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Distilling the life of blues legend Robert Johnson

bookI have always been fascinated by the folklore attending the too-short life of Robert Johnson, “King of the Delta Blues Singers.” For me, he was another doomed genius like James Dean, John Keats and Hank Williams — men who flashed across the night sky like the momentary radiance of a shooting star and then they were gone forever. 


Robert Johnson was 27 when he was either poisoned, shot or stabbed to death near Greenwood, Miss. Documents are scant and accounts of his life are mostly oral, gleaned from the memory of aging friends (mostly musicians) with colorful names like Son House, Muddy Waters and Johnny Shines.

Of course, everyone repeats the legend about Robert’s midnight meeting with the devil at the crossroads (highways 61 and 9) just outside Greenwood in a community called Three Forks. I found a half dozen variations of his meeting with Satan on YouTube.

I especially like the scene in “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou” in which George Clooney and his cohorts pick up a black man with a guitar at a lonely Mississippi crossroads (circa 1930). Robert introduces himself as “Tommy Johnson” (something he did frequently, for he admired his famous relative.) Robert tells Clooney that he has just completed his bargain with Satan. When asked if the devil was red, scaled and had a tail, Robert says, “Oh, no, sir. He is just as white as you folks.” He adds, that in exchange for his soul, the devil told him that he would teach Robert to play the guitar “real good.” The devil accomplished this feat by simply taking Robert’s guitar, tuning it and handing it back to him.

In this compact little book, Peter Guralnick takes the material in a dozen biographies, blues histories, and oral interviews and distills this information into what could be called the essence of what we know about Johnson. 

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Born illegitimate to Julia Majors Dobbs, Robert was her eleventh child. Reared in poverty, Robert lived with his mother and stepfather in an atmosphere of constant tension. When Robert displayed an early interest in music and began to show up at dances and balls where he played the jews harp and harmonica, his stepfather objected, telling the youth that he was “playing the devil’s music.” 

Eventually, Robert left home and began a “rambling life” in which he lived with a multitude of relatives. Friends from this part of his life invariably commented on his character: genial, generous, a bit “reserved” or shy, and determined to be a musician. Most of Robert’s friends comment on his rapid success, describing how Robert went from a passable guitar player to an astonishingly adept musician in a very short time. 

They also recall that by the time Robert was 17, he had been married, widowed (his first wife died in childbirth) and married again. In the company of older, accomplished musicians, he began traveling as far afield as Ohio and Missouri. He also developed an amazing number of “lady friends” who provided him with food and board. It wasn’t long before he made some enemies because of his “way with the ladies.”  As late as 1970, when Johnson had been dead for almost 40 years, friends recalled the reports of men who carried grudges because their wives and girlfriends took up with Johnson.

Noted blues singers all commented on Robert’s ability to charm women. As his lyrics demonstrate, his songs were often bold, sexual invitations to the women. “You better come on in my kitchen,” he sang, “It’s going to be rainin’ outdoors.” Son House and Muddy Waters remember that Johnson sang this song in a kind of “sexual growl.” Even in this age of license, some of Robert’s song lyrics border on the offensive. “You can squeeze my lemon, til the juice runs down my leg,” he sings in “Traveling Riverside Blues.” 

To me, these lyrics add considerable credence to the story about an irate husband who decided to poison this smooth, nattily-dressed blues man. According to the story, the stricken Johnson died in agony, “crawling on the floor and howling like a dog.”

Despite a reputation that spread throughout the Mississippi Delta, we would probably know nothing about Johnson today if it had not been for a folklorist named Mack McCormick who began doing research some 30 years after Johnson’s death. In some instances, he tracked major sources like Son House and Muddy Waters to Chicago and St. Louis, and located an impressive number of women who remembered Johnson as a man who was not at ease around white people and was given to abrupt departures. Time and time again, friends remembered that he would be with his friends, laughing and talking, and he would suddenly rise and walk out the door. Gone. No farewells. It might be months or years before he returned.

A second event that saved Robert Johnson from obscurity was a recording engineer who managed to get Robert into a studio. H.C. Speir was a white man who ran a music store in Jackson, Miss. Johnson heard about Speir and knew that he had made a number of Mississippi musicians famous. When Speir head Robert play he immediately sent him to a talent scout named Ernie Oertle. In turn, Oertle took Robert to San Antonio to be recorded. 

It was a memorable trip with Johnson playing in juke joints and dance clubs all the way. In San Antonio, he was an astonishing hit, but it was also noted that he had some “eccentricities.” He refused to play with a group of Mexican musicians and developed a habit of turning his back to other performers so they could not see how he chorded his guitar. The recording engineers said he recorded all of his famous songs (29) in this week-long session, although folklorist McCormick says there is at least one original song that has not been accounted for.

For a brief period, Robert had everything he had ever wanted.  He loved expensive clothes and they are in evidence in the few photographs that exist. He was sought after and was even contracted to appear in Carnegie Hall in a concert which was advertised to take place on Dec. 23, 1938. 

Robert didn’t live to make that show. What is left is not so much a mystery as a void. Mack McCormick has been writing the definitive biography for 40 years, called The Biography of a Phantom. He recently announced that it would never be published and there is considerable speculation as to why. McCormick has always been forthright in interviews. A popular explanation is that McCormick has some valuable material that is worth a great deal of money. Should he publish this material, he would be immediately sued by a host of folks who have become wealthy by acquiring the rights to any and all Robert Johnson material.

I am convinced that we will never know one singular piece of information. 

All of the musicians who knew him invariably commented on the fact that Robert and his music had a “haunted” quality and that Robert was “driven.” By what? Why is the subject matter of so much of his music concern demons and hell-hounds? Maybe you don’t need to strike a bargain at a midnight crossroads. Maybe you can make that bargain in your own heart. I think Robert Johnson did that.

Searching for Robert Johnson by Peter Guralnick. Penguin Group, 1998. 85 pages.

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