You can imagine the day, what it was like. There was a knock on the door of a Dallas hotel room. The door opened and a white man peered out into the hall where a black man stood, slight of build, dressed stylish, dapper even. There was likely a cigarette dangling from the young black man’s mouth and he carried an old battered guitar case. The white man greeted the stranger and invited him in.
“You can set up over there Robert,” the white man said, pointing to a corner where a chair sat in front of a microphone.
The black man takes his coat off, drapes it over the chair back, but not before pulling the whiskey bottle from the inside pocket. The black man, Robert, sets it down on the floor beside the case, opens the case and pulls out a battered brown topped guitar that is obviously well cared for besides the hard use, like the case that carried it. The case, guitar and Robert the black man have seen a lot of miles together more miles than the white man has likely ever traveled but almost all of them in the state of Mississippi. He sits facing the corner. This was not because of shyness but for acoustic reasons.
When the white man tells him to play he does and it likely causes the white man to briefly raise an eyebrow. It sounds like there could be two guitars in there but its only one. Or maybe the white man has no reaction because over the past weeks and months he has had many black men come into play and all of them could play but this kid was good. When the session is over the black man packs his things and leaves. He will not record again and will be dead soon after.
You can see this happening. You can see it in your mind. It’s been reenacted before on countless movies and documentaries although no one really knows what happened as the participants are long dead. Robert Johnson had that kind of life; a life of myth and legend and most blues historians most important jobs is to discern between what was real and what wasn’t real. I wonder sometimes if this was pure marketing genius on Johnson’s part or whether it was just the life he led. Some call Robert Johnson the greatest blues man ever. He is certainly one of the greatest guitarists of any genre on the planet. For the record he is number 4 on my list right behind my big 3: Hooker, Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He would likely be higher except for one of those mysteries. He has less than 30 songs, that’s all. Yes he died at a young age but there were opportunities to record. He could have stayed in Dallas and recorded more. Despite the amazing number of compilation packages out there it’s the same songs, enough to fit onto one or 2 cd’s. Blind Lemon Jefferson who was blind and had to walk from East Texas to Dallas to record has over a 100 songs he recorded. Johnson’s life is a mystery and to understand what you can of him you have to go through his life step by step.
He was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. His father was actually a relatively well-off landowner but he was soon run out of Mississippi by a lynch mob and there is no recorded reason why. It could have been that he was black and that was reason enough but more likely he was well-off and so considered uppity. Johnson lived with him for some time in Memphis but was soon back with his mother on the Abbay and Leatherman plantation. Robert saw early on the hard work of the plantation employee, with little pay and little hope but there were not opportunities for blacks in Mississippi and Johnson always wanted something better. It was not surprising that Johnson decided he wanted to be a bluesman. There were many wandering bluesmen around playing the circuit all vying for spots in the big clubs. Many of these men could be found playing in cities on corners for nickels and dimes hoping to draw interest to get on a stage in the evening. Johnson began his career on these corners playing for nickels and dimes. Johnson might have continued this way and have never been known for anything, living and dying earning a few nickels and dimes but something happened that changed his life. Robert Johnson fell in love.
He was only 16 years old, she even younger. He may or may have not gotten her pregnant but Johnson left music on the corners behind and went to work on a plantation where his new wife worked. Her family was deeply religious and did not approve of Johnson because of his love of blues music which they considered devil music. Johnson worked hard doing the work he had never wanted to do. Such would have been his life had fate not intervened again. Johnson had acquired a guitar either bought or given to him and was teaching himself to play although spare time was limited. His wife naturally wanted to be with her family for the birth of their child and as she grew closer she took a train to her parents where she could be better cared for. Johnson saw her to the train with the promise that he would make his way soon after to be there for the birth of their child. Johnson saw a perfect time to play a little music while he made his way there for the birth. While he was drinking and playing for nickels and dimes his wife went into labor early and with great difficulty. Johnson arrived late but he was greeted with her grieving angry parents. Where had he been they accused? They saw the guitar he carried and showed their disappointment and displeasure. Johnson’s wife died, as did their child. Robert buried them both and then left never returning to the plantation life.
Now here’s the thing. Did it happen? There are certainly some questions about this important event but most of these are just because the rest of his life are full of these events that either did or didn’t happen. I believe it did and Johnson wrote one of the great blues songs ever Love in Vain about the loss.
So Johnson went back to the blues, traveling the routes other blues men traveled trying to squeak out a living. At night he would show up at juke joints and beg other blues men to allow him to play with them but he was an atrocious musician and was frequently ridiculed and laughed at. He especially hounded the bluesman Son House and tried to learn guitar techniques from watching. Later Johnson’s family would tell researchers that Johnson had given up all normal life to play the music of the devil which is what they called secular music. This was also known as selling your soul to the devil. Now Johnson was not alone in this. Many religious black men and women considered any musician to have done the same.
