There’s Robert Johnson the country blues legend and Robert Johnson the man and somewhere in the mix is the devil. With the help of blues researchers and latter-day biographers, Anthony Mostrom makes a deep dive into the musical past to give Robert Johnson—cited by the likes of Keith Richards and Eric Clapton as a near demigod—his due but he also sets him in context alongside contemporaries (and mentors) like Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James and Willie Brown. Like many figures of legend (Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix), Johnson was dead at 27, but his music continues to haunt and inspire.
In 1989, just a few months before Robert Johnson became a household name thanks to the spectacular success of the CBS Records box set, The Complete Robert Johnson, veteran blues researchers Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow wrote a pair of back-to back articles about the elusive bluesman’s life for the record collector’s journal, 78 Quarterly. Wardlow, a longtime blues researcher, had unearthed Johnson’s death certificate back in 1968.
After the Johnson set was released in 1990, the once cult-level blues guitarist who was born in Mississippi in 1911 and killed by poison in 1938 became the most famous pre-war country bluesman who ever lived.
Calt and Wardlow’s articles added up to a brief but fact-filled 22-page summing up of all the research they had carried out on Johnson, who famously died young after being given a glass of poisoned whiskey while playing a gig in Greenwood, Mississippi. These articles, appearing in a specialized magazine with a tiny circulation, included facts that were then unknown to CBS Records’ producers, one of whom was a rival Johnson researcher named Stephen C. LaVere.
The first of Calt and Wardlow’s articles was titled simply “Robert Johnson,” and began this way:
“As has no other blues artist, Robert Johnson has provided a posthumous flow of material to rhythm and blues singers, rock groups and latter-day blues interpreters, to the extent that his once progressive motifs have become hackneyed.
“He was the first rural blues performer to be eulogized by a white commentator, and the only one whose life, by virtue of fanciful posthumous articles, has become a romantic myth.”
In accounting for the origins of that “myth,” which had emerged slowly from a somewhat hermetic and obscure group of white blues researchers and scholars in the early 1960s only to become a full-blown, worldwide cult by the 1990s, Calt and Wardlow got to the heart of the matter: that is, the birth of the Johnson myth itself and the man who had started it, mere months following Johnson’s death.
“The occasion of Johnson’s original eulogy,” the two scholars wrote, “was a Carnegie Hall concert of 1938 devoted to spirituals, blues and jazz. In the program notes for the concert, which introduced such bluesmen as Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, and Big Bill Broonzy to the general public, its promoter John Hammond wrote:
‘Robert Johnson was going to be the big surprise of the evening. I knew him only from his blues records and from the tall, exciting tales the recording engineers and supervisors used to bring about him from the improvised studios in Dallas and San Antonio. I don’t believe that Johnson had ever worked as a professional musician anywhere, and it still knocks me over when I think of how lucky it is that a talent like his ever found his way to phonograph records. At the concert we will have to be content with playing two of his records. Johnson died last week at the precise moment when Vocalion scouts finally reached him and told him that he was booked to appear at Carnegie Hall on December 23. He was in his middle twenties and nobody seems to know what caused his death.’”
“Already a legend was in the making,” noted Calt and Wardlow, who went on to fact-check some of Hammond’s assertions, starting with the fact that Johnson had died four months before the New York concert and that it was “inconceivable” that he died “at the precise moment he had been informed of” the upcoming concert. In fact, Johnson was never informed of it.
But, of course, that didn’t matter, and wouldn’t matter for a long time to come since legends, all neat and tidy and dramatically satisfying, are usually more exciting than facts.
“Young Robert looked up to the great Charley Patton, the number one musical celebrity of the Mississippi Delta country in the late 1920s, as an influence.”
For present-day blues fans, however, Calt and Wardlow’s treasure trove of facts was the beginning of a much clearer picture of the young bluesman who died at the age of 27, shedding new light onto what was always a tantalizingly shadowy, even “spectral” image, and turning inside out the popular image of Johnson as a kind of doomed soul who made a Faustian “deal with the devil” late at night at a Delta crossroads in order to become a great blues artist.
