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Rumour, hardened into myth, softened into kitsch, says that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at a Mississippi crossroads in return for some blues songs and a retuned guitar.
The Devil certainly got his side of the bargain. Despite his fame, Johnson’s life is shrouded in mist. He may have been born in 1911, or 1912. There are only two known photos of him (scholars are adamant that a supposed third is of someone else), and when one appeared on a postage stamp in 1994, the US Postal Service airbrushed out Johnson’s cigarette. In 1938, he died in convulsive agony, perhaps murdered with poisoned whiskey. Where he was buried, no one knows for sure.
Did Johnson get his reward? He recorded, in two sessions in 1936 and 1937, a handful of 78rpm records that constitute a matchless contribution to the canon of delta blues: “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Love In Vain”, “Cross Road Blues” and, above all, “Hell Hound On My Trail”.
This is the Mississippi delta as The Seventh Seal. “I got to keep moving”, sings Johnson, “got to keep moving/Blues falling down like hail.” He moans in what could be despair or just the sound of the wind. “And the days keeps on worryin’ me/ There’s a hell hound on my trail.” Johnson could be being pursued by the Devil, or by the society in which he lives, or by his own demons. He pleads with a lover, his “sweet rider”. But around her door she sprinkles “hot foot powder”, a hoodoo deterrent to the unwanted. By the last verse, the “wind is rising/ The leaves trembling on the tree”. The open-E-tuned guitar and voice are alike high, taut; terrified and terrifying.
Cultural critic Greil Marcus notes that unlike Johnson’s more crowd-pleasing songs, “it is interesting that almost no one has tried to make a new version of . . . ‘Hell Hound On My Trail’”. Indeed, its influence is more often felt at a sonic level. Nick Drake’s “Black Eyed Dog”, one of his incomparably bleak last songs, inhabits the same world, though Drake’s dog was his deep depression.
Some covers do exist, though tackling the song requires either supreme confidence or massive ego.
On American jazz singer Cassandra Wilson’s reading of “Hell Hound”, from 1993’s Blue Light ’Til Dawn, her singing barely rises above a murmur; Brandon Ross’s harsh steel-string guitar is louder. In the background is a blur of noise that gradually reveals itself as Olu Dara’s cornet, implacably stalking Wilson.
The song was made the punchline of a musicological joke by Sting when he released a rough-hewn album of songs by the Jacobean John Dowland. At a 2006 concert at LSO St Luke’s, London, accompanied by lutenist Edin Karamazov, Sting announced an encore — “Just for fun, I’d like to do another song by Robert Johnson” — the conceit being that a contemporary of Dowland’s was a different Robert Johnson. The joke fell flat: middle-aged men who own Police records are as unfamiliar with Jacobean court music as early music devotees are with rural Mississippi. Nonetheless, the song remained eerie, even through vulpine howling. “Edin tells me he’s never played the blues before,” said Sting. “That was pretty good for your first time.”
The Devil may have even had one further revenge. It has been argued that the taut high notes of Johnson’s recordings are so merely because they were mastered at the wrong speed. Listen to “Hell Hound” slowed down a tenth or so, and the theory sounds plausible: the voice is deeper, the guitar more resonant. But it also sounds more ordinary, and ordinary is the last thing this song deserves to sound.
For more in the series, as well as podcasts with clips from the songs, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song