When it comes to the blues, Big Bill Broonzy said, “you’ve got to have it to play it”. Robert Johnson had the blues and then some. His story is one of heartache and despair, it’s a story of slavery, a country disillusioned by its own past and the presentiment of future predicaments, it’s the grave founding of the unfortunate 27-club and the turbulent tribulations of talent and its attainment, but it is also a story that lays the cornerstone to Rock & Roll and music as we now know it, perhaps most notably of all, it’s a story shrouded in murk and mystery.
Ultimately it is not too grandiose to say that it’s a story that embodies precisely why we listen to music. Aside from the melodies it is as much to do with the lives that make them, in fact, with a legend as enduring and darkly endearing as Robert Johnson’s, to say these tales and the qualities they imbue upon the music are why we listen is hardly grandiose enough.
As the legend goes it was an evening that held a metaphysical air, quite how something so nebulous can be remembered up to this day is open to conjecture, but then there’s much about the delta blues and the mystic American South that holds out a stern but fair finger and asks how you’d know otherwise. The tale persists that the blue chords of day were bleached in the dark iridescence of the Mississippi nightfall and the stars were flung out, like crumbs from a picnic blanket onto the purple-black cloth of dusk. The moon rose over the bayou, setting beasts and blues players howling alike, and the crooked hands of tupelo trees clawed at the illuminated clay ball, trying to drag it back down to swampy depths.
Through the mist drove Robert Johnson, bidding a solemn farewell to town and civility, “with a $10 guitar strapped to his back, looking for a tune”. Not quite the downcast pariah he had been seen as, he was now a man on a mission, the despair of his past lay behind him, and his future stretched out on the warped paths ahead. At the crossroads where 4 dusty black roads met, Robert dropped to his knees summoning the might to meet with his maker. He stretched out his guitar and up rose Lucifer with a bargain in tow. Unlike the tale of Tenacious D, Satan wasn’t offering the sort of songs you’d forget in a hurry. For the cost of Robert’s soul, Beelzebub would bestow upon him musical greatness. He returned to the bluesy booze joints a year later like a champion prodigal son; a songsmith virtuoso, the crowned king of delta blues and the forefather of rock & roll… till the Devil took back what was rightfully his.
It is a legend of modern mythology with roots that delve back all the way to the origins of the Deep South, but in life as mystified and devoid of tangible truths as Robert Johnson’s, it’s hard to discard the fiction for fear that it is actually a fact. As Keith Richards alludes, you only have to hear him howl “I went to the crossroads” once, to know that there is something jinxed about Johnson. What then, in a life trapped in the mire of monumental mystery can be discerned as irrevocable truth for the sceptic’s perusal, aside from the 29 compositions and 2 photographs that exist of the man we now know as the definitive luminary of modern music?
Any attempt to track to down the facts immediately gets off to a rocky start. It is known he was born Robert Leroy Johnson in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, but the date of May 1911 is merely a best guess. The fact that he was never issued a birth certificate is as symptomatic of a man who seemed to emerge into existence from the darkness, as it is of the troubled times.
His life was marred by hardships and discrimination from an early age. His relatively wealthy stepfather Charles Dodds was forced to flee the delta following threats of a lynching by jealous white landowners. Thus, Johnson’s early days wove a serpentine path through the South. And it’s a path that would never be set straight until he arrived at the fateful crossroads, even then there’s an argument it was as louring as ever, as any roads bar the famed highway of death and glory were seemingly barricaded by destiny.
Following that best-guess of birth came a boyhood equally as tricky to trace. It is believed that he was educated in Memphis, where he unearthed his passion for music. The scattered hopping’s of census records, however, suggest he never settled for long. His mother remarried, and Robert spent the remaining days of his youth on a plantation. The emboldened young vagabond rejected the farming fate that lay ahead of him and chose to sing the field’s song rather than toil it. It was a choice that resulted in his sharecropper stepfather’s beatings, planting the first seeds of Robert’s unwavering resolve. Blues may have been borne from the fields, but it did not flourish from that grounded oppression alone. Likewise, in Johnson’s life, the blues would not take root fully until he was 18 years old.
Although he had largely shunned a life on the land in favour of a musical path, he never really displayed the practice of a prodigy, to any degree. As a teen, he would shuffle around the weekend shows hoping to come across anyone with enough money to spare some, but by no means did his far from prodigious playing prise him a roost.