This included testimonials from friends and fellow bluesmen that painted an almost carefree image of young Johnson, who thought nothing of hopping a freight train to get from state to state to play music, whether at a storefront for tips or playing all night in a juke joint where, witnesses reported, he clearly enjoyed the company of other people and (ominously) the attentions of inebriated and randy young women, whether they were married or not.
Calt and Wardlow seemed determined to demystify Johnson and bring him down to Earth:
“Elizabeth Moore met him that year (1929) as a nineteen-year-old arrival on the Robert Coxer plantation near Robinsonville. ‘We lived out on the same plantation,’ she said.
“From Elizabeth’s husband Harvey (Hard Rock) Glenn, a blues pianist with a one-tune guitar repertoire, Johnson acquired one of his first pieces: ‘He’d come out to me and my husband’s home in Robinsonville to get that tune all the time, old blues about: I’m Gonna Sit Down and Tell My Mama. Lord, I’d get sick of them! I’d say ‘fella, why don’t you put that guitar down?’
“’Oh oh, Miss Harvey! Don’t say that! Let him learn!’”
From Wardlow’s taped 1960s interviews with Son House, the great Mississippi Delta bluesman who had already recorded a handful of high-intensity masterpieces for Paramount Records in 1930 and is known to have been one of those local bluesman the teenaged Johnson most looked up to, came this quotation: “He used to slip off from his parents and come to where me and Willie Brown were playing for Saturday night balls…his parents just didn’t want him around those kinda places, but when he get the chance, he get out the kitchen window after he think they gone to sleep and he’d come to where we was.”
Once again from Elizabeth Moore: “He used to go around, sit and play with Willie Brown lots in Robinsonville. See they had a colored juke (joint) just up the railroad north, a little piece out of town. He’d play there with Willie Brown. Willie Brown and Son House.”
Then, more fascinating stuff: “Johnson’s musical development proved (to be) swift. Within a period of two or three years he appears to have become an accomplished blues guitarist. His death certificate indicated that his musical career began around 1928. Were this so, it referred to his early harmonica playing. Son House’s wife Evie recalled that Johnson liked to play the instrument during lunch recesses held outside the one-room Methodist church schoolhouse near Robinsonville both attended in the late 1920s.”
Calt and Wardlow then let slip a hint, without elaborating, on who did and who didn’t teach Johnson to play guitar: “Although Son House knew him as a harmonica player rather than a guitarist when he met him around 1930, Johnson did not, as House later maintained, ‘learn guitar between my knee and Willie Brown’s’.”
“The local ascendency of Brown and House as house ‘frolic’ commodities no doubt gave Johnson the impetus to develop an independent brand of music. ‘He wasn’t as good as Willie Brown,’ claimed a Rolling Fork, Mississippi bluesman named Willie Morris. ‘Brown knew a lot more about music, ‘cause he (Johnson) was young and Willie was old. Willie had been playin’ God knows how long.”
(Reading memories like these leads me to quote the culture critic and blues connoisseur John Tottenham, who once wrote about this long-lost world where giants walked the Earth: “What a paradise, of which little survives.”)
The parade of memories went on, with glimpses of exactly what kind of non-blues music the young Robert Johnson first learned to play on guitar: “Moore’s recollection of the various songs Johnson played indicated that he began his career with a derivative repertoire, as did most bluesmen. ‘He sing about: Captain George, Did Your Money Come? This was an old song. Willie Brown and them never would play that. Brown didn’t like that.’”
“Captain George, Has Your Money Come?” – W.F. Narmour & S.W. Smith (1928 OKeh)
The secretive Johnson, it turned out, was already in the habit of using different names when talking to different people. Wardlow quoted Elizabeth Moore as saying “he had three names.”
“Besides his rarely used given name of Johnson,” the authors wrote, “he was variously known as Robert Dusty or Robert Saxton. ‘Sometimes they used to call him ‘Dusty,’ but most of the time looks like they enjoyed callin’ him ‘Sax.’”
