“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. No other statement could better encapsulate the life and legacy of Robert Johnson, the King of the Delta blues. As music’s answer to Faust, the fiction has outlived the fact. It has curled the toes of many, and lined the pockets of the few. His story has fed and feeds our superstitious tendencies. It makes for good print, but perhaps tarnishes the real, living and breathing man behind the legend.
Behind the narrative there is an incomparable musician. There is a man — a human being with real emotion and raw passion. There is a deep-rooted anguish for the loss of two wives and a child. There is a boy who died too young, and there is an artist who could not possibly know of the impact he would have on music.
In the midst of our lives, myths nourish the spatters of the beige day to day. Although Johnson’s life was anything but dish water, it’s a story far too sumptuous in lieu of the truth.
So it goes…
It is the Mississippi Delta in the late 1920s. The blues is witnessing the musical salvo that is, Delta blues. Son House, Big Joe Williams, Charley Patton, Bukka White, among others, are shaping the foundation for blues music as we know it. With one person and a guitar, these musicians sing of subjugation and woe, but too of passion, sex and celebration. In juke joints across the Delta, plantation workers come for entertainment and respite. After one juke joint, the itinerant blues artists leave for the next.
Enter Robert Johnson. As an aspiring bluesman, and amidst the stiff competition, Johnson tried his hand at his local juke joints and street corners. In his formative years he wasn’t so much as run-of-the-mill, as he was, by all accounts, terrible. As esteemed bluesman, Son House recalled,
“Folks they come and say, ‘Why don’t you go out and make that boy put that thing down? He running us crazy’”.
Outgunned; needs must when the devil drives. Under cover of a moonlit scene, Johnson goes down to the crossroads and gets down on his knees. At the crossroads he meets Lucifer who was, you know, just out for a leisurely stroll as the Devil does. A bargain is struck. For Johnson’s soul he receives otherworldly musical abilities.
Johnson returns to Delta juke joints, but instead of further embarrassment, he makes his guitar sing and his soulful voice strikes awe in the audience who came for another laugh. The logical explanation for Johnson’s nigh overnight mastery of the guitar: a deal with the devil.
A few years after touring the Deep South and recording twenty-nine songs, Johnson is poisoned by a jealous husband. The blues’ Lothario, Johnson, paid the price for his relentless womanising. At the ripe age of twenty-seven, and as a twenty-seven club original, he had the devil to pay.
So alluring was Johnson’s story that it was inevitable picked up and regurgitated not least by the record companies who sold his music. Why print the truth when you can sell the myth?
Even Steve Berkowitz, a once producer and A&R executive at Columbia conceded that the myth was knowingly perpetuated.
“That was always the heart and soul of the marketing plan, we always knew the music was great. But a guy sells his soul to the devil at midnight down at the crossroads, comes back and plays the hell out of the guitar, and then he dies. I mean, it’s a spectacular story”.
Frankly, Johnson’s tall tale belies the hard-working and troubled musician whose music turned the blues on its head.
Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi around 1911 to Julia and Noah Johnson, but it was Julia’s previous husband, Charles Dodds, who played the father to Johnson. Dodds had been a successful farmer in Hazlehurst whom Julia had ten children with. After narrowly avoiding being lynched due to a dispute with two Italian Hazlehurst landowners, Dodds had since fled to Memphis by the time Johnson was born. It was in this time that Julia took up with Noah.
As a boy Robert was sent to live with Dodds in Memphis. There he was taught the nuts and bolts of the guitar by one of his brothers. When Johnson moved back to his mother in Mississippi, he was faced with having to work on the local plantation despite being more interested in becoming a musician.
At nineteen, Johnson married Virginia Travis. But after one short year of marriage, Virginia died during childbirth. Alone, Johnson moved to Robbinsville where Son House and Willie Brown were staples of the blues scene. Here Johnson tested the water in his local juke joints. At this point, Johnson was an unaccomplished musician in a den of lions. Thus, having little success in Robbinsville, Johnson duly left much to the delight of the collective Robbinsville ear.
