Since May 8 is blues icon Robert Johnson’s birthday, it seems like a good time to resurrect this piece I wrote back in 2011 for his centenary. In hindsight, it turned out pretty well, mostly because a long list of artists — from Lucinda Williams and Luther Dickinson to Paul Simon and Gregg Allman — were happy to talk to me about Johnson. One surprise that I recall came when I asked eternal contrarian Jeff Beck about Johnson; he told me he actually preferred the unrelated Tommy Johnson. Go figure. Anyway, here’s the whole unedited piece, along with plenty of audio. Hope you like it:
He sang and played guitar. His career was brief but legendary. At age 27, he died under mysterious circumstances. He cut only a few dozen songs, but left an indelible mark. Critics hail him as a master, an innovator, an icon. He has inspired countless artists, from the loftiest superstar to the humblest beginner. Yet few people alive have seen him perform.
His name was Robert Johnson. He was born a century ago. Without him, rock might sound very different.
“It’s hard to imagine the world without Robert Johnson,” says North Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson. “Nothing else compares to him. I still listen to Robert Johnson all the time.”
Dickinson is in good company. “He had a lot to do with my brother Duane’s playing,” offers Gregg Allman. “I know most of his songs.” Adds Lucinda Williams: “The way he played guitar, his voice, everything — he was just different, you know?” Paul Simon knows: “He’s a major guy.”
That’s putting it mildly. “Robert Johnson’s a massive influence on blues and blues-based rock,” explains Rob Bowman, Grammy-winning music historian and York University professor of ethnomusicology. “He’s huge. If we look at the blues, there are three musicians who are absolutely seminal: Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and Robert Johnson. Those three informed so much of the repertoire, aesthetics and playing techniques of people like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and so on. He’s incredibly important.”
To truly understand how and why, you have to examine the man, the music and the mystique of Robert Johnson.
• • •
Robert Johnson was born out of wedlock on May 8, 1911 in Mississippi. He spent his youth moving between parents, homes and towns, going by various surnames. Unlike many peers, he went to school. By 18, he was married. By 20, he was widowed. After his young wife died in childbirth, he abandoned family life for music. He had been playing harmonica since childhood and guitar since his teens. According to Delta blues legend Son House, Johnson was an embarrassingly bad guitarist. Then he left town — and came back with supernatural abilities. The legend — which Johnson wisely did little to refute — was that he gained his talent by selling his soul to Satan at a midnight crossroads.
Too bad the Devil didn’t toss fame and fortune into the deal. Johnson lived as an itinerant bluesman, roaming from town to town, playing juke joints, levee camps, streetcorners. He travelled to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit and perhaps even Windsor. He became a skilled performer with a keen ear, winning over audiences with pop hits of the day.
His own work was often darker and more complex — tales of devils and hellhounds, love in vain and his rambling life, voiced in his keening tenor and offset by his intricate guitar work. Remarkably, his recorded output consists of just three sessions in late 1936 and early 1937. Over five days, he cut 29 original songs that would become cornerstones of blues: Sweet Home Chicago, Love in Vain, Ramblin’ on My Mind, Come on in My Kitchen, Cross Road Blues.
He recorded them while facing the corner in a San Antonio hotel room. Some claimed he was shy. Dickinson and Bowman insist he was searching for a sound. “I think he stumbled into it somehow, that playing into the corner of the room was going to give him much more presence on the record,” says Bowman. “And it does. Compared to other recordings from ’36 and ’37, those songs just leap out of the grooves.” Dickinson concurs: “He definitely knew what he was doing.”
He never did it again. Little over a year later, on Aug. 16, 1938, he died near Greenwood, Miss. As the story goes, he was given whiskey laced with strychnine — poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman he was wooing. He was 27. He was likely buried in a pauper’s grave; his exact resting place is disputed. Only two verified pictures of him exist. He could easily have been forgotten. Fate, however, had other plans.
