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Let Me Make You A Deal: The Legend of Robert Johnson

 

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True story: I have kicked someone out of my home for not knowing who Robert Johnson is. It happened on a warm summer evening. I had made a cheesecake from scratch and had been listening to Johnson whilst baking. I remarked to my friend about how Johnson is the perfect lazy summer day baking music, and how, on top of it, her comment about wanting to sell her soul for another slice was appropriate. Her response was to scrunch her nose and ask, “Robert Who?” I told her to get the fuck out of my house and not come back until she listened to some of his songs. She came back later knowing her shit. If nothing else, my place is educational.

Robert Johnson is less of a man and more of a legend. For those of you unfamiliar, he’s a blues man that was born in 1911, and in 1938 he became part of the 27 Club. He died under uncertain circumstances (though it’s rumored that syphilis got him in the end), which just adds to the bonkers legend. What legend? Oh, let me tell you. It’s priceless.

Johnson was born and raised in Mississippi. Young Robert wanted to be a blues musician, and not just any blues musician: he wanted to be the best. What’s an impoverished young black man to do in the deep South of the good ol’ U.S. of A.? Broker a deal with the devil, of course. The legend goes that he met a dark man at a crossroads at midnight and handed over his guitar. The dark man tuned Johnson’s guitar and played a few songs before giving it back. From that point forward, Johnson’s soul belonged to the Devil, and mastery of not just the guitar, but the blues itself, belonged to Johnson.

And mastery Johnson had. Johnson’s catalogue consists of 29 songs, but hot holy damn are these 29 of the best blues songs you’ve ever heard. There’s a good reason why “Sweet Home Chicago,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and “Hell Hound On My Trail” consistently rank as some of the best blues out there – they are incredible. It’s a perfect storm that Johnson crafts with his work, of voice, guitar and, most importantly, emotion. You see, Johnson didn’t have an easy lot. He had a family life that was constantly in flux as a kid. He grew up poor, in the deep South, on a plantation, in a world where the color of his skin meant that he was rather limited in his opportunities. He wasn’t the best musician when he started out; by all accounts, he was quite mediocre until that fateful meeting at the crossroads. There’s an old adage that you have to really get heartbreak in order to properly play the blues, and Johnson was an apt translator of pain into beautiful music. While listening to his work you can feel the loneliness of an ever-changing scenery, without a place to truly call home. The crushing solitude and the sorrowful guitar combine to create a powerful picture of a soiled life in a beautiful world. There’s a constant yearning for connection, and deep down, this is the blues. This is something we all feel. Deep down, we all want to find something that’s like us, that’s just as lonely, ever-reaching and hopeful that we can connect with others by sharing our own pain.

In fact, it’s a variation of the Devil that some argue that really drives this theme home. According to some scholars, there’s thought that Johnson did not in fact encounter the Judeo-Christian Devil, but the Haitian god Papa Legba. Now Papa Legba is a trickster, so he’s not exactly known for doing things out of the kindness of his being; there’s always something in it for him. However, Papa Legba is associated with three things crucial to the story: crossroads, the ability to get any woman you want, and the ability to speak all languages in existence. Johnson met this being at a crossroads, and was reportedly a ladies’ man; most importantly, though, was the fact that Johnson was able to harness the expression of human pain. In his loneliness and wandering, Johnson was able to thread together his own pain and suffering to construct something meaningful that continues to unify people from all walks of life. We all get blues music if we’ve lived through tough things. It’s achingly human, and Johnson has the power to transcend geography to become something common. He expresses that which we cannot speak at times and unites us. His isolation brings us together to converge over something beautiful.

This is where Johnson’s music makes for an interesting parallel to the horror genre. Devil legend aside, you have to admit that the horror community connects like no other. We’re a great bunch – there’s rallying when something new comes out, and extreme excitement to find another horror fan. From comments sections to Facebook groups to fan pages, there’s a need to connect. We get excited when something cool comes out, and we moan and wail when something goes terribly wrong in our genre. We get each other, from the love of carnage to the deeper meanings to the hatred of certain directors. It may not seem like the likeliest of genres to make best friends, but it happens every day. And thus we build something lovely out of an unexpected source that is unsavory to some. It’s the beauty in the mess. It’s us.

Just like that, it doesn’t matter if something is legend or fact. It’s something we make, something that chains us together. For all eternity, contractually bound and sold.

 

About Erin Miskell

Erin Miskell writes about movies and passes for normal in Upstate New York. An avid fan of inappropriate humor and schlock horror, you can find her rambling at www.thebackseatdriverreviews.com and @bsdriverreview on Twitter.

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