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One of the most prominent Blues musicians of the early twentieth century was Tommy Johnson. He was part of a musical movement known as the Delta Blues, so called for having originated in the region of the Mississippi delta of the United States. This movement was also known by another name, the “Devil’s Blues”, for many believed that the music and its artists were closely associated with the devil. Some had even come to believe that artists, like the unrelated blues’ musician Robert Johnson, had to have sold their souls in order to gain such mastery over the guitars which made them famous.
Whilst many claim that it was Robert Johnson who began the legend of selling one’s soul to the devil to play the blues, one of his biographers, Tom Graves, stated in 2008 that this story actually originated with Tommy Johnson, and was later ascribed to Robert. 1
And, Tommy was indeed a perfect candidate for such a damnable pact. He was a troubled soul and a chronic alcoholic. He had, however, been somewhat commercially successful during his lifetime, with hits like Canned Heat Blues, a song about drinking methanol from the cooking fuel Sterno.
His live performances were legendary, inspiring the flamboyant antics of later Rock ‘n’ Roll artists. He was known to play the guitar behind his neck, in between his legs, and in mid-air. Asides from his guitar, Tommys’ voice was unique and incredibly difficult for anyone to imitate, for he was able to express a wide range of vocal tones effortlessly. People at the time started to believe that such great ability must have come from the devil himself. This idea became all the more popular when Tommy himself began to confirm the claim. 2
Sometime after Tommy’s death, in 1966, his brother LeDell Johnson stated in an interview with Tommy’s biographer, David Evans, that Tommy had in fact told him about his pact with Satan personally. Not only that, Tommy had supposedly described how anyone could sell their soul to the devil.
“Now if [Tommy Johnson] was living he’d tell you. He said the reason he knowed so much, said he sold hisself to the devil. I asked him how. He said, “If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ‘fore 12:00 that night so you’ll know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself […] A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.””3
LeDell Johnson had been a blues musician himself, occasionally performing with his brother. In his older years, something about the music and his lifestyle made him turn to the Church and become a man of God, believing, like many in the area, that blues was the work of the devil. 4
Whilst Tommy only left behind a small number of recorded works, they are considered masterpieces, with the vinyl records he released at the time now considered precious treasures. In 2013, one of his original singles sold on eBay for over $37,000, making it the most expensive 78rpm record ever sold at the time. 5
It would seem, that at least in the case of Tommy Johnson, the devil certainly held up his end of the bargain.
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