Johnson’s secretiveness didn’t end there, of course. It’s long been known to music scholars that this included a frequent unwillingness to allow other musicians to see his more advanced guitar playing techniques, and he would often turn his back on them to protect what he clearly felt were hard-won professional secrets.
These early articles from the pre-Robert Johnson-renaissance era mixed some of the now familiar bullet points of the legend with a smattering of surprisingly unflattering descriptions of Johnson, direct from the people who knew him: bluesman Johnny Shines called him “a bum who was always getting drunk and pissing in his pants,” neighbor Elizabeth Moore said she never heard him mention “anything out of the ordinary” in his conversation, which tended to reflect a preoccupation with achieving musical success. In these days of the hyper-inflated Johnson mystique, it’s fascinating to return to such lines as “only in his music did Johnson project anything but a prosaic figure.”
At another point in Calt and Wardlow’s articles Johnson is referred to as “seedy,” with a “facial disfigurement,” apparently referring to his one lazy eye.
This contrarianism probably reflected the feeling of 78 Quarterly’s well-informed, not to say snobbish, readership composed of jazz and blues experts, many of whom tended to dismiss Robert Johnson as a latecomer to the field. Even then, the composer of “Cross Road Blues”, “Me and the Devil” and “Hellhound On My Trail” was thought by some to be “too well known” to the public, thanks to a pair of LPs of his recordings put out by Columbia back in the early ‘60s.
But boy, were they in for a shock. Mere months after these articles appeared, the music world would erupt in a fit of Robert Johnson fever, thanks to the success of that spiffy and comprehensive box set with all of the bells and whistles anyone could hope for. The set was produced by a pair of tenacious blues scholars and record producers, Larry Cohn and Steve LaVere, whose liner notes were filled not only with new anecdotes about Johnson but also included exciting new Johnson photographs, the most spectacular being the one that graced the cover:
Not only that, but the music included every known alternate take of Johnson’s songs, some of them taken straight from the Columbia “vaults” while others were in the private hands of 78 collectors: previously unknown and unheard, except by the cognoscenti.
Robert Johnson – Stop Breakin’ Down Blues VOCALION 04002
The album’s release was greeted by a chorus of rapturous testimonials from old and young rock musicians: Keith Richards, the always dependable Eric (Me and Mister Johnson) Clapton, and a host of others. (Even today, check out any rock musician’s reaction to Robert Johnson but brace yourself as the superlatives fly: “Bach-like in construction…like an orchestra all by himself…brings it all back home,” et cetera.)
As for those 78 rpm record connoisseurs, the patient collectors of hopelessly rare blues discs by such foundational 1920s bluesmen as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Son House and Tommy Johnson…well, most of them turned up their collective noses.
Between the years of 1924 and 1940, thousands of country bluesmen: male, Black, rural blues singers from the deep South and Texas with acoustic guitars (there were some piano players in there too) had made blues records for various so-called “race record” labels.
According to John Tottenham (in his excellent liner notes to the CD compilation Suitcase Full of Blues), it is amazingly hard to find, out of all of these thousands of recordings, a truly bad record, much less a dull artist: “there are few pre-war country blues records which could be labeled execrable, or even mediocre,” he wrote in 1995, and it’s strangely true.
Calt and Wardlow’s “Robert Johnson” articles mentioned that young Robert looked up to the great Charley Patton, the number one musical celebrity of the Mississippi Delta country in the late 1920s, as an influence. “Among Johnson’s main performance pieces were Charley Patton’s Pony Blues and Banty Rooster Blues, and Johnny Shines recalled that Johnson frequently mentioned Patton as an inspiration.”
If someone had taken a poll of 78 Quarterly’s elite readership, odds are that most of them would have rated the multifaceted talent of Patton much higher than that of Robert Johnson. Many (myself included) would argue that Patton clearly deserves the title that’s been given to him so many times: King of the Delta Blues Singers (which happens to be the title of Calt and Wardlow’s full-length biography of Patton, published in 1988).
