Did Robert Johnson sell his soul to the Devil?

Some questions are purely theological: Can one actually barter one’s soul to the Devil for guitar lessons? If so, do the infernal exchange rates fluctuate? Can Joe Satriani ask for a refund? So when we consider the story of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), the legendary bluesman, it’s more useful to ask whether Johnson believed he made such a deal, or whether he wanted other people to think he had. You won’t find much evidence of a supernatural bargain in his music. Although Johnson recorded a few songs with Satanic references–including the memorable, atypical “Hellhound on My Trail”–other contemporary blues singers, such as Bessie Smith, sang many more such numbers without people concluding they had met Satan at the metaphysical swap meet.

Scholars have recently pinpointed the origin of the myth, which started decades after Johnson’s death. In a 1965 interview, blues guitarist Son House, told the story of how he knew Johnson when he was a good harmonica player but a terrible guitarist; between House’s sets at juke joints, Johnson would borrow House’s guitar and “drive the people nuts.” The next time House saw Johnson, he was much better; as House told the story, the improvement took only six months, although later research has revealed it had to be at least two or three times as long.

When House’s tale was reprinted a year later, a postscript (probably inaccurate) had been appended, quoting House as saying Johnson made a deal with the Devil. From there, the tale kept getting “improved,” until the Faustian bargain became an indelible part of Johnson’s image. But the people who actually knew Johnson in the ’30s, such as his frequent traveling companion Johnny Shines, scoffed at the notion that Johnson had sold his soul, or even suggested he had. “He never told me that lie, no,” Shines said. “If he would have, I’d have called him a liar right to his face.”

(Excerpted from the 2006 book Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton’s Little John?: Music’s Most Enduring Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed, published by Three Rivers Press, written by Gavin Edwards.)