Thus, when he met his sweetheart, Virginia Travis, a girl of fervently religious upbringing, he was ready to hang up the guitar and turn his back on the devil’s music at the behest of her family. They married, and when Johnson was 18, his pregnant wife, with 2 weeks left of her term, travelled to her grandmothers where she was to give birth.
With his beat-up guitar tucked under his arm, Johnson took leave of the farm and set about using the fortnight as a final swansong of busked shows before finally decamping from musical frolics in favour of wholesome family life.
When he arrived to greet his wife and child, he was met with tragedy — neither had survived the birth. It is a catastrophe where any words I could write would undoubtedly fall short of capturing the immensity of the moment and the boundlessness of his grief. Condolences likewise fall short, but they are the only thing we have to offer in such circumstances. On the contrary, however, Johnson did not receive comforting words but rather further damnation. Virginia’s religious relatives blamed the deaths on Johnson, saying his accursed affliction for the Devil’s music had brought about the tragedy.
Though the bible’s singing appraisal of music would make this so-called religious viewpoint tantamount to heresy, it was no doubt in keeping with the theologians’ talk of the time. And once again it was a rhetoric of the day that seems to place Johnson’s life at the spearhead of untimely fate. In his 18th year, The Great Depression had taken hold, and it was this economic factor, much more so than the word of any religious text, that pervaded the perdition of the blues. After all, the preacher’s collection box was competing for the same kindness of strangers as the busking bluesman’s open guitar case or upturned flat cap. Moreover, this factor led Johnson’s life towards the circumstances that allowed the soul-selling legend to take hold, seeding the predestined future that would flower from the internal marriage of despair and desire.
After the scornful condemnation of Virginia’s family following her death, Johnson decided to vindicate their remarks, embrace his soul’s calling and pursue a life of the blues. He yearned to follow that cataclysm with conquest and become a star; only his playing remained woefully short of that which would result in stardom. Sadly, even the pockets of city folk had dried up, his street corner shows drew fewer handouts, and his livelihood was in jeopardy but never the lifeblood of his blues. His time as a second-rate city musician was becoming untenable. Famed delta players of the day like Son House, recall having to chase Johnson off their instruments for fear he would snap a string, but he was always a ubiquitous presence in the Juke Joints that they would play, that is until the day that he suddenly went away.
The truth behind the year of no return is that he went back home to Hazlehurst, where he hooked up with local guitar hero Ike Zimmerman, (not a bad name for a guitarist). Ike taught Robert the only way to learn the blues, which may not include devilry, but it’s certainly mystical in its own right. He took Robert out to the graveyard every midnight where nobody would complain, and spirits aided the strumming. Under the stewardship of Ike, Johnson’s playing eventually blossomed, and his desire to conquer the guitar was finally met at painstaking but glorious ends. Thusly the truth of the tale regarding his unearthly transformation is merely practice and discovering that the devil of the blues is in the detail of the playing.
Whilst the legend may be just that, a legend, it is clear that it would not have taken root from a life where honest toil and justly paid dues brought a harvest of munificent concessions that Johnson could enjoy in the peaceful pastures of a rightful home. Instead at every metaphorical crooked crossroads or doomed diegesis, he was met with further castigation and hexed by misfortune, making the legend a fiction befitting of the fact. The brilliance of his blues never afforded him a bounty of spiritual catharsis to bask under the azure blue of the Mississippi sky or bathe in the boon of the Southern Delta sun, to kick off his well-trodden boots, put his feet up and marvel at the kinship in the bluebirds strangled cries of song upon the old guitar players porch, so to speak. He was a chased and tortured soul from the get-go, so much so that an assembly with the antichrist, fictional or otherwise, would’ve barely made him flinch. However, any ardent mystic, reluctant to dismiss the Lucifer liaison, would do well to note that on the paths from Robinsonville to Hazlehurst there’s any number of points where four roads meet.
Legend aside, a year on from the day his of departure, he returned to Robinsonville having acquired the skills that would crown him king. Where once Son House had chased him from his stage, he now saw Johnson approach with a mean strut and a strange additional 7th string added to his dog-eared guitar. This time Johnson took to the spotlight and played as nobody had played before. Gone was the out of tune scratching and doggerel hollering and its place was a transcendent performer singing songs of hoodoo verse, laying down all that would be good in popular music to come, and in an instant securing his place as the King of The Delta Blues.
