Spirituality in and out of focus – hellhounds on the trail? (i)

After a prolonged summer break, it is now time to pick up the thread of this post where it left off, namely with the 1960s counter-cultural migration to Europe via the Beatles. Over the next couple of episodes we will be dealing with the radical and in some respects highly sinister musical and spiritual direction taken in 1966-1969 by the prime movers of those heady years, terminating in the gruesome Manson Family murders and the Rolling Stones’ disastrous appearance at Altamont Speedway in December 1969,  which many cultural historians see as ‘the day the music died’. This was the time when, to paraphrase Yeats’ The Second Coming, the 1960s ‘ceremony of innocence’ was definitively drowned.

Eglise de la Réconciliation, Taizé (photo: Damir Jelic)

There is no doubt that the stamp left on popular culture at many levels by the music of this brief but incredibly intense era has been an enduring one, with the songs of the late 1960s still functioning for many as an interpretive framework for their experience of the world. During my summer travels I was provided with some humourous but telling evidence of this from some seemingly unlikely quarters. One instance of this was at the Taizé ecumenical community in France, where one of the brothers (not wearing his monastic attire at the time, I have to say) interspersed his thoughts on the parable of the Prodigal Son with quotations from the Beatles’ Piggies (from the ‘White’ album of 1968) and even Serge Gainsbourg’s and Brigitte Bardot’s/Jane Birkin’s infamous Je t’aime … moi non plus (1967/1969). A second instance was at the windswept castle of Fort La Latte in Brittany, where my family and I had gone for what had been billed as a ‘medieval children’s festival’, a description which proved somewhat thin when we discovered that the sole entertainment on offer was from a local musical comedy act of decidedly limited ability. On seeing them appear in period costume I imagined that they would be providing the pseudo-troubadour fare that I have heard at similar events in French historical venues, so it was very much to my surprise that they launched into a spoof cover version of ‘Sympathy for ze deveel’ by Les Pierres qui roulent (the Rolling Stones). Making up in attitude for what they clearly lacked in basic artistic talent, they came up with some lines in what I can only describe as pidgin franglais which had at least one member of the outdoor audience splitting his sides with laughter. Let me try to transliterate a couple of examples from a language which has no official written form but which is all too commonly practised in this part of the world:

‘Medieval food is dégueulasse [disgusting]. It taste zhjust like McDonaldsse’ [that actually rhymes reasonably well in franglais when pronounced properly]

‘We not look for la bagarre [We’re not trying to pick a fight]. We zhjust wanna be medieval rock-stars [see comment above. The final ‘s’ of ‘rock stars’ is silent] !’

I have to admit that to call this a ‘song’ would be stretching the meaning of the word a little beyond its normal limits, and yes, the Jimi Hendrix imitation at the end when the amplified lute player started trying to play his instrument with his teeth was frankly pretty limp, but this bizarre piece of humour did serve to illustrate the mythological place that the Golden Age of Rock continues to occupy in popular consciousness.

As part of their caricature, the group ended by making mock ‘Devil’s horns’ signs (an integral element of Heavy Metal’s grand guignol behavioural code[1]) with their index and little fingers, a gesture which was not so much sinister as interestingly indicative of a certain stereotype concerning a supposed alliance of popular music and the demonic which, as we shall see, has been around for a very long time.

Fort La Latte, Brittany (photo: Benh Lieu Song)

