Unravelling the Legend of Robert Johnson
IN THE short space of seven months in the 1930s, a slender youth from Robinsonville, Mississippi, recorded twenty-nine blues sides in madeshift conditions, and a year later he was dead. But these two sessions, in Dallas and San Antonio, contain the greatest legend the blues has ever known, and precipitated a whole string of tales, theories, fancies and fabrications about the man which present such a incongruous pastiche when woven together that indeed Johnson’s life, his sudden fame and immediate death, is reminiscent of the kind of mysteries usually recounted exclusively in black magic anthologies.
But as that great authority Pete Welding points out: ‘What is important is not the truth or the fancy of the legends that have attached themselves to Johnson but the very FACT of them’.
Johnson’s blues were based on all the familiar themes and yet his music carried an intensity and primitive beauty which convey all his preoccupations and strictly personal statements rather than overworked verses designed merely to fit the metre of the chord structure.
And yet even in 1936-37 when Johnson recorded, this elemental music already contained the seeds which were to germinate and blossom as the blues moved to Chicago and became urbanized.
For when Muddy Waters first recorded for the Library of Congress some three years after Johnson’s assumed death, he had already fallen under his spiritual spell, although it was under the tutelage of Son House that Waters picked up the Johnson traits and recorded ‘I Be’s Troubled’, ‘You Got To Take Sic And Die’, ‘Burr Clover Blues’, ‘Country Blues No.1’, ‘Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You’, ‘Country Blues No.2’ and ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Dead And Gone’, all of which show an uncanny likeness to Johnson’s style. A year later Waters had taken his music with him to Chicago.
Yet it is wrong to assume that Johnson’s music had failed to filter North prior to this. For in 1938 the great blues collector John Hammond, planning a Carnegie Hall concert, set off for the South to purchase the recordings of ‘Terraplane Blues’ (Johnson’s greatest hit) and ‘Last Fair Deal Gone Down’, also to locate Johnson.
Hammond managed to enlist the services of ARC’s Don Law, who had recorded Johnson for Vocalion, and after scanning the deep South he learned that Johnson had been killed only a few weeks earlier.
Muddy Waters, although having met Robert Johnson, never in fact worked with him and admits to being more interested in just listening to the man play.
But Delta musicians such as Son House and Johnny Shines recall Johnson with a good deal more certainty, as indeed does St. Louis bluesman Henry Townsend, who spoke at length about Johnson in a fascinating interview with Pete Welding which appeared in Downbeat and later in Blues Unlimited.
Townsend remembers meeting Johnson in St. Louis in the early or middle thirties and confirms that he was slim, brown-skinned and in his late teens or early twenties he was quiet at all times, a very advanced musician and played slide "with some kind of a metal pipe". Townsend recalls that Johnson was a traveler although the two of them never went on the road as they were able to earn good money in and around St. Louis during the six months they played together.
But precisely how Johnson picked up and developed the rhythmic guitar style which relied on perfect phrasing and timing, is a matter for conjecture.
Son House met Johnson in 1933 when, he claims, he was playing jew’s harp infinitely better than guitar. "I think it was in Robinsonvile I met him. I got friendly with his mother and father, and he was blowing jew’s harp. Why then he could blow the pants off just about anyone, but he wanted to play guitar. When he grabbed guitar the people asked why don’t he stop; he was driving ‘em all crazy with his noise. Then he slipped off to Arkansas somewhere but sure enough he came back and he found us (Son was with Willie Brown at the time). We was asking if he remembered what we’d showed him but then he showed us something and we didn’t believe what we saw. I said to old Bill ‘that boy’s good’.
"But Robert was too quick to get excited and he’d believe everything the girls say; they’d be sayin’ things to him and he’d be thinkin’ they was meanin’ it; but we told him they didn’t mean no good and he went and got killed on the levee camp."
Johnny Shines was another to come under Johnson’s spell, and at the age of 55 he came across to Britain last year with many memories of Johnson, and evidently played extensively with him through Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri.
It appears as though they split up shortly before Johson’s death, and Shines remained in Memphis until 1941 when he moved up to Chicago. But is interesting that Shines recalled playing rent parties with Robert Johnson as far out as New York shortly before his death. Shines claimed that Johnson then went to Jersey and although Johnson continued to travel widely Shines kept getting news of him and finally caught up with him in St. Louis. Then Johnson went to Helena, Arkansas and shortly after that he died. As for the controversy of Johnson’s age Shines recalled that he was probably about 22, as he’d always assumed Johnson to be a year or so older than himself (which, in 1937 would have been 22).
