Did Robert Johnson sell his soul to the devil to become the world’s most famous blues musician? It just doesn’t matter, does it… what we know for sure is that the guitar virtuoso left behind a small but precious set of recordings that changed the face of popular music forever.
Blues Legend: Robert Johnson
Born Robert Leroy Johnson in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1911, ‘the king of the delta blues’ left behind a life of picking cotton when he discovered the diddley bow – a string nailed to the side of a shack with a glass bottle nestled in it as a bridge – and music started to dominate his days. Married at 17, he briefly returned to working in the fields to support his young wife (14, apparently), before hearing the music of Son House and Willie Brown in local juke joints turned his head once again. It was now that Johnson’s life took the strange twists and turns that continue to dominate blues culture.
It’s thought that his young wife had left him to be with her parents whilst pregnant with Johnson’s first child when both she and the baby died during childbirth. When the proud daddy turned up to meet his heir, with a guitar slung over his shoulder, he was banished from town by his devastated in-laws who blamed his “devil’s music” for the tragedy. The myth was born and from there, the still-teenage Johnson took to an itinerant lifestyle of playing music and hustling in the streets and juke joints of Mississippi. Initially an enthusiastic rather than proficient performer, Johnson would grab anyone’s guitar and take to the stage during the breaks in booked acts’ sets. “People used to say to me ‘why don’t you go out and make that boy put that thing down?’,” recalled Son House decades later. “He was running us crazy.”
Suddenly, however, the mad-keen amateur disappeared and the local musicians breathed a sigh of relief. “Until one day he was back and was so good,” marvelled Son House. “When he finished all our mouths were standing open…” What had happened? Johnson’s long fingers now strummed, plucked and played the guitar strings effortlessly and the sounds he coaxed from both the instrument and his voice were unique.
A few years of living the travelling troubadour life down south followed before Johnson struck lucky and was given the chance to record his songs for the first time, thanks to a chance meeting with the American Record Company in Texas. ‘Terraplane Blues’ became his first shot at the title and was followed by recordings of tunes such as ‘Walking Blues’, ‘Ramblin’ On My Mind’, ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’ and ‘Come On In My Kitchen’.
His records were selling and word was spreading… indeed, the legendary John Hammond (who would go on to make Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin famous) of Columbia Records was looking to book Johnson for a ‘Spirituals To Swing’ showcase concert in New York in late 1938. Once he located the wandering musician, though, it was too late: Robert Johnson had died in Greenwood, Mississippi on August 16th 1938 with no cause listed on his death certificate.
How did he die? Nobody knows and, much like the rest of his short but satisfying life, the details have been widely speculated on ever since. What we do know, from primary sources and professional recordings, is that Johnson could play and sing the blues in its purest form with startling originality and influenced all those who came after him, with Muddy Waters, BB King, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and many others all lining up to pay tribute to him year after year. What a life.
Behind The Song – ‘Cross Roads Blues’ (1937)
He only recorded 29 songs, so it seems churlish to pick out just one. But how can you discuss Robert Johnson without mentioning the ‘crossroads’? The pioneering guitar playing on this seminal cut influenced a thousand blues patterns that followed and introduced the world to Johnson’s jaw-dropping dexterity (have a listen, it sounds like two or three guitars playing at once!). Playing the strings like a piano player would caress the keys, Johnson pays strict attention to rhythm with one hand, while the melody is plucked out distinctly with the other. “I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees, asked the Lord above for mercy, save me if you please,” he sings as if possessed by something a lot more celestial than the devil itself. Recorded in 1936, the delta blues had been part of Johnson’s repertoire for a few years by the time the Vocalion label captured it for posterity and you can hear just how at ease the performer is with his song. Is it about the devil? You decide… but remember that the Mississippi that the song was written about it, and that Johnson’s great-grandchildren still live in, has always had one of the highest poverty rates in America.