That’s how the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation website describes Delta blues guitar legend, Robert Johnson.
Robert Leroy Johnson was born (we think) on this day, May 8, 1911. He died (we think) and was buried (we think) near the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Greenwood, Mississippi. Or his remains could be in the Payne Chapel Memorial Baptist Church cemetery, Quito, Mississippi. Or maybe was laid to rest at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Morgan City, Mississippi. There are Robert Johnson headstones at all three places.
There’s even speculation that Johnson is buried in an unmarked grave known only to God and Lucifer. Another story has Johnson not in a grave, but standing at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 at midnight, waiting for the next guitarist to trade a soul for an overdose of unholy talent, as Johnson himself is rumored to have done in the early 1930s.
We know very little of Robert’s life, but in The Crossroads Myth of Robert Johnson, Steven Johnson, his grandson, discusses his interviews with elderly friends and neighbors who knew Robert Johnson. Seems that the rumor about his grandfather selling his soul to the devil started when, as a youngster, Robert tried to make it on the Delta music circuit, but was not accepted as a serious musician by his music idols, like, Son House and Willie Brown. It was believed that as a guitarist, Robert Johnson was a decent harmonica player.
But Johnson was serious about getting good. In the early 1930s, he returned to his hometown of Hazelhurst, Mississippi to study under Mississippi blues legend, Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman. Ike was a musician of such talent, that local legend had him learning his craft supernaturally. Zimmerman’s family told Steven Johnson that Ike’s ability to play guitar was not supernatural, but a result of a lifetime of practice in the graveyard across the street from their home.
Between 1930-33, Robert Johnson practically lived with Ike and his family. Robert was such a fixture at Zimmerman’s house that Ike’s kids thought of him as a brother. Ike and Robert played guitar and sang blues regularly, often practicing late into the night at Ike’s favorite place – the cemetery.
The sounds coming from the graveyard at midnight may have sounded beyond human ability, but in reality, it was music from two people practicing their craft for hours in a place void of distractions. Under the mentorship of Ike, Robert sang until his throat was raw and played until his fingers bled. Literally. Night after night. For almost three years.
When Johnson returned to playing gigs in 1933, he amazed other musicians. Not only could Robert now play complex arrangements of chords and notes with ease, but he had his own sound and style, one that they had never heard before. Obviously, that could only come from a deal with the devil. Confirmation? He had spent time with Ike Zimmerman.
I admit that it’s a cool legend to add to the mystery surrounding a musician, but I think Johnson would have eventually succeeded without it. Robert never saw much monetary gain or widespread recognition in his short lifetime, but he did sign a recording contract at age 25.
In late November, 1936, Johnson recorded 29 songs in San Antonio, Texas. The recordings were made over a three-day session in the Gunter Hotel, room 414. Johnson sat, played and sang while facing the corner of a room to get a fuller sound.
Those three days gave us, “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain,” “Hellhound On My Trail,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Walking Blues,” “Come on in my Kitchen,” “Terraplane Blues,” “Rambling on My Mind,” “Drunken Hearted Blues,” “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” among others.
Johnson died two years later, after three agonizing days of rapidly declining health. Three days earlier, during a break in one of his shows, he had accepted a bottle of whiskey from a jealous boyfriend. The whiskey was laced with poison. Here’s a tip: Never accept a pre-opened bottle of whiskey from a jealous boyfriend. If the seal is broken, ask the jealous boyfriend for a sealed, unopened bottle.
Robert’s playing is (not was) ground-breaking. Musicians from blues, country, rock, jazz and pop credit Johnson as an influence. He is called the father of the Delta blues, and the grandfather of rock. When Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones first heard Johnson’s recordings, he asked who the other guitarist was. He was convinced that someone was playing along with Robert on the record. It was all Robert Johnson, sitting in the corner of room 414 in the Gunter Hotel, captured live in a single take by a vibrating needle on a 78rpm record.
Those who believe that Johnson got his talent from the devil also believe that his violent death was the devil cashing in on their deal. God-given talent combined with years of dedication sounds too boring and difficult I guess. It sounds too much like work. We’re not keen to admit that our lack of dedication and wasted hours each day could be the reason that we’re not as good at something as we’d like to be.
Real blues comes from the soul, not from the fingertips. This I believe. So where did Johnson get the ideas for his blues? Was he singing about the midnight visions from the cemetery? “From Hellhound on My Trail”:
I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail
Maybe a clue is found in the last line from that song: “All I need’s my little sweet woman and to keep my company.” Robert was married once to a 16-year old girl who died in childbirth. It was before he tried to impress people with is guitar playing, and before Ike and practice and cemeteries and everything after.
There was a time when Johnson seemed content to live out his life as farmer and father. Maybe the tragic death of his family and the future as he saw it sent Robert on a quest, ever rambling and ever lonely. Maybe that was the demon on his trail, and this was the source of much of his poetry mixed with pain.
I said that Johnson’s recordings were made on 78rpm records. The original recordings were made on 78rpm records, but the recording speed may have been more like 74-75rpm. That means, for years we’ve heard Johnson’s songs slightly faster, and at a slightly higher pitch. Robert Johnson should sound more like this:
Happy birthday, Robert…