At this point I would like to issue some immediate caveats concerning the perception of a connection between the evolution of rock music during the period under question and a resurgence of interest on both sides of the Atlantic in the occult. It seems that two interpretive extremes need to be avoided here. The first is that represented by many accounts stemming from conservative Christian circles (whether Protestant or Catholic) demonizing rock music per se as occult to its very core. This approach is perhaps best typified by an obsession with finding hidden messages encoded backwards in songs such as Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven; anyone who has made an objective attempt to assess the so-called ‘evidence’ adduced by the conspiracy theorists in this respect is likely to be as unconvinced as I am that there is some kind of supernatural origin to purported messages such as ‘start to smoke marijuana’ in Queen’s Another one bites the dust that some claim to have found ‘inexplicably’ engraved on vinyl when played in reverse. The mere fact that it takes a high degree of intentionality for anyone to want to sift through the repertoire backwards (a fairly masochistic aural exercise) suggests that the researchers have simply found exactly what they were looking for – to construe the slurred and barely distinguishable syllables of Freddie Mercury’s back-to-front voice in this way requires some pretty creative imaginative work. It is furthermore interesting to speculate what might be found if some warped soul subjected Bach’s St Matthew Passion to the same kind of ‘analysis’; I am more than willing to bet that somewhere in the three hours of gobbledygook German in retrograde someone might after repeated listenings hear the odd mildly subversive line or two such as ‘time to get out of our brains at the Biergarten’ (in 18th century Leipzig dialect, of course).

In my opinion one of the problems with the blanket demonization of rock music by religious fundamentalists (which needless to say are particularly widespread in the blogosphere) has been to overshadow any kind of more nuanced appraisal of the spiritual dynamics of rock in its formative years, a serious subject which clearly calls for a balanced and historically-grounded account.[2] As a result commentators can frequently fall into the opposite error from that of rock’s religious despisers, namely that of failing to engage with the evidence that something strange and in some respects unnerving was indeed going on at a social level in the late 1960s that merits substantive comment. Merely to brush off the sudden and dramatic turn to occult themes in the counter-culture of the late 1960s as a temporary fad or an inexplicable case of mass psychosis best left untouched is an act of considerable intellectual laziness which abandons the field to zealous but undiscriminating writers who evidently lack the analytical equipment to deal with the topic in an intelligent manner.

In trying to approach this subject responsibly, it seems that some points of method are in order. Firstly, it is evident that one of the main reasons for the paucity of responsible mainstream scholarly discussion of the phenomenon of rock music’s love affair with occultism is the fact that those who have been willing to approach the topic at all have normally done so on the basis of an a priori commitment to a certain metaphysical position regarding the reality of supernatural beings (other than God) and their dealings with humanity. Secondly, this is all too often linked to an uncritical attitude towards widely-circulated and unsubstantiated master narratives of plots to destroy Western culture from within (launched by a variety of candidates including the CIA, British Intelligence, the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations and a Theodor Adorno supposedly not only writing all the Beatles’ lyrics but also taking 12-tone music from the Baal priesthood and the cult of Dionysus). As with all such conspiracy theories, the fatal flaw of too many religiously-motivated accounts of the 1960s attempting to prove the innate evil of rock ‘n’ roll is the forcing of often undocumented evidence into a pre-determined scheme. It ought to be patently obvious that serious sociological and historical research cannot be carried out in this manner. Not only are such readings ruled out of court at the outset by those for whatever reason are unwilling to share the metaphysical outlook of  the conspiracy buffs (i.e. belief in the existence of non-human personal evil), but they are almost always undermined by their penchant for exaggeration, over-simplification, sensationalism and the failure to distinguish fact from urban legend. The premature introduction of simplistic theological arguments as a substitute for careful analysis of a complex web of human interactions makes no contribution to genuine understanding of rapidly evolving, multi-layered cultural situations. What seems clear is that, in order to come to grips with the subject-matter, we have to find some way to talk rationally about the rôle played, not so much by the question of ‘supernatural’ agency (even if ultimately that is a challenge which theology cannot evade) as by human belief in the working of supernatural forces.