The tale’s fork in the road or rather where Johnson sells his soul happened here after leaving Robbinsville. In truth, after the world chewed Johnson up and spat him back out, he sought the tutelage of esteemed musician, Ike Zimmerman.
As a distinguished guitar tutor, Ike took Robert under his proverbial wing. Johnson moved into Ike’s shack in Beauregard, Mississippi for guitar lessons. As a voracious student, Johnson was keen to learn everything he could from Ike. At night, the two would travel through the nearby crossroads to tour the local cemeteries, particularly Beauregard and Hazlehurst cemeteries, to play among the dead. Again, this was more fuel to the fire of Johnson’s supernatural rumours. In all likelihood, the two were merely avoiding any unwanted noise complaints.
After roughly two years under Ike, Johnson had honed his craft, but it was time to play for the living. On the road, Ike and Robert toured juke joints around Texas often playing as a duet. Johnson was able to gather live experience so that he could finally ply his trade as a professional musician. When the pupil had become the master, the two went their separate ways.
Around 1932, and hopefully on the highest of horses, Johnson returned to Son House and Willie Brown a consummate bluesman. As Son House said,
“He was so good. When he finished, all our mouths were standing open”.
According to author and blues guitarist, Scott Ainslie the origins of Johnson’s soul selling shenanigans started with Son House remarking that,
“[Johnson] must have sold his soul to the devil to be able to do that’”.
What was perhaps a passing comment became part of the mounting legend of Robert Johnson.
Johnny Shines, a friend and contemporary of Johnson, vehemently denied the rumour, but the seeds had already been sown,
“He never told me that lie. If he would’ve, I would’ve called him a liar right to his face. You have no control over your soul. How you gonna do anything with your soul?”
Undeterred, Johnson continued his journey as a troubadour.
In 1936, the next logical step for Johnson’s career was to record. Johnson sought H.C. Speir, a talent scout for ARC, who was the first to record his work.
In San Antonio, Johnson recorded a collection of songs with “Terraplane Blues” being the standout single. “Terraplane Blues” had local success though nothing compared to his posthumous global fame. One year later, Johnson’s nominal record sales earned him another recording session in Dallas. This was to be his last recording session having recorded a total of twenty-nine sides.
Up until his death in 1938, Johnson continued to tour juke joints across the south. The truth of his death is still somewhat murky. The poisoning story suits the myth, but his death certificate pointed to syphilis. Some even suggest that Johnson had a rare genetic disorder, Marfan’s syndrome. It is also contested that Johnson died of pneumonia which can be brought on by syphilis, poisoning or Marfan’s syndrome, so the jury is officially out.
Johnson died relatively unknown to the wider world. It took the highly regarded talent scout of Columbia Records, John Hammond to pluck Johnson’s music from falling into obscurity after vying for the release of Johnson’s opus in 1961, The King of the Delta Blues.
Before the 1961 reissue, Hammond had wanted Johnson to feature on the line-up for the momentous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, “From Spirituals to Swing.” Of course, Hammond was informed that Johnson had sadly passed away only months before the concert was set to occur.
The aforementioned 1961, The King of the Delta Blues, is perhaps truly when Johnson’s music took hold of the world. Bored with how trite rock and roll had become, a new generation of musicians were mining the visceral sound of the blues for inspiration. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Peter Green, among others, all took notable influence from Johnson’s, The King of the Delta Blues.
Johnson’s songs became, and are still, blues standards. His work has been covered by some of music’s pillars, Eric Clapton, Elmore James, Dinah Washington, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Howlin’ Wolf and so many more.
Johnson struck an enigmatic character even without the myth that surrounded him. His lyrics and music enraptured a generation intent on somehow emulating his strong voice of self-expression through the lens of their own context. It started with the blues and developed into rock, which continues to develop.
That 1961 album was perhaps one of the most substantial LPs to solemnly grace the Earth. It became a blueprint for the development of rock music inspiring the inspirers.
The legacy of Robert Johnson has been eternalised not just through its myth, and Johnson’s inimitable artistry, but too through its lasting inspiration. As Eric Clapton said, Robert Johnson was,
“The most important blues singer that ever lived”.