Compassionate and Sadistic: Johnson on Women

by: Janet E. Webb

Robert Johnson's music captures intense emotions that contrast profoundly. Two strong and conflicting attitudes toward women illustrate this sharp contrast. These attitudes are reflected in two songs, "When You Got A Good Friend," which portrays a compassionate man with capacities for caring, understanding, and remorse, and "Me And The Devil Blues," which reveals sadistic tendencies of callousness, isolation, and impenitence. The emotions range from an astute understanding of the value of a sound relationship to a shameless and diabolical disregard for a relationship. These are expressed through content, structure, and sound in each song.

The content, structure, and sound of "When You Got A Good Friend," express the importance of strong relationships. The man portrayed in this song advises others to care for a good woman. He says, "Give her all of your spare time / love and treat her right" (32). This man not only expresses his own sense of caring by describing how to maintain a strong relationship, but in giving advice that will benefit other men, he is expanding that sense of caring. He not only values the relationship he had with this woman, but he encourages strong relationships in others, expressing a higher level of cognitive awareness. He is a person who understands that to be connected to others in meaningful ways is crucial to personal fulfillment. This knowledge causes him remorse because he has failed to do what he knows is best. He says, "Everytime I think about it / I just wring my hands and cry" (32). Yet, this man hopes for another chance when he says, "Wonder could I bear apologize / or would she sympathize with me" (32). The content expresses a logical progression of thought process in which the man exhibits good judgment. The song's circular structure, ending where it begins, adds a sense of balance and completeness. The sound of the music lends a sense of warmth and security.

On the contrary, the content, structure, and sound of "Me and the Devil Blues" work aggressively to create a chilling alternative. This man professes an acceptance of an evil relationship. He welcomes the Devil, saying, "Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go" (46). He accepts himself as an evil man, the devil's equal, saying "Me and the Devil was walkin side by side" (46). These lines that describe the strong bonding of himself with evil accentuate the devaluation of his relationship with his woman. He says, "I'm goin' to beat my woman until I get satisfied" (46). This egocentric statement asserts a conscious dismissal of her feelings in favor of his. It portrays an utter lack of caring. His complete lack of compassion depict the extent of his alienation from relationships with women. He says, "You may bury my body, ooh / down by the high way side / so my old evil spirit / can get a Greyhound bus and ride" (46). He has given up hope of fulfillment and sees himself destined to wander aimlessly forever. This man's thought process moves from acceptance of evil and brutality, to aimless wandering. He has not found fulfillment and has given up hope. He says, "I don't care where you bury my body when I'm dead and gone" (46). The structure of this song adds to the sense of alienation from relationships because there is no closure. It seems to drift off into infinity. The music conveys an eerie coldness that cries in supernatural tones of emptiness and despair.

Johnson had a unique insight into the complexity of human emotion. He was skilled in the ability to use words as tools to build or weapons to destroy. This proficiency matched with his ability to structure a song in a way that accentuates his message and create music that only compliments but further develops the emotions to a complex degree raises him above the level of the average songwriter. It is a true artist who has the imagination to accomplish this. In these two contrasting songs, Johnson imparts a strong message that a life of caring and valuing relationships leads to fulfillment while a life that lacks caring will lead to isolation, aimless wandering, and despair.