One study which attempts to do this, but which ultimately fails to avoid the interpretive traps I have just attempted to outline, is the highly ambitious and initially promising study of Catholic author and recovering hippie E. Michael Jones published by Ignatius Press in the mid-1990s, Dionysos Rising: the Birth of Cultural Revolution out of the Spirit of Music, a sustained and flamboyant polemic against what Jones perceives to be the Nietzschean dimension of counter-culture. At first glance his eloquently written and frequently fascinating analysis might seem to merit serious consideration, not least for its attempt to link the emergence of the 1960s counter-culture to the void left in the wake of classical music’s demise in the decades following World War II. Jones argues that

‘a massive shift of allegiance took place, similar to the first shift from Schönberg to jazz that had taken place when the first black jazz band arrived in Paris after World War I. Only this time it took place on a much more massive scale. Faced with a choice between Stockhausen and Muddy Waters, British working-class teenagers in the early fifties had the sense to choose at least some semblance of musical life, and they went with Muddy.’[3]

Muddy Waters, 1971

Jones supports this with the example of a British professor who attempted to bring a Stockhausen recording to some jam sessions

‘in the empty art-school classrooms that were now the hangouts of the British youth who in another age would have gone into the military or an apprenticeship. There is no indication that anyone listened twice. As the sixties progressed, a massive shift of allegiance took place. The postwar generation coming to maturity in the early sixties converted to rock ‘n’ roll’.[4]

This bold thesis is not without a certain prima facie plausibility. It should be acknowledged that the explosion of popular music did indeed occur during a time when ‘classical’ music was struggling to find its way (many young European composers feeling, not without a certain justification, that the high bourgeois culture whose history was deeply intertwined with the Austro-German symphonic tradition was fatally compromised during the Third Reich). The correlation between these two phenomena clearly does merit exploration, but Jones overstates his case in his efforts to lay the blame for what he perceives as the collapse of Western culture at the feet of ‘degenerate moderns’ (the title of another of Jones’s book-length studies). For the author of Dionysos Rising, who unsurprisingly makes frequent allusion to Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, the chief culprits in classical music are clearly identified as Schönberg and Adorno, representatives of the ‘arriving German professoriat’ who took up residence in the US when fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s:

‘Bauhaus was installed in Black Mountain College in the woods of the South; Gropius ended up at Harvard, Marcuse in California, and Tillich at Union Theological Seminary – and Kulturbolschewismus became our national educational policy. […] The German professors injected the Nietzsche virus into the bloodstream of American education, which has had an immune deficiency ever since.’[5]

The tone of these remarks is unfortunately typical of the book’s tendency to construct a politically–oriented master narrative out of half-truths, insinuation and sweeping generalizations. Where, for example, is the proof that British teens after World War II were actually making a ‘massive shift of allegiance’ away from classical music, which would imply that they had been interested in it previously? Jones’s blanket term ‘British youth’ fails to take account of the diversities in class background within those embracing rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s; there is no evidence that ‘working-class teenagers’ were actually choosing between Stockhausen and Muddy Waters (as if they would have opted for Brahms or Chopin against the Chicago Blues), especially in the early fifties, when New Music in England in any case primarily meant Benjamin Britten rather than cultural ‘Bolshevism’ from Donaueschingen. It would seem far more credible to assert that the working-class felt that classical music per se was essentially a highbrow activity closed to them (as Paul McCartney explained in a televised interview in the late 1960s). And if we are to bring Stockhausen into the discussion at all, can a general thesis really be constructed on the basis of Jones’s example of a jam session rejection of the Darmstadt school in South London?  What is to be made of the fact – inconvenient for Jones’s thesis – that the composer of Kontakte was one of the figures on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (top row, fifth from the left) and exerted a major influence on the experimentation of the ‘White’ Album?

More troubling still than Dionysos Rising’s one-sided historiography are the racist overtones of its overall narrative of increasing Western cultural degeneracy. We for example find such disturbingly reductionist statements as

‘The 1960s were an erotic Great Awakening. As Nietzsche had predicted, the Negro was the catalyst for the overturning of European values, which is to say, the most effective enculturation of Christianity. The civil rights movement was nothing more [!!!] than the culmination of an attempt to transform the Negro into a paradigm of sexual liberation that had been the pet project of the cultural revolutionaries since the twenties.’[6 – emphasis mine]

