USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘deal with devil’
Legends
Narrative

Robert Johnson: Deal with the Devil

Main Piece
You know the story of Robert Johnson, right? He traded his soul to the devil to play guitar. So the idea is that the devil never holds his side of the bargain, so this is why you never make a deal with the devil. So this is like the most famous rock and roll lore, so basically this was back in the 1920’s, and he was a struggling African American guitarist, and he wanted to be famous, so the story goes he met the devil at the crossroads, and told the devil “I wanna be famous, I wanna be a famous musician, I wanna be successful”, or whatever. So the devil told him, “If you give me your soul, I will make you famous for 10 years and you will live as a celebrity and be successful, so he accepted the deal, and then recorded one album, there was just one album, and then what is spooky is the album has guitar progressions that people don’t know how to replicate even today, but the devil doesn’t hold up his side of the deal, so he died like 8 months after the recording of the album. So he released this song, its called “Hellhound on my Trail”, and its this very spooky, scary song about someone who thinks they are being hunted down by this supernatural malevolent force. Super interesting song, highly recommend you check it out, but the idea is there that the devil will not hold up its side of the deal, and will kill you, destroy you, and make you suffer forever if you make a deal with him. So basically, its telling you, don’t ever make a deal with the devil because he will destroy you.

Background
The informant played in a worship band as a kid, and is therefore informed on both guitar-player lore as well as Christian lore. The tale seems to be a combination of both, but the informant was not sure where exactly he learned the tale.

Context
The informant is a 25-year-old man, born and raised in Southern California. The information was provided to me outside his family home in Palm Springs, California, on April 20th, 2019.

Analysis
I found this tale to remind of me other proscriptive tales, especially in terms of the “deal with the devil” aspect. I totally remember being told other stories as a child relating to the reasoning behind why you never make a deal with the devil, but had never heard this exact story. I do like how part of the story is based in fact, with the song being able to be looked up, but research shows me that the informant is slightly incorrect with his telling of the tale, although that is common in folklore, due to the nature of multiplicity and variation. I learned that the song actually hails from 1937, and does actually exist. It is interesting to me that the informant claims this to be one of the biggest pieces of rock and roll lore, yet I had never heard it before!

[geolocation]