Robert Johnson – The King of the Delta Blues Singers
Robert Johnson was the King of the Mississippi Delta Blues singers. At least that was the title conferred upon him by white advocates of the Blues in the 1960s. It was also the title of that extraordinary album of his music put out in the 1961.
Back in the sixties Blues albums were hard to come by. There were a little group of us who used to scour the music shops, going through the bins in search of the old cardboard covered Folkways albums featuring the authentic Country Blues. We would head off up to London to check out Dobells in Charring Cross Road which stocked Blues albums. Blues was, perhaps rather naively, considered to be an authentic music – not sullied by commercialism. It was not so tainted by pop production as the stuff in the charts.
That first album was revered. It depicted a painting of a black man in a striped shirt and brown trousers, sitting on a chair, playing a guitar. The background was brown and grainy looking like the reddish brown dirt of Mississippi.
The painting had the perspective of looking down at the scene. There was a stark shadow as the singer was sitting out in his yard on a bright Mississippi day.
At the time nobody had any idea what Robert Johnson looked like. I used to look at that cover and think it was meant to represent him. I now know it looks nothing like the photograph of the man in the suit that came to light later on – only one of two or three known images of Robert that exist. It was just the record company looking for a suitable image for the album. It had little to do with Robert.
But that album had quite an impact. Just sixteen tracks. It set a standard for both guitar playing and composition. The remaining thirteen tracks that Robert had recorded in those two sessions, plus alternative takes, were not destined to be released until 1970.
So was he really the King of the Delta Blues singers? That is highly disputable. Certainly there were many great Blues singers from that region, at that time, who had far greater recording success and notoriety. There were Blues singers such as Texas Alexander, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Big Joe Williams, Skip James and Bukka White; all of whom might well have a reasonable claim. Then later, more electrified performers such as Elmore James, Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, might aspire to that title.
How can anyone confer a title of King?
What does it matter? Nobody can doubt his ability. His voice, guitar playing and song writing was extraordinary. It led Eric Clapton to say he was the greatest Blues Singer who ever lived and for Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards to cite him as a great influence.
The music legacy he left behind is scant. Just those twenty nine tracks and twelve alternative takes recorded in makeshift studios in hotel rooms in San Antonio and then Dallas in 1936 and 1937. Yet those songs were amazing. Songs like Cross Road Blues, Sweet Home Chicago, Come On In My Kitchen, Hellhound On My Trail, and Terraplane Blues would find their way on to so many Rock albums and set lists. The guitar playing was so fast and intricate that many claimed that the tracks had to have been speeded up as they were impossible to play. The influences those twenty nine tracks had were enormous.
As for his story – well that too is remarkable.
Robert Johnson was an itinerant Blues Singer. Rather typical for his day. He was one of a number who would travel round the South busking on street corners, playing juke joints, barbeques, dances or inns, and scraping a living in hard times through performance.
It was Eddie ‘Son’ House who taught him how to play – and here is where the myth begins. It was reported that he hung around with Son and other performers learning the rudiments, and then he disappeared to come back a year or two later having completely mastered the instrument. The transformation was immense. Nobody could believe how good he had become.
It was that transformation that fuelled the myths. Overnight Robert had changed himself into a guitar wizard. Rather than believe that this was a case of hard work and practice perhaps the story started up that he had sold his soul to the devil in return for guitar expertise. Perhaps Robert played up the story. He was reputed a showman. He might well have considered that it gave him an allure. But more likely was the fact that this myth only started up much later when white reporters began taking an interest due to Robert Johnson’s importance to white Blues performers.
It seems to me that this was Son House regurgitating a myth that had circulated regarding that other guitar wizard Tommy Johnson. Son liked to impress the white men who sought him out. They lapped it up and he told them what he thought they wanted to hear so the myth grew.
Mississippi was like a third world country, full of black slaves and superstition. Underlying the Christian religion were the old African superstitions – The Ju-Ju, Mojo Hand, John the Conqueror and the Voodoo of the shaman and Voodoo Queens. The Blues is steeped in that Voodoo imagery.
Robert was reputed to have gone to the crossroads at midnight to make a pact with Satan. The Satan concerned was no Christian Satan, but rather the African Voodoo Devil Papa Legba.