Jones attempts to lend academic respectability to his reading by making certain qualifications such as admitting that the modernist fascination with ‘the Negro’ was largely the projection of white fantasies, which had begun with Nietzsche. He likewises correctly recognizes that ‘the Negro’ as white socio-historical construct had little to do with the reality of African-American life which was if anything more deeply impacted by Christianity than white society. However, there remains something insidious in Jones’s insinuation that responsibility for the portrayal of the ‘Negro as a paradigm of sexual liberation’ lies not only with the white moderns but also with ‘the Negroes who were willing to go along with the white boys’ Kulturkampf for whatever gain it would bring them.’[7] For all its literary flair and mine of information about the 1960s, the flaws of Jones’s overall argument and tendency to overstep the boundary between responsible scholarship and ideological polemic ultimately make for frustrating reading.

In contrast to the two extremes I have mentioned – either a reduction of rock culture to ‘demonism’ or a flat refusal to engage with a mass of phenomenological evidence suggesting an extremely tight correlation between musical developments of 1966-1969 and a sudden surge of interest in the dark side of mysticism – what seems required is an approach which looks dispassionately at the evidence on an a posteriori basis, distinguishing rigorously between what can be established as fact and what is to be treated as conjecture or metaphysical speculation. Such an approach simply ‘brackets’ the question of whether ‘occult forces’ are at work as outside the scope of inquiry (whatever one’s personal convictions on the matter). Neither the positing of the existence of such forces nor their a priori denial should be allowed to colour the discussion; only by proceeding in such a manner can anything cogent be said on a sociological level about the frenetic end of the 1960s and its subsequent legacy for popular culture. From such an analysis the reader should then be free to draw her/his own theological conclusions, if any.

The difficulty of such an endeavor is compounded by the fact that distinguishing truth from the mass of disinformation and partial truths abounding in the literature concerning the birth of rock music in the 1960s is not in itself sufficient for an appraisal of the period. Like any sub-culture, rock has its own foundational myths whose importance is in some way independent of their grounding in real history. The facts about John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page or any of the other cultural icons of rock music are in this respect certainly less influential than their perception within popular consciousness, however distorted this may be with regard to actual historical data.

As an illustration of this, let us take as an example the strange case of the man who is widely regarded as the ‘Godfather’ of rock music,  the ‘King of the Delta Blues’ Robert Johnson (1911-1938), whose iconic status since the 1960s is out of all proportion to the size of his output (29 songs recorded in Texas in 1936 and 1937, plus 13 ‘lost’ takes only issued in 1970). The recordings are certainly remarkable in themselves for Johnson’s innovative guitar playing, the disturbingly expressive quality of his voice, and the haunting imagery of his poetry. However, within his own blues community Johnson was not regarded as particularly important during the two decades following his early death. Despite its intrinsic quality, his ouput is not in itself enough to explain the extraordinary rise of Johnson as a cult figure in the 1960s and his canonization as the spiritual as well as musical ancestor of rock by a generation of white musicians living an ocean away from the Mississippi Delta.