Patton was a volcanic creative force, a physically small man (of mixed racial ancestry, including Cherokee, white and Black) with a huge rough voice, a master guitar player who recorded dozens of 78 rpm sides for Paramount Records between 1929-1930. A protean artist, he was also a songwriter of genius, one of those rare figures whose work seems to exemplify a potent cultural myth and whose catalogue of recordings adds up to an intensely colorful world of rough-hewn music and poetry: turbulent and ecstatic and grounded in the specific world of small Mississippi Delta towns and hamlets that he knew and wandered in and out of, his scorched-earth style of singing and playing soldering its ragged elements into art: woman troubles, booze, religion, fear of floods, fear of the local “high sheriff,” the anguished fear of death itself.
Prayer Of Death Part 2 – Elder J. J. Hadley (Charley Patton)
Still, it is Robert Johnson, who recorded a relatively small number of songs and did it late in the country blues recording era (1936 and ’37) who stands out to this day in the eyes of most blues fans, and even the general public, as the prototypical bluesman: the free and footloose “rounder” who, to quote the legendary Mississippi blues talent scout H.C. Speir, “don’t stay in no one place.”
So why does Johnson stand out? Blues essayist Robert Palmer, in his great book Deep Blues, put it this way: “Each of Johnson’s blues recordings is packed with detail, both musical and verbal, and almost all of them crackle with intensity.” Aside from the many awed descriptions one can read from other guitar players on Johnson’s multilayered guitar technique (“who’s the other guy playing with him?” Keith Richards reportedly asked, upon hearing him for the first time), it’s surely the intensity of Johnson’s “haunted” lyrics, and the tense manner in which he delivers them, that accounts for this lasting appeal. “The singing is tense,” Palmer writes, “as if Johnson was forcing (his words) through a throat constricted with fear.”
As journalist Robert Gordon wrote in a 1991 LA Weekly article called “Hellhound On the Money Trail”: “Johnson’s recordings captured a spirit, a desperate, maniacal, even existential spirit, but so have other recordings. Leroy Carr, Kokomo Arnold, Tommy Johnson, and (other bluesmen) whose names we don’t even know have weeds instead of memorial stones on their graves. But Johnson has the myth.” Indeed.
Meanwhile, more books have been written about Robert Johnson, many of them based on and consisting of pure speculation, than any other country bluesman, ever. Some of these are pure autobiography, consisting of the author recounting his personal “search for” Robert Johnson as some sort of a spiritual quest, a geographical blues pilgrimage in pursuit of some (rather unlikely) physical traces, somewhere in the deep South, of a young man who died many decades earlier and spent most of his fleeting lifetime on the road, leaving very few signs of his existence on Earth except for a couple of dozen blues records, waxed in a couple of hotel rooms in Texas for the Vocalion record label.
In Johnson’s time there was a popular radio show called I Love a Mystery. That sentiment seems to animate most of these books based on little evidence, books which tend to rehash and restate and reheat the same well-known facets of the Johnson myth, including the main event: that Johnson had “sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads” in exchange for acquiring his genius at playing guitar and writing his highly original blues, which include a handful of certified masterpieces, one of which explicitly mentions the devil himself.
Now you would think that any music critic worth his or her salt who entertains or pretends to entertain such a notion as selling one’s soul to the devil (ironic, considering many of them are white hipster atheists anyway) would know that this particular legend, in the blues world, predated Robert Johnson’s adulthood by several years. Back then, this was a matter of whispered belief in some parts of Mississippi but it concerned another great and “tortured” local bluesman: the talented and original but hopelessly alcoholic Tommy Johnson of Crystal Springs, an older man who recorded a handful of transcendent sides for both the Paramount and Victor labels back in the late 1920s:
Ah, but Tommy Johnson wasn’t a handsome young rebel when he made records, having been born around 1896 (according to blues scholar David Evans), and he never sang about walking with the devil “side by side,” or about his own “evil spirit” traveling on a Greyhound bus, and he wasn’t killed at the terribly young age of 27 by being poisoned, which is what happened to Robert, a grim fate which, of course, marks him retrospectively as part of that fraternity of young musicians who died at that magic, tragic age: Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix.
