ap history: delta blues great robert johnson

September 5, 2011

There are some musicians whose legend overshadows their work itself. Artists whose massive volume of work is worthy of legend are often reduced to small anecdotes: Van Gogh cut off his ear, Ozzy bit the head off a bat, Brian Wilson befriended serial killers and could only write in a sandbox. In the case of delta blues great Robert Johnson, who in his lifetime only recorded a meager 29 songs, the legend of him selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads for guitar ability is so attractive because it is one of the few things we know at all about him.

Contributor: Nathan Leigh

For the uninitiated, the legend goes something like this:
Raised in Robinsonville Mississippi, Robert Johnson began his music career as a capable but unremarkable harmonica player. After the death of his young wife in childbirth, Johnson began tagging along with local blues legend Son House to gigs. Although Johnson was an able harmonic player, House considered his guitar playing embarrassing. At 20, Johnson moved to Martinsville, Mississippi and there he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for talent at the guitar. He was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There a large black man took his guitar, tuned it, and handed it back. When Johnson returned to Robinsonville a year and a half later, he had become a true master of the instrument, surpassing even Son House’s skill by his own admission.

Like most people who came of age in the heyday of Napster, I experienced history out of order. After having been exposed to the Dead Kennedys and taken to countless Darkbuster and The Unseen shows in my youth, I remember actually hearing the Ramones for this first time and being utterly baffled that people considered it “punk.” What in those sunny harmonies and goofy lyrics reflected my suburban anger and desire to rebel? I had the same experience listening to the Grateful Dead for the first time, and not understanding how their affable Americana inspired such surreal and psychedelic imagery. I was similarly caught off guard by Robert Johnson’s music the first time I heard it. Familiar with his legend, I expected the music be somehow “Satanic.” Maybe not like the industrial music derided in my youth for its’ demonic overtones (it seems almost quaint now how many scandalized teachers demanded that students removed their Marilyn Manson t-shirts), but certainly I expected it to be more rebellious, heavier than other delta blues. What I heard instead was the sound of pain and hardship. The music of someone who had known a hard life and loneliness. Far from being “devil music,” this was the epitome of the blues.

Robert Johnson was far from the first artist accused of selling his soul to the devil for his talent, and far from the last. Living in an era where religious music was not simply relegated to the bottom half of the FM dial, Johnson was an unapologetic secular musician. At the time, playing secular music was literally referred to as selling one’s soul to the devil. Johnson courted and encouraged the association with his songs like Hellhound On My Trail, and Me and the Devil Blues.

“Early this morning
When you knocked upon my door
And I said hello Satan
I believe it’s time to go”
* Robert Johnson Me and the Devil Blues

Although Me and the Devil Blues is ultimately a song about an abusive husband and Hellhound on My Trail is one of Robert Johnson’s many odes to wanderlust, the two songs are routinely cited as proof of Johnson’s Faustian bargain. Johnson further compounded the rumor by studying guitar with Martinsville guitarist Ike Zinnerman in a graveyard. The superstitious of the town believed the two were gaining skill from the spirits of the dead. The pragmatic acknowledge that it was likely one of the few quiet places in town they could practice at night.

In the feel-good TV movie version of his life, Johnson would return from Martinsville (skipping over the fact that he abandoned his new wife and child after a year and a half) to critical and financial success. Roll credits. But Robert Johnson’s career as a professional bluesman was anything but successful and easy. He hitch hiked from town to town across the midwest and south, often playing for tips and meals in jook joints. Johnson’s greatest success, and ultimately his greatest legacy came in 1936 and 37 when he recorded a handful of songs for Texas based Brunswick Records.

The songs Johnson recorded over two recording sessions have become known as some of the greatest recordings ever made in the blues era. His guitar work was passionate, dynamic, and technically masterful, while his voice showed a degree of control and subtlety that is often overshadowed by his pain and intensity. Some of the 78’s became small regional hits during his lifetime, while most would not be released until after his death.

Like the story of his sudden metamorphosis from an amateur to one of the greatest guitarists ever to live, the story of Johnson’s death has achieved mythical proportions. There are countless small variations depending on who is telling it, but what is generally agreed upon is that Johnson was cut down in the prime of his career in a fit of irony worthy of Alanis Morissette. (note: does not condone or sanction Ms. Morissette’s flagrant disregard for the actual meaning of the word irony.).

While performing at a jook joint outside of Greenwood, Mississippi, Robert Johnson was handed a bottle of whiskey laced with poison. Most versions of the story agree that it was poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman Johnson had been flirting with. Sometimes he is the owner of the joint and sometimes simply an audience member. Sometimes the poison is strychnine and sometimes it’s something else. Over the next three days, according to witnesses, Johnson’s condition worsened considerably until he died convulsing in pain. Barely 27, Johnson was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere near Greenwood. Meanwhile famed talent scout John Hammond was searching out Robert Johnson to invite him to perform at Carnegie Hall.

Despite decades of research and the efforts of a small army of music historians, a full accounting of the undisputed facts about Robert Johnson’s life would barely fill a paragraph. Extrapolations, interpolations, rumors, and hearsay about his life could (and do) fill volumes. In the end there are 42 known recordings of him. 29 songs with 13 alternate takes. A decade long career as one of the greatest delta blues guitarists of all time, if not the greatest, reduced to a mere one hour and 42 minutes. Perhaps that is why his legend still fascinates and remains one of the most iconic stories of the blues era. His music is timeless, but finite. But speculation and rumor can entertain forever.