It is clear that the Robert Johnson revival was catalyzed by the release in 1961 of the LP King of the Delta Blues Singers at the instigation of Columbia Records’ John Hammond (who had sought out Johnson for his Carnegie Hall Spirituals to Swing concert in December 1938, where Count Basie topped the bill, the program notes of which effectively started the Johnson mythmaking by claiming that the bluesman died the very day that he was told that he was to play at Carnegie Hall).  The importance of the Delta Blues idiom for the emergence of rock in the years immediately following the release of King of the Delta Blues is acknowledged by all commentators as immense, with the songs both of Johnson and Muddy Waters providing both the inspiration for bands such as the Rolling Stones (whose name was derived from the title of Waters’ first hit in 1948 after moving from the Delta to Chicago), Cream and Led Zeppelin. The influence is of course readily apparent on a technical level in terms of the blues structure of the songs, vocal delivery and guitar style. It is however also clear that the blues were equally important on a symbolic level, with Johnson – whose persona was essentially fabricated by Frank Driggs’ liner notes for King –, becoming the equivalent of an African-American Arthur Rimbaud. Here was a poète maudit, mistakenly described by Driggs as having recorded his songs as a teenager, whose frequently tormented lyrics (assumed, rightly or wrongly, to be autobiographical) spoke to a generation who projected their own existential concerns back into the radically different socio-cultural environment of the American South of the 1920s and 30s. The appeal of Johnson’s lyrics is captured memorably by a description by Giles Oakley: ‘visions of a restless, self-destructive interior world filled with secret fears and anxieties. At times he seems … on the edge of an abyss of complete psychic disintegration.’[8] It is arguably this poetic element – seen through the romanticizing lens of the 1960s – which made Johnson rather than Waters or other bluesmen the ‘ancestor of choice’ for rock’s British pioneers such as Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page. Part of the attraction undoubtedly lay in a dark and disturbing side to Johnson’s words which on occasion featured precisely the same combination that would, unfortunately but incontestably, characterize certain streams of post-1966 rock and which persists to this day as the default position in much Metal – the combination of an invocation of the occult with violent masculine sexuality. What are we to make, for example, of the threats in 32-20 Blues (‘And if she gets unruly, thinks she don’t wan do, Take my 32-20 now and cut her half in two‘) or the famously chilling text of Me and the Devil Blues?

Early this morning
When you knocked upon my door
Early this morning, oooo
When you knocked upon my door
And I said hello Satan
I believe it’s time to go

Me and the Devil
Was walkin’ side by side
Me and the Devil, woooo
Was walking side by side
And I’m going to beat my woman
‘Til I get satisfied

An integral part of the Robert Johnson mythology was clearly (and still is) the morbid fascination exerted by the legend that Johnson’s remarkable guitar playing was the result of a pact with Satan made at the crossroads of highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi (where Muddy Waters also grew up). The origins of this story will be assessed later, but it acquired considerable traction after 1966 when related in an article by blues scholar Pete Welding in the widely-read Down Beat magazine entitled Hellhound on His Trail: Robert Johnson. In this article Welding presented the legend not as hearsay but as a serious belief transmitted by one of the Delta Blues’ founding fathers, guitarist Son House, who had been both Johnson’s and Waters’ teacher.[9] In the course of the next few years – when rock’s flirtation with the dark arts was at its height – making cover versions of Johnson’s Cross Road Blues would become almost obligatory for any aspiring rock band laying claim to the heritage of the Blues, the most famous being the rendition of Eric Clapton’s Cream in 1968.[10]

Robert Johnson

Musicologists Susan McClary and Patricia Schroeder are surely correct in asserting that the legend of Robert Johnson was essentially a projection born of the fantasies of the 1960s. McClary for example claims that for British rockers, ‘African Americans were thought to have access to real (i.e. preindustrialized) feelings and community – qualities hard to find in a society that had so long stressed individuality and the mind/body split’.[11] Schroeder surmises that ‘[i]t could be that the story of Johnson’s pact with the devil (which, as we have seen, was not widespread until the mid 1960s) burgeoned because of the alienated sensibilities of the generation that resurrected him: it is a product of the Age of Aquarius.’[12]

However, while this Faustian myth undoubtedly possessed a powerful transgressive mystique in the late 60s, it was not merely a literary construct. It also spoke to the musical intuition of young musicians such as Clapton, Page and Keith Richards seeking to explain for themselves the unprecedented power of amplified guitar music (linked to the psycho-acoustic phenomenon of aural saturation). It is phenomenologically extremely striking that many leading rock musicians of the time would speak of the actual experience of live, collective music-making at high volume levels – frequently intensified by the use of psychedelics – in terms of openness to external forces (the concept of the ‘shamanistic’ rock musician, a recurring image from the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead to Carlos Santana’s Shaman album of 2002, would merit a post in itself). Given that the Robert Johnson ‘crossroads’ legend was entirely consonant with their musical experience, it is not surprising that, as Patricia Schroeder contends, rock’s pioneers should have ‘made a cult figure of a Robert Johnson with preternatural skills and supernatural connections.’[13]

