Credit: Used with permission of Jon Langford/Salvation South
Robert Johnson and the Soothing Power of the Blues
After diving once again into the history of blues music — arguably the greatest Southern contribution to American culture — Salvation South Editor Chuck Reece has been thinking about music’s power to soothe even the deepest pain we feel. He shares his thoughts in this week's commentary.
MUSIC: Robert Johnson - “Cross Road Blues”
Chuck Reece: One of the great legends of Southern culture is the story of a blues man named Robert Johnson. Johnson died in 1938, when he was only 27 years old. And as the mythology goes, a couple of years before he was murdered, Johnson went to the crossroads of U.S. Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for otherworldly guitar-playing skills.
Johnson recorded only a few of his own songs. One was called “Cross Road Blues.” In it, he sang, “I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees. Asked the Lord above, have mercy, save poor Bob if you please.”
MUSIC: Robert Johnson - “Me and The Devil Blues”
Chuck Reece: Another tune Johnson recorded was called “Me and the Devil Blues,” in which poor Bob sings, “Early this mornin’, when you knocked upon my door, I said, ‘Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go.’ Me and the devil was walkin’ side by side.’”
MUSIC: Robert Johnson: “Early this mornin’. Oooh!”
Chuck Reece: Yikes. Scary stuff. But what’s underneath it? Here was a haunted man, whose pain left him feeling like he was walking side by side with the devil, like he had to ask the Lord above to save him.
Now, Johnson’s music, the blues, is undoubtedly part of the foundation of the South’s musical culture. And it arose from the trials of Black Americans who lived under Jim Crow and his threats of violence and death.
What salve could there be for such pain and oppression? Well, blues players knew better than anybody that music has the magical power to soothe even the most troubled of souls.
It’s hard to find words strong enough to express that power.
I think maybe the closest any writer ever came to getting it right was when the late Toni Morrison wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye.
Let me read a passage for you:
“If my mother was in a singing mood, it wasn't so bad. She would sing about hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me times.… Misery colored by the greens and blues in my mother's voice took all the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet.”
Turning the pain of life into something endurable — and maybe even sweet — is the essence of the blues. If you have not explored the earliest blues music, you should make time to listen to Robert Johnson or Charley Patton or Georgia’s own Blind Willie McTell.
We’ve currently got a deep story about Robert Johnson at SalvationSouth.com, and we’d love for you to come by and read.
Salvation South editor Chuck Reece comments on Southern culture and values in a weekly segment that airs Fridays at 7:45 a.m. during Morning Edition and 4:44 p.m. during All Things Considered on GPB Radio. You can also find them here at GPB.org/Salvation-South and please download and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform as well.