It was likely a Saturday night somewhere near Robinsonville, Mississippi at a crowded juke joint. Robert Johnson arrived carrying a battered guitar case or maybe just his guitar. He had not been around of late and some believed he had finally given up on the nonsense dream that he was some sort of bluesman. Johnson did his usual begging the musicians and singers for a chance to come up on stage with him. They laughed at him probably slapped him on the back. Son House may have been playing that night. Stories vary as to what Johnson did or didn’t do. Some say that he took the stage on his own without permission during a break and began playing. Other stories say that a musician dropped out mid performance due to illness or drink and Johnson replaced him without permission. Who knows? This is Robert Johnson we are talking about. Johnson began playing no matter which story you believe. He may have even gotten permission out of persistence alone. He was dapperly dressed and maybe that helped persuade someone. Regardless from the first notes all eyes were on him. This kid who had not been able to play much before was now the best musician in the house. Johnson’s transformation was not explainable, was magical, maybe even supernatural. It did not take long before the rumor began circulating that Johnson had gone to the crossroads and made a deal with the devil. It seemed the best explanation. In African American culture the crossroads is where you went to make a deal with the devil. People believed that Robert Johnson had done this. Johnson made the most of these rumors by writing songs attributing his skill to that deal: Crossroads Blues, Me and the Devil Blues, Hell Hounds on My Tail. Johnson knew exactly how to market himself and knew enough not to have every song he wrote about this, just enough.
So if Johnson didn’t make a deal how did he get so good? He worked and worked and practiced and worked and learned. He watched and he had a teacher. It is very clear from Johnson’s style that he had watched Son House and likely learned a lot by watching and practicing. One thing about Johnson is that there are only 2 known pictures of Johnson and one is still in dispute but he had huge hands slender hands for a man that was actually slight of build. There is a wiry strength in them which is easy to see. It’s also likely that Johnson was taught a lot by one Ike Zimmrtman who believed that spirits helped him with his guitar playing and that because of that he was often found late at night playing in cemeteries which is likely where Johnson found him.
Johnson worked the circuit, playing before shows at local barber shops to draw interest and then playing to larger audiences in the juke joints at night. He was a known womanizer and had women who he lived with up and down the juke joint trails. Somewhere around 1936 Johnson sought out a talent scout in Jackson, Mississippi who got him ultimately in contact with Don Law and Johnson traveled to San Antonio, Texas for his first recording session. Johnson later traveled to Dallas, Texas for his more famous session, where he recorded his darker moodier songs such as Crossroad Blues, and Me and the Devil Blues. Johnson recorded only 29 songs. Whether he would have recorded anymore is a question many ask. Yet Robert had one more bit of myth coming.
Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938 near Greenwood, Mississippi. There was no announcement he simply disappeared as black men and women did in those days, His death certificate indicates no cause of death. It was not until 30 years later when a musicologist reviewing his life began to dig deeper. As with most of his life his death is surrounded in mystery and myth. Some say he was poisoned, and others that he was shot by a jealous husband. It was suspected he had congenital syphilis and this may have been a contributing factor of his death. Some say that he just died of pneumonia like many did. Stories gave different accounts of what may have happened before his death. Johnson was at a local juke joint and was flirting with a known married woman. He was offered an open bottle of whiskey which Sonny Boy Williamson knocked from his hand as Johnson had always warned him against drinking anything that had already been opened. Johnson was angry and told Williamson to never do that again. Another bottle was given to him and Johnson drank it. He later complained of feeling ill and was helped out and to a nearby home. It was said that he had been poisoned with strychnine which he recovered from but that weakened him and that he died of pneumonia. The original stories of his death indicate that he may have been found by the side of a road. Even his death is difficult to determine as you weed through the myths and the facts which are sparse. One of the stories which has gained more and more credibility is that Johnson had gone to a local plantation to perform over a few days and that he had grown sick there and eventually died and was buried near there.
Even Johnson’s burial location is a mystery. Black men died and were buied, many in unmarked graves without fanfare. There are three possible burial sites noted on the Mississippi Blues Trail around the Greenwood area. All three of these sites are as credible as the next. Who knows which grave Johnson is buried in or whether he is buried in any of the three? Even his burial is shrouded in mystery. There is little known about his life, or his death and so it’s subject to stories. Johnson didn’t seem to garner many close friends. He wanted to play music and be with a different woman whenever and wherever he could.
Robert Johnson was a unique talent. He recorded only 29 songs and that’s all we have left besides a couple of pictures one of which is in dispute. There are a million stories of did he or didn’t he and even his death is did the devil come take his soul. Johnson has such a unique style, even sometimes adding a seventh string to give his guitar a different sound. There are times when it sounds as if he has an entire band playing with him and it’s hard to believe that the recording is just Johnson and his guitar. Maybe the devil was playing alongside of him, or maybe he wasn’t.