Most people have heard the story, in one form or another, of the legendary Delta Blues guitar player who went by the name of Robert Johnson. Legend has it that on a dark October night sometime in the late 1920’s, Johnson traveled to the intersection of Highway 8 and Highway 1 in Rosedale, Mississippi and struck a deal with the Devil himself.
According to the legend, when Johnson arrived at the crossroads the Devil was sitting on a log by the side of the road. The Devil was accompanied by a hairless dog, described in local folklore of the time as a “Hellhound”. As Johnson approached, the dog began to make a sound unlike anything he had ever heard before. The Devil, being the shrewd businessman that he was, recognized the look in Johnson’s eyes when he heard the wailing sounds of the dog.
“The dog is mine, but that sound he makes is called the blues and it has a price if you are willing to make a deal,” replied the Devil as Johnson listened to the sorrowful sounds of the dog howling as its eyes glowed yellow in the moonlight.
The Devil then took Johnson’s guitar, tuned it and handed it back to him. Then the Devil explained the terms of the deal. In exchange for his soul, Johnson was given the ability to play the guitar beyond the ability of any of his fellow bluesmen that roamed the Mississippi Delta playing on street corners and in the Juke Joints of the day.
Robert Johnson died at the age of 27 near the town of Greenwood, Mississippi after drinking whiskey laced with poison given to him by the jealous husband of a woman Johnson had been friendly with. It is said he died on his hands and knees barking like a dog. His half-sister came for his body several days later and took his guitar and other possessions with her after she took care of having Johnson buried. There are currently three grave markers in different locations that bear his name. Even his exact burial place is unknown.
Little else is known of Johnson’s short life. He left only a handful of recorded songs and his guitar has never been found. But his guitar skills are undisputed. Decades later, when Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards first heard one of Johnson’s recordings, he asked who the guitar player was playing along with Johnson on the record. Johnson’s picking was so complex that it sounded as if two guitars were being played together. To this day, no one has been able to match Johnson’s style and the tunings he used on his guitar are still undecipherable.
There is no shortage nowadays of guitars owned by famous guitar players. And very few of them have any sort of mystery tied to them. The whereabouts of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitars, as well as those of Jimi Hendrix are all well known. Even Buddy Holly’s famous Stratocaster is owned in a private collection. No mystery there. Walk into any Hardrock Café and you will see more than a few famous guitars on display.
But the most famous guitar of all time, the guitar played by a man who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his extraordinary playing skills is still shrouded in mystery almost 80 years after Johnson’s death.
Perhaps it is best that Johnson’s guitar remain lost forever. Who knows what kind of sound would come out of it were it were ever played again. And what would happen to the person bold enough to strum a chord across its strings?
Some things are best left alone. Maybe Johnson’s guitar vanished for a reason. Maybe it is not meant to be played by anyone other than the signatories of that infamous deal, namely Johnson and the Devil.
In one of Johnson’s songs, he sings of a Hellhound on his trail. His sad voice and intricate guitar playing match the soulful wails of the Hellhound present when he made his deal on that moonlit night at the crossroads.
If Robert Johnson’s guitar is ever found the person who finds it should proceed with caution. The sound from that guitar may very well conjure the Devil himself.