Demons, Devils and Witches: The Occult in Heavy Metal Music

Helen Farley
Helen Farley

Eugene Martone, his Fender Telecaster slung around his shoulder, walks tentatively onto the stage. He is here to play for the soul of his friend, bluesman Willie Brown, a harmonica player who in his youth made a deal with the Devil in return for musical virtuosity.

To represent his interests, Old Scratch has chosen Jack Butler, the archetypal heavy metal guitarist: brooding, long-haired with leather pants and a bad attitude.

Butler carelessly lugs a heavy-metal axe onto the stage, and the contest begins. Initially, it sounds as if Butler has the edge. His screaming, distorted guitar soars and crashes, transcending the blues as his fingers fly supernaturally up and down the fretboard. Strings are bent to breaking in this display of formidable virtuosity.

It looks all over for Martone, but from somewhere the unsure youth conjures complicated classical riffs and intoxicating rhythms in a dazzling display of speed and musical genius.

He snatches Brown’s soul back from Scratch as Butler, unable to match the youngster’s prowess, throws his guitar to the ground and stalks darkly off through the crowd.

This scene, featuring the climactic guitar duel, is taken from Crossroads, an otherwise ordinary movie from 1986, but what this nine-minute scene succinctly summarises is the close musical and thematic relationship between heavy metal music and the blues.

Satanism has long been associated with heavy metal. Concert goers display the “devil horns” hand gesture legendarily popularised by Black Sabbath vocalist Ronnie James Dio.

Song lyrics often have satanic or dark supernatural themes. Album covers are resplendent with demons or depict medieval encounters with mythical or magical figures.

The names of heavy metal bands often incorporate Christian and Jewish religious and occult terms; examples include Exodus, Testament, Cathedral, Armored Saint, Morbid Angel, Black Sabbath, Demon, and Possessed.

This article will investigate the association of heavy metal music with Satanism and the occult, tracing its lineage from American blues to the British Blues Boom of the 1960s to the beginnings of heavy metal in the late 1960s to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) that emerged in the 1970s.

Rarely have lyrics come under such close scrutiny as they have with heavy metal. The supernatural themes elaborated within the genre have attracted considerable media attention with several court cases proceeding against bands and record companies, whose music allegedly caused young people to suicide in response to the dark lyrical messages.

Further, youth rebellion, graveyard desecration, animal sacrifice, and other antisocial and offensive behaviours have been linked to heavy metal by sensationalist media, conservative politicians, and parent groups often with little or no supporting evidence.

With the themes of heavy metal attracting such close analysis, it becomes useful to determine the ultimate sources of the lyrical content. The lineage of heavy metal has been well-established.

The genre originated with Birmingham band Black Sabbath, who emerged towards the end of the British Blues Boom that spawned other influential bands including Cream and Led Zeppelin. These bands, in turn, drew their influences from the pre- and post-war American blues, maintaining not only a structural and melodic connection but also a thematic one (see Walser, Running with the Devil 8-9 and Wright 370).

The blues evolved from the impassioned music of a people violently abducted from their homes in Senegal, the Guinea coast, the Niger delta and the Congo in West Africa to an unknown territory inexplicably hostile (Stearns 17).

As a musical form, the blues was fully formed by the end of the nineteenth century (Ferris 123), having evolved from the field hollers that eased the burden of picking cotton.

Slaves sang to ease the erosion of their dignity and their abuse at the hands of their white oppressors (see Springer). Along with the blues evolved a lyrical vocabulary that ambiguously concealed criticisms of their abuse at the hands of plantation owners, providing a passive defiance and veiling inappropriate topics such as lurid sexuality or the expression of African spiritual beliefs. Though these songs were heard by the white folk, they remained unaware of the actual content of the lyrics.

From the beginning, blues was known as the “devil’s music.” It readily moved from the fields to the juke joints and house parties, an after-hours release from the day’s drudgery, becoming prevalent in the 1930s.

