How the Blues Genre Became Synonymous with the Devil

By ALLISON RIGLER

Robert Johnson at the crossroads, creating a lore cemented in the Blues

 Nowadays, thanks to radio, tv, and music streaming services, every type of music is available to listen right at our fingertips. But before radio, music genres and styles were unique to a region and only heard in that specific part of the United States. Music in rural Louisiana was different than the music in cities like New York, and there was never any overlap in style. An especially unique genre is the Blues; with its musicians crooning about hard times and sorrow, and most of all, the Devil.

     Blues music was born on Southern plantations in the 19th century, from the songs of slaves, and farm hands, that were sung as they toiled underneath the unforgiving sun. This music was derived from African spirituals and chants, brought over to America along with the work songs, field hollers, drum music, and church hymns that became apart of slave culture. Blues is said to have “grown up” in the Mississippi Delta, just upriver from New Orleans- the birthplace of Jazz. Both Blues and Jazz have influenced each other greatly, but the Blues didn’t spread like Jazz until the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration in the 1920s. 

     The cultural clash of the different regions of Africa, and the new environment of America, created the merge of Christianity and the rhythmic cadences and soulful wails in traditional African music. This fusion made Blues music the perfect candidate to personify the struggle of good and evil- God and the Devil.

     Blues music became cemented with the Devil when it first got its name. The genre was derived from the Early Modern English term “the Blue Devils”, a symptom of alcohol withdrawal where one sees intense visual hallucinations. This phrase was shortened overtime to just “the blues” meaning a state of agitation or depression, which is a hot topic in most blues. When artists sang about their sorrows, about the hardships of being an African American in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the mistreatment and the constant feeling of having to look over their backs in fear of harassment or lynching, it was likened to the Devil or a Devil like figure. The Devil became a big player in either the musicians alluding to feeling like they are in Hell, or the musicians asking the Devil for revenge.

     The Blues artist that truly cemented the relationship between blues and the Devil was Robert Johnson, a man rumored to have sold his soul for fame. Legend goes that in the early 1930s, Robert Johnson was just a mediocre blues musician until he went down to the crossroads to sell his soul.This myth was perpetuated from his reckless lifestyle, his early death at 27, his habit to practice in graveyards, and his song lyrics. Johnson was famous for songs like “Hellhound on my Trail”, “Crossroad Blues”, and “Me and the Devil”, which all alluded to some sort of deal or relationship with the so called “Devil”.  He went on to become one of the greatest blues musicians of all time, crowned as the “King of the Delta Blues”, thanks to his innovative style and use of the entire guitar, which witnesses relate to sounding like two or three guitars. The legend lives on through his 29 song recordings and the musicians that study his style and prose.

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