Rock & roll has always been rebel music. From the libido-charged, hip-shakin’ hillbilly sneer of Elvis Presley to the devil-worshiping, serial killer-obsessed, nazi-filled horror tales of Slayer, rock music, in all its permutations and perversions, revels in revolution and trespasses into the transgressive taboo.
Of course, for those interested in rebellion, there’s one figurehead who rises above all others as the first and most fierce rule-breaker ever. I’m talkin’ ’bout Satan here, kids. He was the first villain (or, if you prefer, the first antihero), the first pissed-off punker to give the middle finger to a higher power and say “fuck you” to authority. For all intents and purposes, Satan was, and is, the original gangsta.
It’s natural, then, that the forces of darkness have long held a potent influence on the world of rock & roll. The genre thrives on chaos and controversy, and when older forms of rebellion (whether they be salacious, pelvis-swingin’ dance moves or Manic Panic-dyed pink mohawk hairdo’s) lose their ability to shock the masses, the iconography of Satan, voodoo, and black magic never goes out of style.
Evil is always evil, and rockers can always depend on the subversive seduction of supernatural imagery.
Before there was rock & roll, though, there was the blues. Nothing scared parents (and white folk in general) like this unique, passionate new genre born out many generations of transformation within the realms of African religious music and traditional slave art. Simultaneously steeped in moods both mournful and celebratory, blues musicians expressed dissent and dissatisfaction with an unfair station in life, while also taking the time to shower praise on the finer things. Namely… sex, booze, gambling, partying, and all those other verboten pleasures of the flesh.
One of the best-remembered bluesmen of all-time remains the infamous Robert Johnson, whose seemingly inhuman expertise with the guitar (Eric Clapton once referred to Johnson as “the most important blues musician who ever lived”) built up a huge mystique around him. A long-held, and now downright mythologized, bit of pop culture folklore purports that Johnson’s skill was in fact a gift from the beast below. Legend has it that Johnson sold his soul, Faust-style, to no less an unholy icon than Old Scratch himself at a crossroads in Mississippi, and in return the devil taught him to play guitar better than any man on the face of the Earth. It was a legend Johnson seemed to have no problem perpetuating, adding fuel to the fire with such songs as “Me & The Devil Blues” and “Hellhounds On My Trail.”
Johnson died in the late 1930’s, under mysterious circumstances. To this day, people whisper rumors that it was Satan who took Johnson’s life, come to collect on his end of the crossroads’ bargain.
While Johnson may be one of the most well-known icons of diabolic occult-inflected blues, he was by no means alone. Allusions to superstitions and black magic rituals abound in classic blues songs. And, in truth, legends nearly identical to those told about Robert Johnson have surrounded many talented musicians over the years, including fellow bluesman Tommy Johnson (no relation to Robert).
God-fearing folk would eventually tame the blues, transforming it into the “gospel” genre much the same way they would later render punk rock toothless in the form of “new wave.” But the sinister seeds had already been planted. The deadly danger of blues had captivated enough honky kids that ethnic crossover was inevitable. Black and white were shades irrelevant. The young on both sides were beginning (even if full-on de-segregation was still all too far off) to see the world the same way: blood red. The hungry id of America’s alienated youth has always been the proving grounds where new trends in artistic rebellion would either blossom or burn. Thus, the new generations swallowed up the musical innovations and malevolent mysticism of Robert Johnson’s blues, and marched onward into the future, where they would mutate and re-emerge in the context of rock & roll.
…to be continued…