As is to be expected in the life of someone like Johnson, such success did little to diminish the heap of his burden. Another child and lover were kept from him owing to his profession of playing the music of the beast. His son, Claud Johnson, recalls that on one of only two times he ever saw his father, Robert handed over cash for his upbringing and asked to see the boy, only to be shepherded away from the premises. Whether or not it was with his soul, Johnson nevertheless paid a hefty price for his music. His fame grew, his songs got recorded, but his woes remained the same.
The price of his life would finally be paid at a place aptly named The Three Forks. A friend and fellow blues player Honeyboy recalled Robert as being fond of only two things – “whiskey and women”, those are the two W’s that in the blues world that lead to definite discontent. Both would have an equal hand in his demise.
His life of mystery would stay true to the last. Whatever mythological figures of fate had choreographed his life like the mad dance of a cursed marionette were about to cut the threads loose, Johnson’s whiskey was about to run out. He’d been flirting with the wrong girl and refused to heed warnings. He was a handed a bottle of whiskey with a broken seal by an avenging husband.
He died a few days later. Poisoned. In the painful throes of his final hours, he crawled his way to the fresh air of night, tracking on all fours. At a roadside, he slumped down and slipped away. The stars once more scattered out across the firmament above him like sequins of light reflected in an unending puddle, twinkling over our hero like the glinting eye of heaven. The image of his lifeless body drowned out in the pissing rain, would not be discovered till the early hours of the morning.
Though the jury is still out, and nobody was ever convicted, poison is the conclusion of the anecdotal autopsy anyway, and like much in the south at the time, that stern but fair finger points out once again and asks how anybody would know otherwise.
There was never any footage of Robert Leroy Johnson, and there’s only ever been 2 confirmed photos, but a lot more than just his 29 recorded songs live on.
Such is the collaborative domino effect of music, one artist informing the other, no single person can be picked out as the definitive pioneer. That being said, if you were foolish enough to do so, then you could do a lot worse than to tout Robert Johnson as the pillar of influence for all modern music.
It’s frankly impossible to listen to a rock or blues song and not pick out one of his chords. It has been said by assertive fans that without Johnson there’d be no Muddy Waters and without Muddy Waters, there’d be no Rock & Roll. Bob Dylan’s life was changed when John Hammond played him some Johnson in the ’50s, and Keith Richards is such a fan that if The Stones had ever failed, he might well have ended up as some eccentric vicarious biographer. Perhaps more importantly than that he was a Star in the modern sense, a man so singular that he evoked notions of divine intervention. Unlike most of today’s imitators, his was most certainly not some shop-worn abstraction of the downtrodden soul-bearing songsmith. That is not to say that the only way to acquire authenticity is through hardship, rather stay true to the songs — Johsnon lived and breathed the blues.
But his legacy is not just the impact that he had played forward. As much as his life was inexorably tangled up in threads of fate it was also woven into place by the hands of history. Nina Simone once said, “funk, gospel and blues is all out of slavery times, out of depression, out of sorrow,” and that isn’t just some championed utterance by a much-loved artist, it stands up to the test of musicologists. It is this extraordinary truth that makes it all the more remarkable that Johnson’s music is not just dark but all shades of blue. As Wynton Marsalis said, just as everything was spawned from the blues, everything comes out in it too; “Joy, pain, struggle. Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance.”
Blues is beautiful poetry etched into the margins of one the darkest pages in history. Whilst one does not bring any comforting solace to the other, it is testimony to the unconquerable spirit of those that suffered, and those that continue to do so, that this torment was, and is, transfigured into something beautiful. It is this mark left by Johnson and other that will stand amidst the breakers of histories cruel tides as a monolith to the insurmountable souls that bore the hands of oppression and were left, in the words of William Ernest Henley, bloody but unbowed. From doggedly desperate times of despair came the gilded magic of modern music that will play on for eternity whilst needless suffering will hopefully one day recede down to a relic of the past, but for now, the songs bring comfort and joy to those who listen and show that even in darkness there is a defiant light of harnessed exultation. Just as, beneath the dark blue of Johnson’s music, burns the little sheltered flame of hope for a better life beyond that which society and circumstance had set out for him. This is a trait that would live on in modern music forevermore.
Regardless if you’ve got a soul blue enough to stomach the songs, you should be thankful to Robert Johnson for rock and roll.