Jun 2oo9 – Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson – Blues Master
Thrown over his shoulder like a soldier’s rifle Robert Johnson walked with his guitar the last few hundred yards to the crossroads. Soaked in sweat in the thick, humid air of a Mississippi summer’s night he cautiously approached the crossroads near Dockery’s plantation. The guitar slung over his shoulder had been a thorn in his side to master. Burning with desire to play music like no other before him had brought Robert to this dark, lonely place surrounded by fields of cotton running in all directions to a far distant tree line.
Under a sliver of the moon Robert arrived at the crossroads, his well worn cordovan shoes thick with a sole of red mud. The late afternoon’s brief thundershower didn’t turn the roads to mud nor did it leave them dry and dusty. A semi-wet ochre colored mud stuck to anything it came in contact with. The lanky young man had been given instructions to be at the crossroads for midnight. Pulling his suit and shirt sleeve up slightly, Robert squinted his eyes narrowly as he peered at his wrist watch, nervously fingering the gold plated stem of the watch and winding it; eleven forty-four. He’d arrived early but better than to be late. It was a long walk to the crossroads and having been unsure of how long it would take Robert had departed early.
The next sixteen minutes seemed like hours of sweat and nervousness. Robert’s long, narrow fingers fidgeted with his neck tie; reached to the top of his trousers and adjusted them. He loosened his belt a notch as well, the dense, humid air made him feel thicker yet his tongue was sticking to the roof of his mouth it was so dry. Every minute or two those same long fingers would reach up to his eyebrow and whisk away droplets of sweat before they could drip down his forehead and find their way into the corner of his eye.
Slowly and cautiously in the darkness, standing nearly in the center of the crossroads Robert turned slowly in circles. The darkness shrouded him and everything about him. With such a dim moon only the faint outline of the two roads running perfectly straight off into the four directions could be seen. With shallow and narrow ruts running down the sides of the roads, their shadows being slightly darker than the moist mud of the dirt arteries, it made it a bit easier to make out the two ribbons of sticky mud running off into the darkness. The dead still air was punctuated often with the shrill sounds of bugs and the occasional haunting hoot of a distant owl.
“What in heaven’s name am I doing out here at such an hour?” he wondered. Looking up at the sliver of moon Robert could see clouds passing the slender crescent. “What if it rains again? I’ll be stuck way out here and get soaked.” No matter how hot and humid, after a thunderstorm passes in a southern summer it is always hotter and far more humid than before. The rain is only a short-lived respite from the suffocating heat and humidity.
Pulling at his left sleeve to squint at his watch yet again Robert pulled his wrist closer to his face; midnight. The first thing that struck him was the smell. In the dense air filled with moisture and cotton fields the sudden smell of another human caused Robert’s head to snap back up to eye-level.
With a deep gasp and a sudden step backward Robert could see a very large man before him. He appeared out of thin air and without a sound. He was just there. The Man was as black as the night and as massive as any man Robert had ever seen. The Man seemed to block out half the night sky. Only his shape could be made out. His clothing, whatever it was, was as dark as him. For all Robert could tell he may have been unclothed, he just couldn’t peer through the veil of dark.
His breaths deep and noisy Robert could smell the man before him as his nostrils expanded widely with each breath to pull in deep breaths of air laced with the sweaty, acrid smell of the huge man. The Man’s aroma reminded Robert of the smell of a fire gone out. Sweat poured down Robert’s forehead and down his cheeks and neck. Rivulets of sweat ran down his ribs from beneath his arms. Young Robert Johnson was terrified and had nowhere to hide. He couldn’t have run if he’d wanted to, his feet felt cemented to the Mississippi mud beneath them. The dark man, however, didn’t seem to be breathing. He was just there, from out of nowhere he came yet it felt to Robert as though he were everywhere.
Without saying a word The Man reached out his hand toward Robert. His arms were thick as timbers, his hands as large as a cantaloupe. His hands shaking and wringed with sweat Robert reached up to his narrow shoulder and slid the guitar down from its perch, took the stringed instrument into his trembling palm, wrapped his narrow fingers around its neck and handed it to The Man.
