Robert Johnson – Opher’s World pays tribute to a genius.


Robert JohnsonRobert was the Big Bang from which the universe of Rock Music expanded. It all goes back to those two sessions in hotel rooms in San Antonio and another in Dallas. That’s all we have.

Robert was an itinerant busker. He wrote songs, performed in inns, at parties and BBQs and toured round Mississippi and the surrounding States. He was taught to play by Son House and went off and perfected a style that is so complex that people still wonder how he managed to make those chords and play so fast. He was a master. This is the blossoming of talent that led to the myth of him selling his soul at the cross-roads. I visited the cross-roads where that is reputed to have happened. I didn’t see Satan there or the ghost of Robert Johnson but it did fill me with wonder. I was walking in his shoes even if it did not happen like in the mythology. Robert perfected a style that went on to feed into Rockabilly, electric Chicago Blues and everything that came afterwards.

Those 29 tracks, with a number of re-recordings, make up the entire legacy. But what an incredible set of songs. The voice was clear with good diction, it had strength and emotional intensity, the guitar was spectacular, the lyrics were incredibly poetic and full of imagery, and the music sensational. This was the essence of Mississippi Blues. He was the master exponent and he was only in his twenties. There must have been so much more. He probably had a lot more that he did not get to record at the time. He probably had a large number of songs that he included in his repertoire for public performance. Those roving musicians were entertainers and did anything to please a crowd. They performed a lot of popular songs and did not restrict themselves to the Blues. It would have been great to hear some of those performed by a performer of Robert’s stature.

He recorded those tracks facing the wall. There is conjecture as to whether this was a symptom of shyness at being alone with a White man at the recording or whether he was merely using the wall to bounce and magnify the sound of the guitar. It’s all conjecture. All we know is that the quality of those recordings is exceptional given the jerry-rigged nature of the circumstances and crude machinery used to record them.

Robert was murdered in 1937 at the age of twenty seven. I talked to Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards about this and he claims to have been with him on that night. They were playing together in a tavern/juke-joint near Greenwood in Mississippi and Robert had been infuriating the Landlord by making eyes at his wife. He had quite a reputation as a ‘ladies man’. Finally the Landlord put strychnine rat poison in some whiskey and passed it to the two of them. Dave declined. Robert drank it. Later that night he developed great stomach cramps and had to be helped back to his digs. Everyone thought that he would be alright in a couple of days but he died.

This murder was a tragedy in many ways. Not only did it deprive us of a wealth of other material that might well have been just as brilliant; it also deprived us of ever getting to see such a genius as Robert perform – though I was lucky enough to see Son House perform and he was the person who taught Robert.  Sadly John Hammond came along in 1938 to track down Robert Johnson to perform at Carnegie Hall as part of his ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concert. He found that Robert was dead. Just think what might have happened if Robert had received that type of exposure? He might have become a household name and had an even bigger impact on Rock Music. His replacement was Big Bill Broonzy. I might have got to see him play? It was not to be.

I went to visit all three of Robert’s graves. There was just as much confusion over this as there has been over his talent, life and death. Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards said that it was definitely the one at the back of the church.

Those twenty nine tracks have resonated down through the decades to reappear in form after form. This was the seminal music of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I suppose we should be grateful we had anything at all. Those recordings are more precious that diamonds, gold and platinum. They altered the world.

Sometimes you get a fulcrum point and someone causes a change that shifts everything. Robert was one of those.