Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Robert Johnson and the Devil

Robert Johnson’s diabolism is a significant part of his image. Some admirers are fascinated with the story that attributes his genius to a Faustian deal with the devil; others fancy traces of the Yoruba trickster Legba. Such enthusiasts should be given pause by the fact that Johnson’s records were not major hits, and, in his own lifetime, he was an all-but-unknown artist nationally. An aetiological myth explaining his preternatural skills would make no sense at a time when he appeared indistinguishable from a mass of other singers. Though some Delta informants including Son House volunteered to support the story, it never appeared until the Folk Renaissance of the early 60s and Johnson’s subsequent recognition as the paramount bluesman by hip young whites who considered themselves outsiders or outlaws. In this way they are similar to bikers and heavy metal fans who likewise enjoy flirting with satanism primarily in order to annoy others and express disaffection. I do realize that Southern black (and white) culture considers secular and church music to be sharply opposed, and the blues artist is unlikely to be a good Christian church-goer.

Still, the definitive answer about the relevance of the story to Johnson’s oeuvre must emerge from the texts. A study of his lyrics indicates no diabolism, only a very conventional, even cautious, use of the Christian devil to serve his lyric ends.
The central text cited as evidence for Johnson’s deal with the devil is “Crossroad Blues,” yet the song itself simply describes his failing to hitch a ride. Some commentators have linked his rejection by the passing drivers (“didn’t nobody seem to know me”) and anxiety about dark descending with the threat of racist violence, but in the song it simply sets the emotional tone for the singer’s frustration in love. “I haven’t got no lovin’ sweet woman that/ love and feel my care.” His loneliness is only rendered more concrete and poignant by his message to a male friend saying that he is “sinking down.” Far from seeking to deal with satanic powers, the singer “fell down on [his] knees” to pray in ordinary Christian supplication and need.

Though it has received less attention in this connection, “Me and the Devil Blues” is more suggestive. In this song the devil appears at the singer’s door and they go walking together when these startling lines appear:

I'm going to beat my woman
‘Til I get satisfied

His excuse for this vicious threat is that she has been “dogging” him, not “doin’ me right.” Both he and his lover seem possessed by that old evil spirit/ So deep down in the ground.” Their mésalliance seems destined to continue: the singer imagines his lover taking care of his funeral arrangement. Only then can he indulge in a dream of liberation when his “old evil” spirit can “get on a Greyhound bus and ride.”

In this song, the most explicit about the singer’s companionship with the devil, the association seems to relate to the tangle of their relationship rather than to any bargain for blues mastery.

Hellhounds are known from a great many cultures, both in myth and in folklore. Most commonly the devil-dog is an omen of death, though similar terms are used in African-American religious rhetoric as emblems of temptation. In Johnson’s “Hell Hound On My Trail” they simply embody his suffering. The song opens with a defensive lament:

I got to keep movin’, I've got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin' down like hail.

This suffering plaint is then repeated in different language.

And the days keeps on worryin' me,
there's a hellhound on my trail,

Here the hellhound is clearly not moral temptation, but simply the pains and difficulties of life. The singer imagine respite from his woes.

If today was Christmas eve
If today was Christmas eve,
and tomorrow was Christmas day

If today was Christmas eve,
and tomorrow was Christmas day
(spoken: Aow, wouldn't we have a time, baby?)
All I would need my little sweet rider just,
to pass the time away, huh huh, to pass the time away

This idyll is broken however by the beloved’s betrayal. She is practicing hoodoo rituals, “hot foot powder,” generally used to rid oneself of an unwanted individual, against the singer. This persecution leaves him with a “ramblin’ mind.”

The song concludes with a lovely lyric stanza reminiscent of troubadour conventions. The “wind risin’” and the “leaves tremblin’ on the tree” signify the vitality of nature which fits uneasily against the singer’s anxious uncertainty in a way similar to the medieval nature introductions. (And, indeed, his “Preaching Blues” is probably the purest and most intense lyrical expression of the blues, rather like Bernart de Ventadorn’s “Non es meravelha s’eu chan”).

It is a harmful distraction even playfully to displace the drama of Johnson’s powerful and lovely poetry from troubled eroticism and life’s suffering to some sort of diabolism. The move reveals more about the fantasies of the countercultural explorers to whom we owe the rediscovery and celebration of his work than about African, African-American or uniquely Johnsonian myth. When Son House expressed his admiration for Johnson’s rapid technical improvement in a way that gave the tale publicity years after Johnson’s death, he delighted the singer’s new fans even as he misled them. Let us listen to the music.

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