Johnson’s music has survived until the present day, and it is remarkable that so many classics should be included in the twenty-nine sides he cut. ‘Dust My Broom’, ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, ‘Little Queen Of Spades’, ‘Love In Vain’, ‘Walking Blues’, ‘Crossroads Blues’ and ‘Hellhound On My Trail’, have all found commercial success, particularly numbers like ‘Love In Vain’, which the Stones recorded, ‘Crossroads Blues’ from the Cream and so on.
In 1966 CBS issued the sixteen track album King Of The Delta Blues Singers, which quickly became the bluesman’s bible; it is even rumoured that Johnny Winter learned to play slide guitar directly from listening to this album. This, and the limited edition Kokomo set, contained all 29 of Johnson’s recordings, and recently CBS came out with a second, sixteen track volume to complete their own catalogue of Johnson recordings); considering Johnson is surrounded by such an aura of mystique (indeed there are not even pictures or illustrations to show us what he looked like) the recordings and remasterings are of remarkably high quality.
And it is fitting that John Hammond, the man that look Dylan CBS was also partly responsible for preparing the Johnson album. Both Dylan and Johnson, on first hearing tend to evoke an identical reaction … a feeling which their music alone is capable of inducing. Sufficient to say the intense satisfaction is not based purely on the recognition of something magical but the exciting prospects of conveying a new underground music to others whose reaction is generally similar … a feeling of ambivalence, fascination and initial disgust before the ears are conditioned to accept such a raw, unsynthesised music.
To look briefly at the most feasible events in Johnson’s life (although anachronism are unavoidable), it appears as though he was born in commerce near Robinsonville and grew into a handsome slender man.
But Johnson was quick to develop an insatiable thirst for wine, women and traveling, and unlike most of his kind he wouldn’t deign to pick cotton on the plantations; thus he eventually moved away and played harmonica with Son House and Willie Brown.
He was evidently extremely shy, and from Don Law’s account he was taken to play before a group of Mexican musicians, where he suffered from an acute state of stage fright, eventually conceding to play only with his back to the audience.
In November 1936 he was recorded by an ARC field unit set up in a San Antonio hotel room, and possibly some masters were smashed in a brawl that developed. In June 1937 he was again recorded in Dallas, and although he was reported to be playing a seven string, guitar by this time, it wasn’t used on the sessions.
Johnson’s songs were filled with obsession for sex, fear of the supernatural, wanderlust and terrible premonitions — but he earned several hundred dollars for his records which was big money during the depression period in the Mississippi.
But it was his obsession with drink and women which was to prove his undoing, and he was killed by a jealous girlfriend, either by administering poison or with knife.
None of Johnson’s many disciples has ever been able to match his supreme intensity and majestic performance. He was clearly a genius — a kind of Messiah with a duty towards the blues. These tales have been diverse and often contradictory, but the most diverse set of theories are put forward by British blues singer Duffy Power, who has carried out a methodical analysis on the man through his music and the stories which are told of him. His findings are controversial, and whether or not there is any foundation to them, they at lest add another dimension to the mythical fabric.
"First of all I don’t believe he was shy because I just can’t believe that anyone who’s shy like that could sit with their backs to someone," says Duffy. "I think basically Johnson wasn’t known at that time because he was the sort of guy who didn’t like to give things and the reason why he sat with his back to people was to prevent them from seeing what chords he was playing," he considered.
Duffy, who claims to have been completely transfixed on first hearing Johnson also felt that the man had a sense of humour in spite of the suffering which came out in this lyrics, simply because of the seriousness of the lyrics. "I don’t think he was a normal cat, I think he was under more pressure than others and he acted out these ideas about himself in his songs, but even so I think they are a humorous interpretation of his horrors."
"From the timbres of his voice I should say he was about 25 when he died," went on Duffy (various reports put his death from late teens to 27 or 30, although the oldest age is the more popular suggestion).
"There must be something wrong with the kind of guy who never leaves an address or anything, while one of the greatest blues expressions is ‘Hellhound On My Trail’ which proves that he must have been touched. And if my theories are wrong, then I reckon he probably lived most of his life in South America."
© Jerry Gilbert, 1971