The Man took the guitar and pulled it close to him. His fingers wrapped around the neck of the instrument. They looked as thick as sausages to the slightly built Robert Johnson. As The Man’s fingers touched the strings calm fell upon Robert. His breathing slowed and a sudden cool breezed kissed his wet face. The chatter of bugs and the accompanying sounds of the night fell silent The Man began to tune Robert’s guitar and the sounds of such a basic musician’s task cascaded across Robert’s ears as soft as the cotton growing in the fields surrounding them.
As surely as he’d started the task of tuning the stringed-instrument The Man stopped. The task was complete. It was over in a matter of moments. The Man reached out Robert’s guitar, handing it back to him. Robert smartly slung his newly tuned box back up to his shoulder and there it hung down his back upside down.
The Man who did not breathe suddenly let out a long, slow exhale and reached his hands out palm up to Robert’s. The young man noticed the sudden coolness in the hair had dried his hands of sweat as he laid them into The Man’s. As The Man’s huge vice-like hands wrapped around Robert’s he couldn’t help but be startled not at just how large his hands were but that they were also ice cold. Robert’s hands stung from the coldness and the chill quickly crept up his arms and embraced his whole body as he trembled from the cold that overwhelmed his whole being.
As smoothly as he’d tuned the guitar The Man caressed Robert’s fingers. The instrument had been tuned and now The Man was tuning the fingers to play it. With a jerk The Man released Robert’s hands from his and took a small step backward. Slowly raising his arm to shoulder level, The Man’s extended arm pointed down the dark road in the direction from which Robert had come. Slowly turning his head Robert looked in that direction and stared momentarily into the darkness. Seeing nothing he turned his gaze back towards The Man. He was gone as silently as he’d come.
Right away Robert noticed the heat had returned and the air was again deep and thick. Cautiously he reached again for his guitar and removed it from its perch on his shoulder. Moving his fingers out to the neck he felt the frets under his fingers like never before and he began to play the blues under a Mississippi crescent moon…
Blues legend says that Robert Johnson met the Devil at the crossroads and there sold his soul for the gift to play the guitar like no other. Of course, that’s the legend. We’re modern people living in the twenty-first century and know full well those are tales from a time when people were less enlightened about such flights of fancy and fiction. However, there is so much mystery involved with the life of Robert Johnson that even the most modern thinking mind cannot help but wonder, “Maybe”. If not for the fact that the life of Robert Johnson is such an enigma it would be all too easy to separate the man and the legend. But, alas, such is not the case with the legendary bluesman, Robert Johnson.
Johnson is believed to have been born around May 8, 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi though his birth certificate has never been found. Robert was the eleventh child born to Julia Major Dobbs. Julia had ten children with her husband, Charles Dobbs. Dobbs owned and maintained a small wicker company and Dobbs and his family did well until about 1909 when Dobbs was run out of town by a lynch mob following a disagreement with other townsfolk. What the disagreement was is lost to time but there are rumors that Dobbs left Hazlehurst dressed in women’s clothing. Whatever the argument was over was cause enough for Dobbs to leave his business and flee north to Memphis. Over the course of the following two years Julia sent their children one at a time to live with their father in Memphis. During this time Charles Dobbs changed his name to Charles Spencer. Julia in the meantime stayed behind in Hazlehurst with two daughters until she was evicted for non-payment of taxes.
By the time she was evicted in Hazlehurst, Julia had met a field worker named Noah Johnson and fathered a child by him, Robert. After leaving Hazlehurst Julia Dobbs worked as an itinerant field worker picking cotton and living in camps as she moved from one plantation to the next. While Julia worked the cotton fields of Mississippi her eight-year old daughter was passed along the task of raising young Robert.
Over the next decade Julia would make numerous attempts to reunite the family but Charles Dobbs was forever resentful of her infidelity. Over time Charles came to accept Robert, but never forgave Julia for indiscretion. While in his teens Robert learned who his father was and began to use the name “Robert Johnson”.
