If there is one singer/guitarist who encapsulates the hoodoo of the blues, it is Robert Johnson. His basic recordings bore many followers. And his early demise – at just 27 years of age – means there is always the question: what if? 101 years after he was born, the legend of Robert Johnson won’t go away…
Robert Johnson: the music
If you are new to Robert Johnson, you don’t have much to listen to. He recorded just 29 songs - some with alternate takes - and never enjoyed widespread fame in his brief lifetime. But his music eventually hit nerves. “Cross Road Blues” (reworked by Cream as “Crossroads”) has become a blues staple. Did Johnson even write it? Maybe not. “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Rambling on My Mind,” “Love in Vain,” "Me and the Devil Blues" and others all became lauded and much-covered… but blues musicians of the 1930s swapped songs as much as they did women. But clearly, Johnson’s blues hit home.
Robert Johnson: the myth
Johnson’s whole life and death remain shrouded in mystery. His birth date remains questioned. His “real” grave has been the subject of debate. The strongest myth is of his guitar skills and untimely death. Johnson is the lifeblood of the story of a “Faustian pact” with the devil.
He was a poor guitarist at first, said his peers. Son House recalled in Living Blues how he played with Johnson. House wrote: "And such a racket you never heard! It'd make the people mad, you know. They'd come out and say, 'Why don't y'all go in and get that guitar away from that boy! He's running people crazy with it!” But after only a few months away, Johnson returned to Delta jukes playing like no other. Even Muddy Waters admitted he was astounded when he saw Johnson playing a street corner.
Did Johnson meet the devil at the crossroads? Did the devil “tune” his guitar in return for his soul? Myth says, yes.
I interviewed the late David “Honeyboy” Edwards, himself a delta blues great, in the mid-‘90s. Honeyboy was a friend of Johnson and the last to play a juke joint with him, a few days before Johnson died.
Of Johnson’s “pact with the devil”, Honeyboy said, “Aww, I don't know about that. He told me a story but… I don’t know.” Honeyboy paused for a while at this point, and declined to elaborate, but possibly because he’d been asked the “devil” question too many times before.
“Robert was a good guitar player, that’s sure,” Honeyboy added. “He liked a drink, too. I used to go down and play the crossroads, in the country. Robert did too. We were all learning chords – eventually I got a chord book – but we all learned from other blues players: ‘how you do that? Where do I put my fingers? But, yeah, Robert was good at guitar.”
Myth also says Johnson died after being poisoned by a jealous husband, whose wife Johnson had been wooing… or more. “Robert liked women. I like women, too,” Honeyboy laughed. “I dunno. He was just gone one day… but he’d just turn up somedays, so it wasn’t no mystery to me.”
The notion of Johnson’s pact with evil is embellished by one of his most haunting songs. “Me and the Devil Blues” has lyrics of “Me and the devil walking side by side” and “hello Satan, I believe it’s time to go.” Add “Cross Road Blues”, “Hellhound on My Trail” and others, and it’s plain to see why some still believe the myth of Robert Johnson’s pact with the devil.
Bluesman Tommy Johnson - a forerunner of Johnson, but no relation – once said: "If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there be sure to get there just a little ' fore 12 that night so you know you'll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself… A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he'll tune it. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you. That's the way I learned to play anything I want."
Robert Johnson: the guitarist
Johnson was certainly adept. He played a Gibson L-1 – the flat top version introduced in 1926. Legend has it that Johnson recorded all his music facing the corner of the hotel rooms where his songs were cut. Ry Cooder has speculated he was enhancing the sound of his Gibson, a technique Cooder calls "corner loading." Others speculate Johnson was simply hiding to everyone what his hands were actually doing.
Johnson clearly used a variety of alt tunings, but his fingers sometimes sound incredibly nimble for a 1930s delta blues player. But again, maybe it’s not accurate?
In The Guardian from May 2010, music writer Jon Wilde states that “the common consensus among musicologists is that we've been listening to [Robert] Johnson at least 20% too fast, that the recordings were accidentally speeded up when first committed to 78 [rpm records], or else were deliberately speeded up to make them sound more exciting."
Former Sony music executive Lawrence Cohn, who won a Grammy for the label's 1991 reissue of Johnson's works, acknowledged: “there's a possibility Johnson's 1936-37 recordings were sped up,” since the OKeh/Vocalion family of labels, which originally issued the material, was “notorious” for altering the speed of its releases. “Sometimes it was 78rpms, sometimes it was 81rpms,” Cohn said.
Original Robert Johnson masters are long gone, so who will now ever know?
Robert Johnson: his death
Johnson had exceptionally long fingers, as seen in the only two (or three) photos of him. Some doctors speculate Johnson appeared to suffer from Marfans Syndrome. People with the rare genetic disorder tend to be unusually tall, with long limbs and long, thin fingers. It also affects the eyes – Johnson had “eerie” eyes, no question – and Marfans affects the heart. It can result in early death. Johnson ticked all the boxes of a Marfans sufferer, particularly his hands and eyes. So maybe poorly Robert simply died a natural death after a skinful of whiskey?
The Johnson legend of poisoning, via whiskey laced with strychnine, makes little sense. Johnson myth has it that he died on his hand and knees howling “like a dog”. Death by strychnine poisoning is irrefutably violent and painful, but strychnine kills within hours – Johnson was reportedly ill for two or three days before his demise.
Musicologist Robert "Mack" McCormick spent years research Johnson’s life. McCormick once claimed to have tracked down the man who murdered Johnson, and to have obtained a confession from him in a personal interview. Yet McCormick has declined to reveal the man's name, and has never published his proposed book Biography of a Phantom. The debate continues, such as here.
Robert Johnson: his influence
Eric Clapton (Me and Mr Johnson), Peter Green (The Robert Johnson Songbook) and Rory Block (The Lady and Mr Johnson) have recorded whole albums of Johnson songs. Clapton says Johnson was “the most important blues musician who ever lived.” Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant simply mused: “Robert Johnson… to whom we all owed our existence, in some way.”
When Keith Richards first heard Johnson he was confused: Richards thought it must to two guitar players playing. In his biography Life, Richards writes, “[Johnson] took guitar playing, songwriting, delivery to a whole different height.”
The music remains. Johnson voice remains a haunting quiver, his guitar playing unrivalled of its time. His lyrics are doom-laden, even for blues.
But Robert Johnson, the person? Robert Johnson is the most famous bluesman you’ll never really know.