Kenny Klein: Tales Of The Rambling Wren.
Follow Kenny from the levees of New Orleans to the whirling chaos that is the Pagan festival circuit and beyond. Musings, rants, and just plain Pagan talk.
Robert Johnson: Mojo and Magic in Blues Music
Many of my music fans know that I've spent the last few years allowing my songwriting to move into uniquely American styles, namely Jugband, Swing, and Blues. These styles have been with me since my early teens, and they have always been an influence on my writing, singing and playing. After a couple of decades exploring British, Celtic and European sources as a songwriter, I have moved into an American arena in my work.
It's easy to find Pagan roots in British and other European music. While references to the ancient Gods were driven out of European music long ago, traditional songs like Wild Mountain Thyme and various Morris Dance ditties plainly reference Pagan rites still performed today, while mainstream artists like Fairport Convention and Loreena McKennitt use the style to write contemporary songs steeped in Pagan lore.
But is it hard to find the Pagan magic in traditional Blues and Jazz? I feel it's not. Not if you know where to look...
One of the great legends of Southern Blues is Robert Johnson, a singer with a mystique of magic and evil built around himself and his songs unlike almost any other artist. Was Robert Johnson Pagan? Certainly not. Was he a Voodoo practitioner? Probably not one personally, though he knew Southern magical lore very well, as any itinerant African American musician might have at the time. Let's look at the magical influences on Johnson's music, and at some of the references to Voodoo and Conjure in his songs.
In the mundane world, Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) was an itinerant musician who played street corners, barber shops (common meeting places of the African American community of that day), and coffee houses throughout Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. While he's most famous today for his original songs, he often played popular songs of the time for money, including Country and Swing tunes as well as Blues standards. He was something of a human jukebox, and could play pretty much any song he heard. He was also reported to be very moody, and would often leave a gig for no apparent reason, and resurface weeks later. He lived a different life in each town he frequented, and was known to have used several aliases. He seemed to cultivate mystery and illusion in every aspect of his personal life.
But the Robert Johnson we know best today was the man who recorded about thirty original songs in a Texas hotel room, in two sessions between 1936 and 1937. Unlike the popular songs Robert played to make money, these original songs were dark, eerie tomes, laced with Southern Voodoo lore and nasty magic.
Ask pretty much any Blues fan about Robert Johnson, and the first thing they'll say is “he sold his soul at the crossroads.” This is a legend that looms large in Johnson's mystique: that he met the Devil at a Mississippi crossroads, and promised his soul in exchange for being a famous Blues player. Most fans will point to Johnson's song Crossroad Blues as evidence. All well and good: but the song never states that Robert met with the Devil or made the famous deal. Crossroads Blues begins:
I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above, have mercy now,
Save poor Bob if you please
The only verse that alludes to his deal is this one:
Standin' at the crossroads, risin' sun goin' down
Standin' at the crossroads baby, the risin' sun goin' down
I believe to my soul now, po' Bob is sinkin' down
Johnson calls out to Willie Brown for help in the song; Brown was probably a well known harmonica player of the time, though there were, presumably, many African American Willie Browns in Mississippi in the 1930s. Is his call for help a plea to rescue him from the Devil? Robert never says.
The idea of selling one's soul at the crossroads can be easily traced to Voodoo lore. In most houses of Voodoo, Allegba, or Papa Legba, is contacted by making a veve (a Voodoo sign) and leaving an offering of rum and tobacco, at a crossroads. If one wanted to ask an Orisha (a Voodoo spirit) for a favor, such as the favor of becoming a world-renown Bluesman, Papa Legba would be the one to ask. Did Johnson actually petition Papa legba at a Mississippi crossroads? We will never know for certain.
Above: Papa Legba's Veve. Below: scene from the 1986 movie Crossroads: Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) meets Legba (Robert Judd) at the crossdroads to renegotiate the deal they made fifty years earlier.
The song that stands out for me as a tune of voodoo lore and tortured magic is Hellhounds On My Trail. In the song's opening verse, Johnson says:
I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
Mmm, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on remindin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail,
Hellhounds are a bit of Southern lore; magical demon dogs, sent by the Devil to hunt down sinners. While a long-standing Southern belief, the lore comes from older mythic sources, most notably British “demon hounds,” like Black Shuck, a demon dog. Black Shuck was said to have destroyed a church, killing several parishioners, in Blythburg, England in 1577. Arthur Conan Doyle used the legend of demon dogs like Black Shuck in creating his canine villain in The Hound Of The Baskervilles.