Around 1914 Robert moved in with Charles Dobbs and his siblings as well as Dobbs’ mistress from Hazlehurst and their two children. It was at around this time that Robert began to play the guitar under the guidance of his half-brother. By the end of the decade Robert was again living with his mother who had remarried. Robert’s stepfather had little tolerance for music and Robert often had to sneak away to join with his musician friends. During this time it is not known if Robert attended school. Some accounts say he was unable to read or write with other accounts speak of him having a lovely handwriting. Likely Robert gained enough education to be able to write as his signature is said to be quite legible on his two marriage licenses. Either way, everyone who knew him agrees Robert’s first love was music and that by this time in his life he had started playing the jaw harp and harmonica.
In February, 1929 at the age of seventeen Robert married a young woman named Virginia Travis in Penton, Mississippi. It was about this time that Robert began to become serious about playing the guitar. While Robert and Virginia were married they lived with his half-sister and her husband. Robert’s young wife died at the age of sixteen in April, 1930 in childbirth. Thirteen months later Robert married a woman fifteen years his senior with three children named Caletta “Callie” Craft. It was also during this time frame Robert’s friends began to notice his aptitude on the guitar.
Robert began to travel about the Mississippi Delta region by train hopping, bus and even hitchhiking. While engaged in his nomadic musical career it is said that he met the Devil at the crossroads and sold his soul in exchange for mastery of the guitar. The source of the story is unclear and may have been created by Johnson himself or perhaps by some of his detractors during his lifetime. The legend may have also been started by “Son” House who told the tale to awe-struck fans during the 1960s blues revival. Still others tell of a mysterious figured named Ike Zimmerman teaching Johnson to play the guitar.
Folktales of deals made with the Devil are long existing in both African-American and White tradition. Folklorist Harry Middleton Hart recorded many similar tales fiddlers, dice throwers, card sharps and other guitarists selling their souls at the crossroads for mastery of their chosen craft.
During his travels throughout the Mississippi and Arkansas delta country Robert would arrive in a new town he’d play on street corners. Taking requests from his onlookers was what he played most rather than his own compositions. Robert was playing strictly for tip money rather than a salary. With an uncanny ability to play songs after hearing them once he had no problems pleasing his audience. Robert played the delta regions blues halls, juke joints, country suppers and levee camps. Johnson saw the big city as well having traveled with fellow bluesman Johnny Shines to places as far off as St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere.
Johnny Shines met Johnson in 1933 when Shines was a youth of seventeen years old. Shines estimated Johnson at the time was maybe a year older than himself. Shines was quoted as saying of Johnson, “Robert was a very friendly person, even though he was sulky at times, you know. And I hung around Robert for quite a while. One evening he disappeared. He was kind of (a) peculiar fellow. Robert’d be standing up playing some place, playing like nobody’s business. At about that time it was a hustle with him as well as a pleasure. And money’d be coming from all directions. But Robert’d just pick up and walk off and leave you standing there playing. And you wouldn’t see Robert no more maybe in two or three weeks…. So Robert and I, we began journeying off. I was just, matter of fact, tagging along.”
Johnny Shines is pictured with Robert Johnson in a recently discovered photograph purchased by guitar maven Zeke Schein on eBay in 2005. The photograph is only third image of Robert Johnson known to exist. The only other two were discovered in the 1970s.
Showing Johnson and shines dressed sharply in the style of the day and smiling sheepishly the photograph has triggered only more questions about Johnson himself and who controls his valuable legacy.
The first image of Robert was published by Rolling Stone magazine in 1986 and is known as Robert’s “photo-booth self-portrait”. No larger than a standard commemorative postage stamp the image depicts Johnson in a collared, button down shirt with narrow suspenders. His guitar moving upward from left to right and his uncannily long, slender fingers in the left of the photo. A cigarette dangles from his lips, a catatonic stare in his eyes.
If Johnson’s first image to be released was low budget the second was almost artistic in composition. First seen in 1990 the portrait photographed by Hooks Brothers in Memphis, Tennessee shows a smiling Johnson sitting cross-legged on a draped stool. His guitar again in hand but fully visible this time. He holds it with his noticeable long fingers in an indiscernible chord. Rather than simple attire Johnson is adorned in a pinstripe suit, striped tie, banded fedora and a kerchief tucked neatly in the breast pocket of his jacket.
