Dealing With The Devil: The Curious Life of Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson’s life began at a crossroads. In true Faustian form, he crossed paths with the devil, taking him away in his fingertips. The legend of Johnson is more well-known than the actual footsteps he took, and what information we have been left with has more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese. Thus, the mythological figure is born. An illegitimate sharecropper’s son, he became the defining perpetrator of the delta blues, traveling between town and country, picking for quarters and pints of whiskey. Naturally, his early and untimely death has done much to perpetuate the hazy mist surrounding his existence. That and the lack of a paper trail.

Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, MS on May 8, 1911. As a young boy he lived in levee camps and on plantations around northern Mississippi. He moved with his family to Memphis in 1914 and by 1918 was sent to live on the Abbay and Leatherman Plantation, near Robbinsville, MS. As a young man, he picked up a skill for the harmonica and jaw harp, which would lead into a fascination with the guitar in his 20s. He met and played with Willie Brown and Charlie Patton, accompanying them at local gatherings and parties. Through this he also met Son House, one of his early influences. Brown, Patton, House and Johnson began traveling together, playing where they could, with Robert as the odd man out. He had yet to become a guitar player, so he packed up and went back to Hazlehurst.

Upon arrival, he began playing with local bluesman Ike Zinnerman. This is where the crossroads legend came into being. From the time Johnson left House and the boys, to the time he reemerged as a guitar player he was off the radar. In less than two years, he had become a master of both the delta and country blues styles, picking up repertoire from the radio and other players he came across. Zinnerman’s playing captivated him, and so he copied Zinnerman very closely. By the time he met up with Son House again, he could play circles around him, making it seem as if he had literally struck a deal with the Devil himself, just to be able to do so.

In one respect, his music was oddly similar to other guitarists of the time, such as Peetie Wheatstraw, Scrapper Blackwell, Skip James and Kokomo Arnold, but different simultaneously. He took all of these different styles and mashed them together, laying rhythms on top of slippery leads, giving voice to a whole range of emotions and depths. It wasn’t so much that he created new ideas, but rather gathered up a bunch of used techniques and reorganized them, creating a new sound entirely. He mimicked the sound of two guitar players, while being only one, fooling even Keith Richards.

He was a wanderer. He was known for packing up halfway through a performance and leaving without so much as a tip of the hat. His itinerant lifestyle lead him all over the South, through the delta, up through Chicago and the midwest, back down through Texas and beyond. He made friends in every town, found women to put him up, drank too much and couldn’t through a punch to save his own skin. He was married more than once, the marriage licenses being some of the only written proof of his existence. He had some children, the first of which died during birth, along with his first wife. Lucky for us, he found time amidst all this to cut 29 of the most influential blues songs ever recorded.

His entire recording career can be summed up in two sessions, one of which took place on November 23, 1936. In a small room at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX, he sat in a straight-back chair facing the wall. What came out was “Come On In My Kitchen”, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” and his biggest success, “Terraplane Blues”. He would only live to see the success of “Terraplane Blues”, which sold 5,000 copies regionally. The second session was held in Dallas, TX, June of 1937. 11 more songs were cut, all of them being cut twice. Who knows what else he would have come up with, had he survived 1938.

The story of his death is muddled, although there are basic facts that surround every version. The most popular version is that he was poisoned at a juke joint, by the owner who found him closing in on his wife. The story goes that he was poisoned with strychnine, poured in a bottle of whiskey, which the man gave to his wife. She unknowingly offered it to Robert, who gladly accepted. Three days later he was dead, having painfully convulsed his way into the ever-after. Other stories say that he was flirting with said married woman, but she was of no relation to the juke joint owner. In his book, Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, Tom Graves uses toxicology reports to argue against the use of strychnine. Apparently, the smell and taste of it can’t be masked, even with hard liquor, which means that Robert would have known something was wrong. Also, it would take a good amount of strychnine to have a fatal reaction, and such an amount would bring death on in a matter of hours. As it was, Johnson didn’t even feel sick until hours later, and didn’t actually die for a few days. So the stories surrounding his death are as mysterious as his venture to the crossroads.

Johnson was lost to American ears for almost 25 years before he was found again. Beginning with John Hammond, who tried to find him and add him to a show at Carnegie Hall, and continuing with Alan Lomax, who put him amongst a series of other artists catalogued for the Library of Congress. A full length album was put out, Robert Johnson: King of The Delta Blues, in 1961 which found its way across the pond and into the hands of burgeoning guitarists Brian Jones, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. His popularity was cemented mostly in jazz and white music historian circles, spreading into the blues and rock worlds throughout the 60s. Today, he is looked at as the reigning king of Delta Blues, passing along the spiritual gifts to some of today’s other mythological guitar gods, and whether or not he actually shook hands with Satan himself is now immaterial. The magic is in the music, the philosophy in the playing, and who really cares how it happened?

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