Of course, this never happened, but it added a bit of mystique to the tale. Though maybe this superstition had played a role in Robert’s chosen career.
Robert had married early but his sixteen-year-old wife had died shortly after in childbirth. The family blamed it on his singing of secular songs. Perhaps Robert believed that and felt guilty. Or perhaps the experience – the pain and ostracising, just pushed him out on his journey. He decided that the settled life of raising a family and farming was not for him. He started out on his short journey as an itinerant singer.
Robert wandered from town to town performing and enjoying life. He had an eye for the women and whiskey. It was said that he had a pretty girl in every town.
We have been left with scant knowledge of his life and very little of the songs he was performing – just twenty nine tracks. Not enough to see the entirety of his range.
We unfortunately only have one side of Robert’s repertoire. He had many other facets. Out on street corners he would busk with the popular songs of the day. At the Jukes, Dances and Country Barbeques he was expected to entertain and get people dancing while in the inns and taverns it was a different set of songs. It was said that he had a musical ear and could play any number after hearing it once. He was reputed to have known hundreds of songs.
So how did those recordings come about?
Don Law was an Englishman who secured work recording artists for ARC. He was recommended to record Robert by a talent scout called Speir, who ran a General Store. As it was Robert himself who had approached Speir it is probable that he considered himself ready for a next step.
Don was probably the only white person that Robert ever performed for and he probably knew intuitively that Don would just want the Blues numbers. So we will never know the full extent of Robert’s large repertoire as the popular ballads, vaudeville songs and Pop songs that he also played were never recorded. All we have are twenty nine masterpieces, recorded on makeshift equipment, all first takes, and all immaculate – the voice, guitar and songs – all equally brilliant. He was reported to have been so shy of playing to a white man that he turned to face the wall to record. But this might not have been shyness so much as acoustics.
Those tracks were released as a series of 78 rpm singles and sold quite well. They brought him to the attention of Colombia record producer John Hammond. He was planning a big showcase concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1938 to promote black music. It was called ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ and he wanted Robert to represent that Mississippi Blues style.
Who knows what that would have led to? It certainly would have meant more recordings. It would have brought him to the attention of a white audience. It could have ignited his career.
Unfortunately none of that happened. John sent Don Law to find him but they merely heard reports of his death. At the age of twenty seven Robert Johnson was dead. He took with him all those future songs, all the other songs he knew. All lost.
The myths did not stop there. The tales of his death became equally bizarre. He was said to have become possessed by the devil, crawling around on all fours howling. Others said that he died of syphilis. There was talk of a ruptured aorta as a result a congenital disease – Marfan Syndrome. But all that is mere conjecture.
I had the opportunity to speak to Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards who told me that he was with him the night he was murdered. They were playing together at an inn situated on the outskirts of Greenwood – two young men, enjoying themselves, entertaining, and trying to earn a buck or two. Dave said that Robert was making eyes at the landlord’s wife. The landlord gave him a bottle of whiskey that he’d adulterated with rat poison. Robert drank it. Later that evening he started feeling ill and left to go back to his room. Dave did not really think it was anything serious and expected to see him around the next day. After a few days he called and was told Robert had died. A similar story was told by Sonny Boy Williamson who claimed to have been with him at a Country Dance near Greenwood when he was poisoned. Who knows?
There was no great fuss, no autopsy, no police investigation – just another young black man dead. Life was cheap. He was not greatly well known or revered in the black community. He was not a major artist. He was just Robert Johnson – an itinerant busker. He was buried hurriedly in an unmarked grave.
Robert now has three graves – all with markers on. I visited all of them.
According to Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, who also claimed to have been there when they buried him, it was the small marker behind the old wooden church that was the site of the real grave. But he said that it was unmarked for decades and after all those years nobody could quite remember the exact spot.
Twenty nine wonderful songs. That’s all. Twelve alternative takes. There could have been so much more. He was only twenty seven.
I like to think that in a parallel universe he hadn’t been poisoned and had gone on to perform at Carnegie Hall and record many other albums. I like to think that he played in front of white audiences and received all the adulation he deserved.
What a treasure trove we would have had.
I also like to think that I would have been able to see him just like I did with Skip James, Bukka White, Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams and Son House.
My alternative self would have loved that!
What a great loss.