No, poor old Tommy Johnson died the long, slow suicide of becoming an alcoholic, a man who was known to drink “rub alcohol” distilled from shoe polish, before dying at the age of 60. Not very glamorous, Tommy Johnson, but still a great artist.
Canned Heat Blues · Tommy Johnson
And, after reading story after story about the Robert Johnson myth in the pages of LA Weekly or Rolling Stone or the New York Times, you might also want to ask the music writers responsible: why not dispense with this ridiculous “devil” stuff right away, instead of stringing the reader along and sounding like you actually believe in it, as any self-respecting hipster-atheist critic would normally do? The answer is, of course, that the story had real currency among thousands of God-and-devil-believing folks in the South back in Robert Johnson’s time, and Johnson clearly knew it. In that part of the country, it was a matter of genuine religious fear.
But Gayle Dean Wardlow himself now seems to have the final word on Robert Johnson. In 2019, he and co-author Bruce Conforth published a biography of Johnson, the fruit of many decades of digging and deep comprehensive research: complete, chronological, myths-stripped-away, called Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson (Chicago Review Press).
It’s a book that spells out in generous detail everything you would ever hope to know about the now mythical musician, a book that weeds out the truth from the legend and shows how strange and fascinating Johnson’s world in the Mississippi (and Arkansas) Delta really was, including the devil stuff.
Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson (Chicago Review Press).
The book reveals (with names, places and dates) how it was that young Robert became a great guitar player: no sorcery, just a combination of the teenager’s innate talent and two to three years of hard work and study before mastering his instrument. This included, crucially, taking guitar lessons (get this now) in a Hazlehurst, Mississippi graveyard late at night (where “it was quiet”) under the guidance of an older local guitarist named Ike Zimmerman.
How this ultimately ties in with the story of “selling one’s soul to the devil” is dealt with in the book’s chapter “Ramblin’ at the Crossroads”:
“Soon Robert was railroading from Hattiesburg to Jackson, where he met another young bluesman, Johnnie Temple. Bluesman Tommy Johnson, who lived in Crystal Springs between Jackson and Hazelhurst, and Temple’s stepfather Lucien ‘Slim’ Duckett, had been playing together many years. It may have been through this association that Robert learned of Tommy Johnson’s alleged deal at the crossroads and decided that this myth fit his own life.”
This sounds at first like strained speculation, but in the end it has the ring of truth and actually makes both biographical and psychological sense: Johnson very well could have decided to fuse together in his own mind his earlier period of study with Ike Zimmerman along with the well-known Southern legend of meeting “a big black man,” known in Haitian folklore as “Papa Lengba,” at a crossroads late at night (this being a variation of an old tale told in both African and European folktales, according to the authors) thus creating a potent, “devilish” image for himself. Indeed, why not use his own no doubt spooky real-life experience and blend it with Tommy Johnson’s supernatural legend and then expand on it, explicitly, in his compositions?
It’s not a huge leap, since the evidence is there to show that Robert was always hellbent (as it were) on crafting for himself a great blues career.
Robert Johnson – Me And The Devil Blues
Up Jumped the Devil attempts from every angle to paint a portrait of someone who was, apparently, unknowable. “Well, I don’t know if he had a personality,” said bluesman Johnny Shines. “He had an approach. You know, he was a musician and he approached you as a musician. If he liked you he liked you, if he didn’t he didn’t…he didn’t pretend that he liked you. He didn’t talk very much. He thought all the time.”
The book does confirm certain assumptions that a listener would make about Johnson after hearing his songs: such as, that he really did live the classic blues life of rambling and hopping on freight trains, not just for the love of traveling but in the constant search for paying gigs in far-flung towns in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas, towns with amazing names like Clack, Its, and Lula.
