The story of the blues singer who sells his soul to the devil at the crossroads in order to acquire skill as a guitar player is doubtlessly familiar to many Americans living today. In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the story is told first hand by a character named "Tommy Johnson." Johnson is played in the movie by real-life musician, Chris Thomas King. Though the story is familiar enough on its own, it has obvious parallels to similar stories in European culture going back to the "Faust" narrative and perhaps even to the Orpheus myth in Greek culture, and it probably has equivalents in African American folklore as brought to North America during the slave trade. Such stories have also found lease in the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the musical "Damn Yankees." So, regardless of any particular reader of the film's own familiarity with the blues legend, the narrative outline is firmly entrenched in the cultural imagination of the United States. The initial appearance of the "Tommy Johnson" character in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is available below:
What distinguished the character "Tommy Johnson" in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, however, is that the particular variation of soul-selling that is the crossroads story only gained widespread currency in the 1960s. This fact is curious in that, for many familiar with the story, it refers to the blues singer Robert Johnson. Johnson made a few dozen recordings in the middle 1930s and by popular consent (if not musicological fact) is considered to be the quintessential performer of "Delta blues," a style of African-American music originating in the Delta region of upper Mississippi sometime in the 1920s.
Though Johnson made recordings, he was not well known outside of a small core of white blues enthusiasts and African Americans who attended his performances and bought his records during the 1930s. Johnson was slated to perform in Columbia Records' talent scout and A & R man John Hammond's justly lauded concert series "From Spirituals to Swing" at Carnegie Hall when it was discovered that he had died under suspicious circumstances. The mystery of his death, as well as the proclamation that he had "sold his soul to the devil" to play the guitar no doubt anchored interest in him as much as his recording legacy. When the urban folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s created a niche market for old recordings of Delta blues-a form that had largely died out or morphed by the 1940s as African Americans moved northward, evidenced by the electric style of Muddy Waters et al-Johnson was one of the first to receive the reissue treatment. In the ensuing years, his championing by rock musicians like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards as well as the "complete" recordings (41 in all) has ensured that amongst the performers of Delta blues, Johnson is easily the most well-known.
It seems likely, then, that casual examination of O Brother,
Where Art Thou? would lend an assessment that "Tommy Johnson"=Robert
Johnson. However, according to a number of blues scholars,
the musician known in real life as Tommy Johnson was probably
the originator of the "devil at the crossroads" story as it
applied to a blues musician. Though they were unrelated, both
Johnsons originated from relatively the same area of Mississippi.
Given that Tommy Johnson began making recordings several years
before Robert began his own career. Tommy was also significantly
older than Robert. Though the filmmakers seem to be making
a sly reference to insider knowledge in naming their character
"Tommy Johnson," it is also entirely probable that the story
comes from any number of other, unrecorded and forgotten blues
musicians from the Delta. Regardless of the naming of the
character, "Tommy Johnson" is attired in clothing akin to
what (for a long time) was considered to be the only extant
photograph of Robert Johnson, pictured wearing a hat and suit
with a guitar propped on his crossed legs. Complicating the
"Tommy Johnson" problem even more is the song that Chris Thomas
King performs in the film solo, as his character. It is titled
"Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" and its composer and original
performer is neither the real Tommy Johnson nor Robert Johnson
but another Delta blues singer and musician who performed
as "Skip" James. Ostensibly a song about the Great Depression,
James' original version possesses a echo-heavy guitar which
accompanies the singer's quite eerie falsetto voice. Though
not as effecting as the original, Chris Thomas King (who plays
the guitar and sings himself) performs the song in a suitably
mournful manor. A clip from the film of Chris Thomas King performing is below, followed by Skip James' originial:
Skip James: "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues"
But what are readers of the film to make of this character,
"Tommy Johnson"? If you examine the contours of the form of
the "crossroads" story and take into account its historical
and cultural context, the narrative reveals itself (in my
interpretation) to possess powerful instructional purpose
as a metaphor. Blues singers of the Delta region were itinerant
performers; though some of them certainly played for money
as street performers and nearly all of them played for white
people at segregated parties, a great deal of importance must
be stressed upon the role of the "juke" joint in Southern
African-American culture. The word "juke" itself is derived
from a west African word that meant, more or less, "bad."
Though the impact of its connotative power has diminished
as "jukebox" become common parlance, a "juke joint" were blues
musicians would perform retains the association by virtue
of the activities that accompanied the music; i.e., drinking,
promiscuous sex, and frequent violence. In pitching oneself
as allied with the devil (as both Robert and Tommy Johnson
claimed to have done) the performer acknowledges and accepts
a role within (or rather against) social conventions that
fell alongside the more destructive impulses of the culture.
In the sense that blues music accompanied destructive behavior,
it truly can be seen as the "devil's music" and its practicioners
are left to sketch in the details of their chosen lifestyle
in song. The "Tommy Johnson" character in O Brother, Where
Art Thou? can be seen as a sort of archetypal blues singer
from this regard in that he embodies both the particulars
of its most famed practicioner--down to the way he is dressed
like Johnson--as well as being a kind of stereotype stand-in
for any other performer of the era and style.
However, none of the interpretation above carries much weight within O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The character "Tommy Johnson" is immediately identifiable as he appears on screen both by his naming himself and explaining his character, and visually by the shot of the fabled "crossroads" of his attendant narrative. According to Barthes' principles of "mythic language," the character "Tommy Johnson" is already operating within the sphere of mythic discourse. No explanation is given as to the context of either "blues singer" or "selling your soul to the devil"; of course, this is because none is needed. Given the post-1960s rise of the real Robert Johnson's name and mythos within the general culture of the United States, this allusion within the film stands alone as a meta-linguistic "signifier"-though of course, other than the pleasure of allusion, just what the sign and the signified are in this equation remains to be seen.