Hell and Beauty

Hell and Beauty:

Via Arts & Letters Daily, an investigation into claims that the famed blues guitarist Robert Johnson might have sold his soul to the devil. The claims are well known, but long dismissed by academics who study the music. They are too quick, writes Ted Gioia.

This paucity of hard facts, when viewed in light of Johnson’s remarkable talents as a guitarist and blues singer, has fueled speculation about a supposed deal with the Devil. Johnson had been an amateurish guitarist when he first encountered his mentor Son House in 1930. “You can’t play nothing,” the elder guitarist told him. Soon after, Johnson disappeared for a brief spell. The next time House heard him, Johnson was a master on the instrument, one who stood out from his peers and surpassed House himself in technical proficiency on the instrument. The transformation was as breathtaking as it was unexpected.... The young musician’s dealings with guitarist Ike Zinermon, one of Johnson’s teachers, no doubt also raised eyebrows—Zinermon had bragged about going to a graveyard at midnight, where he played music while perched atop tombstones....

But what happens when we focus attention on Robert Johnson himself and examine his most revealing legacy—namely his 42 surviving recordings? In truth, this is the hardest hurdle of all for scholars who want to sweep the Devil under the carpet. Johnson himself was clearly obsessed with Satan, and his songs reflect the anxieties of a man who had something to fear from this quarter. His “Cross Road Blues” seems to explicitly reference these tales of a crossroads as a place where dark powers are afoot—a view, by the way, which is a clear carryover from African belief systems. Johnson’s concerns about the afterlife surface in his song “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” And his “Me and the Devil Blues” builds on the image of a man haunted by Satan himself. Johnson also gave his “Preachin’ Blues” the subtitle “Up Jumped the Devil.” These references must be an embarrassment to modern critics trying to sanitize and secularize Johnson’s music—and one admires their perseverance in trying to cleanse these songs of biographical references. But the whole legacy of the blues is as a music of self-expression and personal revelation. Any attempt to portray Robert Johnson as singing about someone else’s life and someone else’s attitudes inevitably sounds hollow and unconvincing.

The hardest song to sanitize is the piece Johnson recorded in his last day in the studio, June 20, 1937, the anguished “Hellhound on My Trail.” This is one of the most powerful blues ever recorded, and explicitly relates the horror of a man pursued by demonic forces. Churchgoers of the day—a group that accounted for the vast majority of Mississippi’s residents, circa 1937—would have been very familiar with the image of hellhounds hunting the souls of desperate sinners....

An oft-told story, well known among blues fans but dismissed again by scholars—one more unseemly anecdote they would prefer to ignore—tells of musician Sonny Boy Williamson II paying a visit to Johnson in his final hours, only to find the guitarist crawling like a dog on the floor and moaning in agony.

Assume for a moment that it were true both that these Christian-mythic bargains were really available, and that this young guitarist had made one. It seems to me that creates a strange case for us.

The substance of the bargain is that the Devil should teach a young man how to create beautiful music on his guitar, in return for the man's soul at his death. By making the bargain, the young man is creating a channel for beauty to come into the world that did not exist before.

Let's inquire into this further. Can beauty come from Hell? We are told that Satan can array himself like an angel of light, and so we must assume that even nearly divine beauty is available to him. If the True and the Beautiful are ultimately the same, as the tradition holds, angelic beauty (being closer to God) would naturally be greater than human beauty. Thus, Satan would (ironically) be a legitimate channel for humans to approach closer to divine beauty.

If that is the case, then, the bargain struck would be harmful to Johnson, but -- because it would increase the amount of celestial beauty available to humanity -- beneficial to the rest of us. We would be in a case of receiving an unearned boon that brings us closer to God, paid for by the eternal damnation of another's soul.


That makes me think of Chaucer's "The Friar's Tale," which is the one about the summoner who meets a devil from hell. The devil is going about the world looking to gain for Hell at the expense of humanity. This is close enough to the summoner's own work that he strikes up a sort of fellowship with the demon. After a time they find a merchant whose team of horses is in the mud, and who is promising them to the Devil. The summoner suggests that the devil ought to take the team, since it is being freely offered, but the demon says he can't:
"Nay," said the devil, "God knows, never a bit.
It is not his intention, trust to it.
Ask him yourself, if you believe not me,
Or else withhold a while, and you shall see."
This carter stroked his nags upon the croup,
And they began in collars low to stoop.

"Hi now!" cried he, "May Jesus Christ you bless
And all His creatures, greater, aye and less!
That was well pulled, old horse, my own grey boy!
I pray God save you, and good Saint Eloy!
Now is my cart out of the slough, by gad!"

"Lo, brother," said the fiend, "what said I, lad?
Here may you see, my very own dear brother,
The peasant said one thing, but thought another.
Let us go forth upon our travellers' way;
Here win I nothing I can take today."
They eventually meet an old woman whom the summoner is seeking for purposes of blackmail. He levels false charges against her, and she says that the devil can take him if he won't recant them.
"You lie," she cried then, "by my own salvation!
Never was I, till now, widow or wife,
Summoned unto your court in all my life;
Nor ever of my body was I untrue!
Unto the Devil rough and black of hue
Give I your body and my pan also!"

And when the devil heard her cursing so
Upon her knees, he said to her just here:
"Now, Mabely, my own old mother dear,
Is this your will, in earnest, that you say?"

"The Devil," said she, "take him alive today,
And pan and all, unless he will repent!"
It costs her a frying pan, but the Summoner is taken away to hell quickly after that.

Taking all these legends as truth for a moment, what do you make of the case of Robert Johnson? How good is the Devil's claim on him? Do we, who have been brought closer to Beauty by his bargain, have a part?

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