The devil has been seen through many forms in popular music throughout history from the voodoo drums of the African slaves to modern artists marketing ploys. The term popular music is particularly ambiguous, so to define, in this piece it shall refer to dominant pieces or performers within the last 100 years.
Many composers and artists have been branded by religious organisations as being in league with the devil, from the banning of songs, performers and even chords and movements by the church to the present day right wing Christian ‘preachers’ of YouTube.
The devil, in this context, comes in many guises; Lucifer or Satan as in the Judeo Christian texts or anything demonic or unwholesome/ unholy. It can also be seen as a racial slur against the white population during the 20th century. This can reveal itself within music through lyrics; vocal sounds/ tone and harmonies the rhythm or melody of songs. Other manifestations in modern music include videos, marketing, iconography within the heavy metal genre and back masking.
This report will focus on the Faustian mythology surrounding the life and works of Robert Johnson who purportedly sold his soul to the devil. Despite very little being known about Robert Johnson it is his music in tandem with the lore of his life that creates the foundations of the devil in popular music.
Although it is uncertain exactly when Robert Johnson was born, like a fictional character, details on Robert Johnson are sparse, his year of birth is placed sometime between 1910 and 1913. His death is attributed (dependant on source) to anything from pneumonia, poison by a disgruntled husband and stabbing. Those how know him spoke about his love of ‘whiskey and women’, both ungodly pursuits.
During his life he recorded just 29 pieces. According to Paul Oliver in the ‘story of the Blues’ “Johnson was a mediocre guitar player” who disappeared for a year to return as “the king of delta blues” singer; which was a title of an album recorded by Johnson released in 1961.
According to folklore Johnson had a desire to become a ’bluesman’, though received poor crowd response after playing the breaks of Son House gigs where his music was often described as being just noise. Legend has it that Johnson took his guitar to a crossroads where he was met by a large black man; the devil. At the crossroads stands a monument displaying 3 guitars as a tribute to the unity between music and the devil.
At this crossroads Johnson was said to have handed the devil his guitar who then tuned it and played briefly on it. Once handed back the guitar Johnson had mastery of the instrument, but had relinquished his soul to the devil.
ME AND THE DEVIL BLUES
Early this morning
When you knocked upon my door
Early this morning, oooo
When you knocked upon my door
And I said hello Satan
I believe it's time to go
Me and the Devil
Was walkin' side by side
Me and the Devil, woooo
Was walking side by side
And I'm going to beat my woman
'Til I get satisfied