With his trusty “box” strapped across his shoulder in a handmade sack made from “bed ticking,” Johnson followed the classic pattern of the bluesman’s life already made famous by such Southern recording artists of the 1920s as Blind Blake, Sam Collins, Blind Willie McTell, Ramblin’ Thomas and a thousand others.
Up Jumped the Devil confirms Johnson both as a loner and a determined careerist, a guy who repeatedly told his friends that he would go to New York to make it big in music. In 1938, in fact, he did go there with his musical partner Johnny Shines, and tried (unsuccessfully) to appear on the nationally broadcast radio show, the Major Bowes Amateur Hour.
It seems Johnson and Shines also went to Harlem, and after getting a few (untraceable) gigs there they met a local musician who introduced both of them to that newfangled innovation, the electric guitar. “Although he liked the volume,” the authors inform us, “Robert told the guitarist and Shines he ‘couldn’t make it talk’ like he wanted.”
(Conforth and Wardlow do not believe the unnamed guitarist was the young jazz pioneer Charlie Christian, but what a mind-blowing possibility that is.)
As far as blues being the “devil’s music” and Johnson’s clear embrace of that image in his songwriting, this book makes it clear that in real life, Johnson had no truck at all with Christianity once he’d reached adulthood. Religion left him unmoved. This stance puts into stark relief how rebellious and reckless he was in dealing with “devil” themes in his blues, a music that most upright, churchgoing Southern black folks completely condemned. In contrast, the authors also paint a picture of Johnson as an outwardly cheerful young man, especially toward his relatives and their children. (“What’s your pleasure?” he would ask them, soliciting song requests.)
As for Johnson’s musical tastes, it will surprise some readers to learn that among his favorite recording artists were the white cowboy singer Gene Autry, and the extremely popular star of ‘20s country music, Jimmie Rodgers, known in his heyday as the “Singing Brakeman.”
Jimmie Rodgers – Waiting for a Train
Gayle Dean Wardlow is 80 years old now, lives in Florida, and is known worldwide as one of the premier researchers on prewar country blues. In 1968, after much wearing out of shoe leather across several Southern states, he found Robert Johnson’s death certificate, which answered some old questions and opened up new ones (see the “Robert Johnson” chapter in his second book of blues history, Chasin’ That Devil Music, published in 1998).
Wardlow was born in Texas but raised in Mississippi, a white Southerner who came to love early recorded blues after an initial fascination with white country music, especially the music of Roy Acuff. Like other members of the first generation of blues researchers, he spent years knocking on doors from house to house in Southern black neighborhoods looking for old records, and even making inquiries about obscure blues musicians in an effort to locate them, sometimes based only on scant clues found in their lyrics.
In the early 1960s this meant that Wardlow, a white man in the deep South, was potentially playing with fire. In an article titled “Buying Rare Race Records In the South,” Wardlow recalled:
“In one Mississippi town a local cop stopped me as I was buying records from an elderly woman. He asked what I was doing. These were tense days during the struggle for civil rights. When the woman told the officer that I was ‘just buying old records,’ he seemed satisfied that I wasn’t trying to cheat her and he left. Only one time did I encounter a threat of violence. In 1967 in Pensacola, Florida, a man who had been drinking threatened me with a butcher knife when I asked to see his mother’s records. I left quietly and quickly. I did not buy any records there!” Still, Wardlow concluded, “the early 1960s were golden days for canvassing.”
It’s worth noting here that Wardlow’s early collaborator, the late Stephen Calt, had written two excellent blues books of his own: I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues (1994) and an indispensable “blues dictionary” and guide to blues phrases, expressions and obscure slang called Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary (2009). This is the book where you can find out what certain odd old expressions heard in blues records actually mean: go to page 88, for example, to learn that the term “fatmouth” (used in a song by Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1926) is defined as: “a stock blues pejorative for a man who gives money to a female, the implication being that he is being outwitted by a hustler.”