Intersection of Highway 49 and 61, Clarksdale (photo: Joe Mazzola)

The question of the extent to which the Robert Johnson mythology is rooted in fact is extremely difficult to answer for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has proved notoriously hard for scholars to assemble verifiable details about his life for the lack of solid written documentation in an oral culture marked by the frequent embellishment of eyewitness reports (meaning that even statements by Johnson’s entourage are often contradictory) and where the boundary between historical reality and mythologizing seems highly fluid. Secondly, it is clear that, even if the entry of the legend of Johnson’s crossroads deal with the devil into the popular white consciousness can be dated to Welding’s article of 1966, it stems from a mythology of the blues as the ‘devil’s music’ which was already well in existence in Robert Johnson’s own lifetime in his own African-American culture. As blues scholar Robert ‘Mack’ McCormick pointed out in a compelling 1992 documentary made in the Delta by John Hammond’s guitarist son, Johnson’s decision to become a professional musician seems to have been a response to the condemnation he received from his family on the death of his first wife Virginia during childbirth while Johnson was away from home playing music at Delta juke joints. McCormick argues persuasively that the appearance of diabolical imagery in many of Johnson’s songs is a reflection of the charges laid against him by a deeply religious community for which to play the blues (rather than Christian hymnody) was already to have sold one’s soul to the devil.[14] It seems psychologically more than credible to assert with McCormick that Johnson simply assumed an identity that others had effectively created for him, taking his images from an existing stock of archetypal myths circulating in the Delta. His fellow musicians such as Son House and Honeyboy Edwards being equally impregnated with this collective mythology, it is wholly logical that they should have attributed Johnson’s seemingly miraculous transformation from a mediocre blues musician to a guitar master during his absence from the Delta in 1930-31 to supernatural forces. It moreover seems that Robert Johnson’s was not an isolated instance, a similar equation of superior guitar playing with a Satanic pact having been made in the case of his namesake Tommy Johnson (1896-1956). Whether the singer of Hellhound on my trail propagated the myth of his own diabolical musical abilities is a matter of scholarly debate, but it is certain that he did nothing to oppose it and that he derived a certain notoriety from the persona generated by the legend.

The question of whether Johnson made a bargain with a genuinely existing spiritual entity of whatever nature is not only of course totally unverifiable (and therefore to be bracketed from discussion), but far less rich in implications than the historical and sociological issue of the broader perception of the blues as the music of the devil and the subsequent appropriation of this association by the rock vanguard in the 1960s. This appropriation would in some cases see the confluence of two legends originating on opposite sides of the Atlantic, which would merge as a result of the American-British cross-fertilization that was very much a feature of the later 60s (the most spectacular instances of this convergence being provided by Keith Richards and Jimmy Page). If the myth of Robert Johnson, and the blues more generally as the ‘devil’s music’ was one mythic hero, the second would be a figure whom I would personally prefer to ignore as intensely distasteful, but who unfortunately cannot be left out of any account of rock spirituality in its strange post-1966 quest for negative transcendence – Aleister Crowley.



[1] Although the origin of this hand sign is contested, it is widely attributed to John Lennon, who can be seen making the gesture on several photographs from 1967 which provided the basis for the cartoon art in the Yellow Submarine film (1969). It is sometimes asserted that Lennon was actually making the American sign language gesture for ‘love’; while this is plausible, the two signs are similar yet distinct, and it was Lennon’s hand position which – for whatever reason – was subsequently adopted by overtly occult bands from the end of the 1960s onwards.

[2] In this respect a particularly welcome development is the recent establishment of the Rock and Theology project spearheaded by Fordham University professor and rock bassist Tom Beaudoin.

[3] E. Michael Jones, Dionysos Rising: the Birth of Cultural Revolution out of the Spirit of Music (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 160-161.

[4] Ibid..

[5] Dionysos Rising, 156.

[6] Ibid., 85.