Eventually Robert made up his mind to record and approached H.C. Speirs, a white record store owner in Jackson, Mississippi. Speirs in turn sent Robert to see Ernie Oertle who was a talent scout for ARC. Oertle and Johnson went to San Antonio, Texas in November, 1936 for the first of only two recording sessions Robert Johnson would ever have. Recording in a temporary studio set up by Brunswick Records in the Blue Bonnet Hotel the shy Robert Johnson is said to have recorded facing the wall. Robert may have been overwhelmed and possibly intimidated by his first time in a recording studio. He may have also faced the corner to create a sound improving technique that somewhat simulated recording in an acoustical booth at a better equipped studio. During the ensuing three-day recording session Robert recorded sixteen cuts and also recorded alternate takes for many of them. When the recording session was complete Robert, it would be assumed, returned to Mississippi with more cash in his pocket than he’d ever had at one time in his life.
Robert Johnson’s second and last recording session occurred in a yet another makeshift studio in the Brunswick Recording Building in Dallas, Texas. Robert’s recordings from his second and last session would be released over the following year. Of his mere twenty-nine songs recorded, twenty-two of them were released on 78 RPM singles on the Vocalion label.
Though he only recorded 29 songs in his lifetime six of them made reference of the devil or some like form of the supernatural. It has been suggested that the Devil in those songs does not refer implicitly with the Judeo-Christian view of Satan but also could be in reference to the African trickster god, Legba. It is interesting to note that the god Legba was associated with crossroads in African tradition.
Those surprisingly few recordings were treasured by collectors and from them Robert Johnson has earned the title, “Grandfather of Rock N Roll”. So influential was Robert Johnson’s vocals and guitar style that it influenced a broad range of performers such as Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. “The most important blues singer that ever lived” is how Clapton described Robert Johnson. From a small handful of recordings decades ago Robert Johnson earned the fifth place spot in Rolling Stones list of “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. Robert Johnson is also an inductee in the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.
Robert Johnson died at the age of twenty-seven on August 16, 1938 in Greenwood, Mississippi. Greenwood is ironically located at a little country crossroad.
There are no shortage of theories and accounts as to the events leading up to Johnson’s death. One says Johnson flirted with the wrong woman one evening at a dance. Another that the woman was the girlfriend of the bartender and still another suggests she was a married woman he’d been seeing secretly. Whatever the truth may be, there seemed to be issues with Johnson and another man regarding a woman. Blues musician Sonny Boy Williams, a friend of Johnson’s, was with him that fateful night. According to Williams account Robert Johnson was offered an open bottle of bottle of whiskey and Williams knocked the bottle from Johnson’s hand admonishing his friend to never drink from an open container handed to him. Williams alleges Johnson told him, “don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.”
Not long after Johnson was offered another open container of liquor and Johnson accepted it and one would assume drank from the offered open bottle of spirit. The bottle from which Johnson drank was laced with the poison strychnine. Johnson is believed to have survived the initial poisoning but in a weakened state would die three days later of pneumonia.
In 2006 the British Medical Journal carried an article by David Connell titled, “Retrospective Blues: Robert Johnson – An Open Letter to Eric Clapton” in which Connell suggested Robert Johnson may have died from Marfan’s syndrome. The symptoms of which are visible in the few photographs of Johnson, such as long fingers, arms and legs as well as curved spine and eye problems. Johnson clearly had a slim body and was said to have had “one bad eye”. Close examination of the rare photographs of Robert show a somewhat drooping left eye.
Robert Johnson is buried in graveyard of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City, Mississippi in what had been for many years an unmarked grave. The exact location of Johnson’s body is a source of ongoing controversy. A marker was placed at what is believed to be Johnson’s gravesite at Mount Zion Missionary church in 1990 and funded in part by Columbia Records. Recent research that includes statements from the wife of a supposed gravedigger indicates Johnson’s grave may actually be under a large pecan tree in the cemetery of Little Zion Church north of Greenwood. Sony Music placed a marker at this site shortly after.
Though his life was short and his recordings were few, Robert Johnson made an indelible mark on music worldwide. His sadly small library of recordings have sparked thousands more songs by some of the greatest names in blues and rock music.
So intrigued by the story of Robert Johnson and his music and legacy and impact I recently visited the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation Museum in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. If you ever have a chance it’s just off I-55 exit 68 in Copiah County.