fast, gave rise to the suspicion that the supernatural must have been involved. From there came the infamous story of how Johnson had gone out to a certain crossroad, had met Satan there, and had sold his soul to Satan in exchange for Satan granting him the talent to become the best guitar player of them all.
Johnson, for his part, seemed to relish all the intrigue surrounding him and did nothing to downplay the story. He spent his life on the road, moving from one city to the next, playing here, there, and everywhere. He never married again, but there were women, lots of them, and he loved to drink and have a good time. In all, he wrote and recorded 29 songs of his own, most of them featuring lyrics that were thematically dark, but he would play and sing anything that people wanted to hear. His habit was to hit town for a few weeks, stay with a local woman, make some money playing the local sites, and then move on. The road was his only true home. He was even known to frequently travel and play under different names.
Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the young age of 27. That made him one of the earliest members of the so-called “27 Club,” a group which includes all the musicians who died at the age of 27: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, etc. Eyewitness accounts have long asserted that Johnson died from drinking whiskey that was poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman with whom Johnson had been flirting. That story, like so much of Johnson’s life, is somewhat disputed and impossible to completely verify, but for the most part it is accepted as part of his eerie legacy. Even more than that, the story seems like an appropriate ending for a man who had supposedly sold his soul to the devil.
Despite the fact that Johnson was considered the best guitarist and blues man of his time, his death was not widely reported. That omission played a role in his genius not being recognized nationally until several decades later. It wasn’t until 1961, when Columbia Records compiled sixteen of his recordings into the album King of the Delta Blues Singers, that Johnson began to receive his due as the blues great that he was. Rock stars such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, and Bob Dylan were influenced by his music, and he has since been consistently ranked by various polls as one of the top ten greatest guitarists of all time. Clapton reworked Johnson’s song Cross Road Blues, which played off the idea of Johnson going down to a crossroad, into his classic song Crossroads. Also, in 1986, Ralph Macchio starred in the move Crossroads, which told the fictional story of how fellow blues man Willie Brown followed Johnson’s example in selling his soul to the devil for musical talent, but then tried to get out of the deal when he came to the end of his life.
Still, all this brings us back to the fundamental question: Can a man actually sell his soul to the devil in exchange for the granting of a request? The closest thing to such a story in the Bible is Satan tempting Jesus by showing Him the kingdoms of the world and saying, “All these things I will give you if you will fall down and worship me.” Admittedly, that story does smack of a crossroads type of transaction, doesn’t it? Jesus rejected Satan’s offer, of course, but have there been others throughout history who have accepted the offer to lesser degrees? That certainly makes for a fascinating possibility.
As for me, I doubt that Robert Johnson became a genius guitarist by selling his eternal soul to Satan. I favor the explanation that he learned his craft from another recognized genius, a blues player named Ike Zimmerman, during practice sessions that he and Zimmerman were known to have in (of all places) graveyards. What does seem obvious to me is that Johnson wanted success enough to make practicing, playing, and performing his god, and turning any endeavor into a god to which you devote all your time, energy, and passion can propel you to great heights of success in that field.
In this way, there are all kinds of Robert Johnsons out there right now. I’m talking about people who have in a figurative sense sold their souls to become successful. Whatever success they find must come at the expense of God’s will for their lives, and for all intents and purposes they are little more than rank idolaters who do Satan’s bidding rather than God’s. That bidding might not be playing the guitar, singing the blues, chasing women, and drinking whiskey, but missing God’s will is missing God’s will regardless of what the specific details of the miss happen to be.
Whatever else we might say about Robert Johnson, what isn’t in dispute is that he didn’t live his life for God. He didn’t have to sell his soul to the devil to be lost; he was lost without Jesus Christ anyway. And as for his enduring legacy, well, influencing other musicians to follow you in your non-Christian music and ungodly lifestyle isn’t exactly something that is going to lessen your eternal punishment. If that sounds unnecessarily harsh, I don’t mean it that way. I’m simply trying to keep things in proper perspective here.
At the bottom line, once we get past the stylized, glamorized take on Johnson’s life, we aren’t left with anything that is desirable. He lived hard, spent his nights in unholy establishments entertaining unholy people, and died young. If he did sell his soul to Satan, Satan definitely got the better and longer lasting end of the bargain. Perhaps the best thing we can pull from Johnson’s life is the lesson that worldly success, apart from God and His will, can never be true success. As Jesus said in another passage, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” That’s a question that can be put to anyone who is making an idol out of working fanatically for success in any given field. And no crossroad or pact with the devil is required to erect such an idol.