This is the latest installment in our weekly series, The Language of the Blues, in which author and rocker Debra Devi explores the meaning of a word or phrase from a blues song. Come back every week for the latest! Devi’s award-winning book, The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu, includes a foreword by Dr. John and is blurbed by Bonnie Raitt and Joe Bonamassa. Get your signed copy at Bluescentric.com!
The devil has many names down South, some derived from the Christianization among African slaves of West African trickster deities such as the Yoruban Eshu or Dahomean Legba. He’s “the man in black”– Papa Lebat” in Louisiana, “Scratch” in Missouri, and “Legba” in Mississippi. In blues songs “the devil” can also be a euphemism for a white slave-owner or boss.
In “Me and the Devil Blues,” Robert Johnson added fuel to the rumors that he had made a deal with the devil. Johnson sings of opening the door to Satan one morning and greeting him: “Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go.” That song includes one of the most chilling couplets in the blues:
Me and the Devil was walking side by side
I’m going to beat my woman until I get satisfied
So, can one really make a deal with the devil to become a great and famous musician in exchange for one’s soul? Probably not, but just in case, here’s a way to go about it: Get yourself a black cat bone. Cut your nails to the quick and put the trimmings in a small bag with the black cat bone. During a full moon, bring the bag and your guitar to a lonely crossroads a few minutes before midnight. Kneel in the middle of the crossroads and chant six times: “Attibon Legba, open the gate for me.”
Now sit cross-legged and play your best song. At the stroke of midnight, you will hear footsteps. Do not look up until they stop in front of you and a hand reaches down to take your guitar. Standing before you will be a tall man dressed in a sharp black suit. Do not speak to him. He will take your guitar, tune it, and play a song. When he hands it back to you, the deal is done and your soul belongs to him.
“Devil Got My Woman”- Skip James (Nehemiah Curtis James)
“Me and the Devil”- Robert Johnson
“Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)”- Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson – “Me and the Devil”