Or there’s the ever-popular term “rider,” as in the immortal song, “See See Rider.” Surprise! It means: “a sex partner, usually applied to women. It originally referred to males and is, thus, given by Partridge as an obsolete slang term for ‘an actively amorous man.’”
I found one glaring omission in Calt’s dictionary, however, but one that strangely was included in his earlier article about Robert Johnson for the 78 Quarterly: why, you might wonder, did Johnson sing: “Baby, don’t you want to go? / Back to the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago”? The answer, according to Calt, is that “California” once upon a time meant: “money or wealth. ‘California’ was a 19th-century term for gold coins that had been obsolete for 20 years when Johnson used it.” Thus, if true, Chicago was the promised “land of California.”
Based on the tone of his writings on blues, Calt had developed a reputation as a rather dour writer whose work was almost uniformly colored by an overemphasis on biting put-downs and vinegary descriptions of persons, even including the very musicians he was writing about. This might seem like a perverse enterprise, but in Calt’s book on Skip James (“a shameless braggart”), writer and subject found their match: the great blues composer and poet of darkness was a complete misanthrope himself, who once described the competitiveness that goes on between blues musicians as something akin to “a barrel of crabs.” According to Calt, James once bitterly declared that the city of Chicago “should be wiped off the map.”
Skip James-Cypress Grove Blues
Critic Greil Marcus, a writer who has often been prescient about the past, once wrote an exhilarating article on Robert Johnson (“Possession Over Judgment Day”) for the British jazz magazine The Wire, in September of 1987. Here he put the bluesman-as-wandering-minstrel ethos into proper perspective: that is, from the Southern bluesman’s perspective.
Writing about the birth of the blues, which according to Marcus “had made a breach in the world of Southern blacks,” he asserted that this music “was not born of oppression, but of freedom. Blues was invented by one of the first generations of black Americans not to be born slaves, to be born with the freedom of movement that from the time of Daniel Boone had been enshrined as the first principle of American life.
“They were among the first Afro-Americans to escape of their own free will the ties of hometown, home plantation, family, church, and most important, work. The black church as well as white sheriffs pushed them back, and they pushed back against the black church no less than against white sheriffs. No, they said, I do what I like.”
After reading all of the superlatives that have been written (and rewritten) about Robert Johnson, all of those myths that smother the man’s music like so much dirt covering his unmarked grave in Greenwood, Mississippi, you would think that these writers and mythmakers had never heard a minute of Johnson’s older but equally “intense” fellow Mississippi musicians: Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James or even Johnson’s close “friend-boy” Willie Brown, whom he name-checked on his most famous recording, Cross Road Blues:
Compared to these earlier giants, any listener who comes to Johnson’s records for the first time could be forgiven for detecting a certain unbroken, musical sameness (with a few obvious exceptions) going on from song to song, especially if one listens to “the complete Robert Johnson” in one sitting, which was never the intention of 1930s musicians (or their record companies) in the first place. Indeed, comparing Johnson’s work to the kaleidoscope of moods and musical color that seem to come slashing through the old 78 surfaces of any one of Charley Patton’s records could feel a bit like the difference between say, a roller coaster ride and a nice, quiet stroll.
Jesus Is A Dying Bed Maker · Charley Patton
And yet, if I may quote a certain Mr. Anthony Mostrom on this subject: “once you’ve heard Johnson it’s maddeningly hard to keep his catchy tunes out of your head for long.”
Any last word on Johnson and his legacy would probably mean saying something catchy about the way the man’s “ol’ evil spirit,” which was so cruelly and tragically snuffed out by a drink of poisoned whiskey one hot evening in August of 1938, still haunts the blues world today, 80 years after his death.
But that’s been stated and restated already. Let’s just quote his own last words from “Cross Road Blues,” his signature song: “I believe I’m sinkin’ down.”
Well, even us big-city Catholics know what that means.
MAY 20, 2021
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