This burgeoning popularity saw blues become serious competition for the gospel music of the church (Ferris 83). A half-remembered African belief named the guitar, as Alan Lomax argues (360), as the ride of the devil and preachers exploited this link in order to boost church attendance at the expense of that for blues.

Further, both blues musicians and preachers were viewed in the black community as “men of words” or “good talkers,” and as such, they competed for the same audience (Szwed 115).

Though blues songs and spirituals shared certain structural similarities, they differed in lyrical content: blues spoke to the mundane anxieties of individuals; the spirituals addressed the sacred concerns of the broader community. The only hope for an improved situation lay in admission to heaven after death and anything jeopardising this ultimate reward was shunned.

In addition to singing, dancing was considered a valid way to express religious fervour in the black churches of the south, even though the dances were often lascivious.

Dancing was considered proper as long as the legs were not crossed as they were in European-style dancing with a partner (see Puckett 60 and Jones 43). To dance in such a manner was to embrace Satan; and those musicians providing the musical backdrop could expect a similar fate.

To exacerbate matters, preachers would sermonise about abstinence from sin and the evils of blues, frequently while running juke joints in their homes. Blues artists railed against this hypocrisy and blues became the voice of rejection of so-called respectable, but ultimately phoney, church-going society.

Blues musicians often sang about Vodou, a spiritual and magical system derived from Yoruba traditions. To a race of people obsessed with being “white” and rejecting their black skin — a topic discussed at length in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks — this remembrance of African religion was devilish.

White masters and missionaries had little tolerance for these folk beliefs, and indeed the Christian missionaries associated the Devil with the Yoruba god Èsù or the Haitian voodoo loa Papa Legba (Davis 105-6), long associated with the crossroads and the intermediary between humans and gods. This association is also exploited in the movie Crossroads, where the Devil goes by the name of “Legba.”

Because of this diabolical association, many blues musicians considered themselves to be in league with Satan. Peetie Wheatstraw (real name William Bunch) marketed himself as the “Devil’s Son-in-Law” or the “High Sheriff from Hell,” as Robert Palmer states in Deep Blues (127). Many other blues artists felt that if they were going to be labelled as cohorts of the Devil then they should play that role (Oliver 255), preferring honest performance to the hypocrisy of the preachers.

These shadowy associations formed the backdrop to the blues of America’s south. As time passed, intriguing legends arose: most are familiar with the story of Robert Johnson, whose tale was captivating enough to inspire the feature movie Crossroads. Just an average guitarist, Johnson sat in with Johnny Shines, Willie Brown, Son House, and Charlie Patton.

He disappeared from the scene for a year, only to reappear a consummate musician (Murray 109-10). Not only was Johnson morally suspect as a guitarist, but he was also rumoured to have entered into a formal arrangement with the Devil.

According to legend, Johnson had gone down to the crossroads, just as Dr Faustus did in that famous legend (Puhvel 169), and signed a pact with the Devil, delivering his soul in return for musical virtuosity, fame and all its trappings.

This was to be Robert Johnson’s escape from the extreme poverty into which he was born (Patterson 3). His song ‘Crossroad Blues’ reportedly portrays the scene of a man ‘standin’ at the crossroads’ and ‘sinkin’ down’ but receiving the ‘crossroad blues.’

Certainly, he lived as if he had a hellhound on his tail; soon becoming famous with an adoring woman in every town.

In 1936, and again in 1937, he recorded twenty-nine songs (six of which made explicit reference to Satan), providing him with more money than he had ever seen in his short life. Unfortunately, Johnson fulfilled his part of the bargain sooner than anticipated.

A jealous husband poisoned him with strychnine after a performance in 1938. He took several days to die and renounced the Devil on his deathbed, at the last appealing to God to save his soul.

It is difficult to say just when this legend first gained currency. Some claim Son House told the story to thrill European audiences during the 1960s blues revival, actually relating the story of Tommy Johnson. A decade earlier, Tommy had likewise sold his soul to the Devil in the form of Legba in return for prowess.