• • •
Johnson’s records sold poorly during his life. But they found their way into the hands of Columbia Records producer John Hammond. In 1938, Hammond had tried to book Johnson for a Carnegie Hall revue, only to learn of his death. In 1961, he finally found a way to bring the bluesman to the masses: He convinced Columbia to release the LP King of the Delta Blues Singers.
“Hammond made sure that everyone he knew was hip to this album,” says Bowman. “Word quickly filtered from musician to musician and connoisseur to connoisseur that here was a guy who was a notch or two above his contemporaries. That got his songs circulating within the folk and blues revival scene, and eventually manifested itself in the wealth of covers performed in the late ’60s and early ’70s by a host of contemporary blues singers, as well as a whole lot of rock ’n’ roll players like Cream, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.”
Louisiana singer-songwriter Williams — whose first album opens with Ramblin’ on My Mind — recalls the first time she heard him. “I had never heard anyone like him. It just chillled me to the bone. Some of those lines, they’re just so harrowing. Nobody was writing like that. When that Columbia album came out, that was it. I listened to that every day. Every day.”
She’s not alone. Since then, Johnson’s fame and legend have only grown. He’s been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to The Blues Brothers. Artists from Clapton to Todd Rundgren have made tribute discs. His music has won Grammys. He is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His life has been chronicled by documentarians and biographers, spun into films. Over time, the mystique — the Faustian bargain, the sketchy history, the iconic photos, the tragic end — may have eclipsed the truth. But it cannot overshadow the music and the man who made it.
“Robert Johnson, for whatever reason, had a sense of himself,” concludes Bowman. “It shows in the way he performed and recorded and toured. And that was the crucible for his transformation from a folk musician to a professional musician. It was simply a different level of consciousness from his contemporaries. Sure, the aura, the intrigue and the mystery obviously play a big role. But if there’s not great music behind it, none of that other stuff matters.”
• • •
A century after his birth, musicians still rave about Robert Johnson. Here’s what some had to say:
“He is to Delta blues what Hank Williams is to country and what Jim Morrison is to rock music: A poet. There’s that very haunting, ghostlike thing in his music. But there’s also this beauty, this dark beauty.”
Jamie Hince | The Kills
“It’s like his vocal cords are attached to his guitar strings. The vocal follows the guitar melody and the guitar follows the vocal. It’s absolutely my kind of thing. That style — Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson — has been a massive influence on me.”
Jeff Martin | The Tea Party
“I think his impact is the mystique. He was basically the first bluesman with mystique. That’s what attracted me to Robert Johnson in the first place, the myth of the crossroads. That guy had a serious, scary f—ed up life. That’s the real blues, right there.”
“The amount of good material is staggering. And the breadth of the material. He was just a one-man band. He could do it all. And he was a singer who belies the myth that every blues singer has to growl. He had a sweet tenor, really. Not your typical blues voice.”
“It’s such a sad case of a star that shone so bright and burned out so fast. His playing is so intricate and delicate, you know. And lyrically, he was beautiful. The guitar playing is otherworldly. But his lyrics, there’s nothing else like them.”
• • •
Everyone and their dog has covered Robert Johnson over the decades. Here are five essential remakes for your playlist:
Cream | Crossroads
Eric Clapton has tackled most of Johnson’s catalog — but for my money, he hasn’t topped this hard-driving live version from 1968’s Wheels of Fire.
Rolling Stones | Love in Vain
Mick and Keith recast Johnson’s desolate blues as a country lament for 1969’s Let it Bleed, and ended up with one of the prettiest Johnson renditions on record.
Led Zeppelin | Travelling Riverside Blues
Less a straight cover than a very loose reinterpretation of Johnson — but then, wasn’t rewriting old blues songs pretty much the basis for Zep’s career?
The White Stripes | Stop Breaking Down
Don’t think Jack White can hold his own as a blues guitarist? This whomping, slide-fuelled take from the duo’s 1999 debut album will change your mind.
Gun Club | Preachin’ the Blues
Jeffrey Lee Pierce and his L.A. blues-punk pioneers toggle between speed-demon frenzy and haunting menace on this track from their 1981 LP Fire of Love.