In 1937, Robert Johnson recorded one of the most haunting blues songs of all time, “Hellhound on My Trail.” While experts debate the exact meaning of Johnson’s lyrics, the imagery is chilling. The first time I heard the song, I immediately imagined a beast like the Hound of the Baskervilles chasing a blues singer through the backwoods of Mississippi.
The association between dogs and the underworld is very widespread in ancient folklore and has continued into modern times. In ancient Egypt and Rome, fearsome dogs guarded the gates to the underworld. The British Isles have a rich tradition of “black dog” lore. Such critters are associated with death, bad omens, the Devil, and crossroads. It’s no surprise then, that when Europeans settled in the mountains of Appalachia, they brought their folk tales with them. In Virginia Folk Legends, Thomas E. Barden writes that during the New Deal, researchers employed by the Virginia Writers’ Project gathered twenty-one narratives of supernatural and/or “devil” dogs in their collecting, most of them from Appalachia and all of them from mountainous regions of the state. One striking aspect of the stories is how similar their descriptions of ghostly dogs are. “The dogs are always large and black, and they have remarkable eyes, which are variously described as being red, ‘as big a saucers,’ and ‘shining like balls of fire.’”