It was said that he went to the crossroads and a big black man strode up and tuned his guitar at the stroke of midnight (Murray 111). In fact, the open tunings used extensively in blues were generally associated with the Devil, and Robert Johnson’s use of them was seen as further evidence of collusion.

Johnson’s style has influenced generations of guitar players who in turn forged impressive careers of their own, including Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Jimmy Page, who in turn inspired Brian Robertson (Thin Lizzy, Motörhead), Phil Campbell (Motörhead), and Steve Clark (Def Leppard) among others.

In the United States, blues was presented on “race records” for a black audience. Though Elvis Presley drew much of his influence from the genre, white listeners were shocked by the raw emotions and blatant sexuality conveyed by the music.

By the mid-sixties, however, blues had become enormously popular with British folk and pop artists, many of whom had begun their careers in blues outfits.

Pink Floyd took their name from two obscure blues singers from rural South Carolina: Pink Anderson and Floyd Council (Boyd 43). Others bands following this route included the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Animals, and Jethro Tull.

From the early 1950s, black blues artists began to tour Europe to wide critical acclaim, and this was to be the first significant white audience that blues garnered.

Big Bill Broonzy toured in 1951 with his twelve-string guitar. Muddy Waters first toured Britain in 1958 and initially received a hostile reception because he played electric guitar rather than a “traditional” acoustic one (Palmer, Rock & Roll 115).

Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Victoria Spivey, Otis Rush, and John Lee Hooker also became popular as a result of these early visits (Clayson 44).

Blues records were difficult to buy, but nevertheless, it was through this medium that the English musicians dug beyond the works of the touring artists, to an earlier generation of American blues players that included Robert Johnson. The albums had to be ordered in from the United States, and a few stores stocked them in London (Clayson 50).

Some musicians, in particular, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, learnt all they could about the music and the people that originated the form (Coleman 38), evolving into blues virtuosos at a time when guitarists were traditionally subservient to the vocalist.

They were the first guitar heroes, combining the rock ‘n’ roll of Chuck Berry with the deep blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf (Walser, Running with the Devil 9).

Clapton, then with the super-group Cream, worshipped at the altar of Robert Johnson, performing several blues covers, including Johnson’s Crossroads Blues, which became simply Crossroads (Coleman 38).

Clapton fully immersed himself in the lore surrounding this legendary performer, intrigued by Johnson’s diabolical connections.

The result became evident in an interview he gave in July 1974, included in Palmer’s Deep Blues, following a concert with his post-Cream band, Derek and the Dominos: “Once with the Dominos, we dropped some acid in San Francisco and apart from the fact that the guitar was made of rubber, every bad lick I had, every naughty lick, blues lick […] whatever you want to call it, turned the audience into all these devils in sort of red coats and things. And then I’d play a sweet one, and they all turned into angels. I prefer playing to angels personally.” (128-29)

Because of this hallucinogenic vision, Clapton steered clear of the blues for some years.

Jimi Hendrix, brought to England by the Animals’ Chas Chandler, was instrumental in introducing musical virtuosity to British rock music. His pioneering guitar techniques and brash reinterpretation of the blues standards of his childhood fuelled the British Blues Boom.

Hendrix had experienced the blues firsthand, cutting his chops with the likes of Little Richard, B. B. King, Sam Cooke, and Solomon Burke. His music also replicated the themes of the blues, particularly the association with all that is devilish and dark.

With ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’, Hendrix made a statement about his identity, just as Peetie Wheetstraw and Robert Johnson did some forty years before: “Lord knows I’m a voodoo chile.”

The British Blues Boom coincided with a burgeoning interest in the occult. In the 1950s Gerald Gardner “exposed” traditional witchcraft and Alex Sanders professed to be a hereditary witch, initiated by his grandmother.

The use of psychedelic drugs and cannabis was becoming widespread by those seeking a shortcut to spiritual experience.

In the United States, Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan was founded, part of a wider movement against the establishment.

Films such as ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968) and ‘The Exorcist’ (1973) proved popular, reflecting a desperate need to fill the void left by the declining authority of traditional religion (Russell 253).

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