[7] Ibid., 94. In recent years, E. Michael Jones, presently editor of Culture Wars magazine, has increasingly been perceived as a conspiracy theorist rather than a serious scholar, dogged by persistent accusations of anti-semitism from many sources. The Catholic University of America’s cancelled a scheduled appearance by Jones in a lecture series in 2008, while in 2006 the Archbishop of Prague mentioned Jones by name as a panel participant in his condemnation for political extremism of a talk by Prof. John Rao, President of Roman Forum, titled “Novus Ordo Seculorum and the War on Terror”. Typically, Jones – whose claim to be ‘anti-Jewish’ but not ‘anti-Semitic’ speaks for itself – saw the Cardinal’s statement as the result of manipulation by local Jews.

[8] Giles Oakley, The Devil’s Music: a History of the Blues (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 219. Quoted Patricia R. Schroeder, Robert Johnson, mythmaking, and contemporary American culture (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 38.

[9] It is clear that Johnson’s fellow musicians made major contributions to the propagation of the Johnson mythology; it was for instance Sonny Boy Williamson who spread the idea that Johnson (who probably died of internal bleeding after being given poisoned whiskey) spent his last hours in a state of total breakdown, barking like a mad dog. This story naturally gave birth to the legend of the bluesman overtaken by the ‘hellhounds’ which can still be found in popular sensationalist treatments of Johnson’s life. In Robert Johnson: lost and found, scholars Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch make the important point that Johnson’s peculiar vocal delivery and playing on Hellhound seem to refer to an existing blues genre practised by artists such as Skip James, thereby suggesting that ‘autobiographical’ readings of the song are musicologically inappropriate.

[10] Intriguingly, Eric Clapton himself, whose descriptions of Johnson’s playing and singing verge on the religious, saw the Crossroads legend as baseless (see Andrew James Kellett, Fathers and Sons: American blues and British rock music, 1960-1970 (ProQuest: Ann Arbor, 2009), 231).

[11] Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom: the Content of Musical Form, (Berkeley/Los Angeles : University of California Press, 2000), 55.

[12] Patricia A. Schroeder, Robert Johnson, 40. As evidence of the continued hold of the Clarksdale myth over musicians’ imaginations,  it is interesting to note that in a PBS interview in 2004, Bob Dylan mysteriously referred to himself as making a ‘big deal’ at the ‘crossroads’ when asked about the source of his extraordinary creativity in the early 1960s, describing his own songwriting as inhabited by a type of magic. Dylan’s reasons for making this deliberate public reference to the Johnson legend are as unclear as the nature of this ‘deal’, but the poetic/symbolic allusion is explicit (Dylan began quoting  Robert Johnson in his songs as early as 1963 (‘Corrina, Corrina’ on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)).

[13] Ibid., 39.

[14] This is illustrated by the etymology of the word ‘juke’ or ‘jook’, whose origins are to be found in the Wolof word ‘dzug’, meaning ‘wicked, disorderly’ (Kellett, Fathers and Sons, 236n.). The links between the blues and folk ‘hoodoo’ religion in the American South have been powerfully explored by African-American scholar Julio Finn (The Bluesman: the Musical Heritage of Black Men and Women in the Americas (New York: Interlink Books, 1986) , who argues that Johnson’s Cross Road Blues alludes to the traditional guardian of the crossroads, the ‘trickster’ deity Legba of African folk religion, fused with the Christian Devil in the syncretistic context of the encounter of African religion with Southern Christianity. Finn asserts that it is by no means implausible that Johnson should be describing a ‘hoodoo’ ritual (Johnson’s acquaintance with local hoodoo practice being suggested by the inclusion of the hoodoo term ‘hot foot powder’ in Hellhound), and that the unwillingness of white academics to take the ‘supernatural’ accounts of Johnson’s work seriously merely reflect an inappropriate imposition of Western thought categories on a local situation heavily influenced by its African spiritual heritage.



One thought on “Spirituality in and out of focus – hellhounds on the trail? (i)

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