“Me and the Devil” is a superbly constructed piece of pop music in the style of the best urban studio performers of the time. It has the easy intimacy of the studio, rather than the loud attack of the streets and jukes, and its effect is carefully calculated. The lyric, as well, has more than a touch of hip humor and sophistication.
This is an aspect of [Robert] Johnson’s work, and of blues in general, that has far too often been overlooked or undervalued. White writers, performers, and audiences, living in a world where blackness is routinely equated with toughness, violence, primitivism, and innate rather than conscious artistry, have a tendency to interpret songs rather differently than the black songwriters, musicians, and audiences that supported blues as a modern, relevant pop style. Dave Van Ronk, one of the pioneer white revivalists, told me of a performance he once gave at a blues festival in New England. He arrived late, and did not know who else was on the bill, but gave his usual show, ending with a shouting steamroller version of “Hoochie Coochie Man,” full of aggressive macho bluster. Exiting to wild applause, he found to his embarrassment that Muddy Waters, the song’s originator, had been sitting in the wings watching him. Waters, always the gentleman, hastened to put him at ease. “That was very good, son,” he said, putting his hand on Dave’s shoulder. Then he added, “But you know, that’s supposed to be a funny song.”