We can trace back the history of most modern Pop and Rock to its roots in African Music through Blues that originated in the Delta region of the United States.
That style of music, using African rhythms with western instruments, originated around the turn of the 20th century.
By the 1930s it was being recorded and one of the leading exponents was Robert Johnson. He was only 27 years old when he died and recorded only 29 songs along with 13 alternative takes in two recording sessions. The first session took place in a hotel room in San Antonio in 1936 and the second in an impromptu studio in Dallas in 1937. Yet those tracks have become legendary and fed not just into Blues but Rock too. No end of big acts have covered his songs, including the likes of Cream. Captain Beefheart and the Rolling Stones, and no end of others have been directly or indirectly influenced.
Much has been made of Robert’s revolutionary guitar style. Some even go to the extent of suggesting the recordings have been speeded up because it is so difficult to play. What cannot be denied is the quality of the songs and the impact they have had.
Unfortunately Robert was never heard by a white audience. In 1938 John Hammond, not knowing of his death, tried to get hold of Robert Johnson to appear at Carnegie Hall in the First of his Spirituals to Swing concerts. Just imagine if Robert had not been murdered and that had concert had happened? They replaced him with Big Bill Broonzy who gained some notoriety in Europe. Robert might have recorded a lot more and even tour Europe.
But it isn’t just the musical legacy that is so captivating. A whole mythology sprang up around him – probably because so little is actually know about the man.
Son House claims to have taught him the rudiments of the guitar and been amazed by his progress. Seemingly he disappeared for a while and returned with this amazing ability. That led to all the tales of him having sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads.
Then there were the stories of his strange death. He was reported to have crawled around howling like a dog. There are many doubts as to the poison used. Someone even claimed that it was syphilis that he died of.
There are also many versions of the night he was poisoned. Was he playing with Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards or Sonny Boy Williamson or both?
Finally there are many versions as to where he was buried. While in Mississippi I visited all three.
This is one of those graves.
Probably it was somewhere unmarked. He was put in a paupers grave and that was most likely to have been left without any markings whatsoever and very difficult to remember its exact location years later. Some say it was under a tree. Who knows for sure?
The important thing is that he is being recognised for what he achieved.
Below is the plaque that Eric Clapton had erected to Robert’s memory in Hazlehurst – his place of birth.
The story of the devil and the crossroads was a recurring theme in old blues stories. Back before lights, in those rural settings, it must have been dark and scary out on those country roads of Highway 61. The imagination can produce all manner of tricks.
I’m playing my old vinyl album – King of the Delta Blues Singers – and thinking of Robert Johnson and what might have been.