(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN NOVEMBER 2008)When the train / Left the station / It had two lights on behind / Well, the blue light was my blues / And the red light was my mind. / All my love's in vain.
-- ROBERT JOHNSON
Son House, the great blues singer and slide guitarist, delighted in telling people that when he first met Robert Johnson, he couldn't play guitar to save his life. But the young man was persistent and after disappearing for a few months was again pestering House, Willie Brown and the other Mississippi Delta bluesmen in his company to be allowed up on stage.
House relented one Saturday night -- the year may have been 1929 or maybe not -- and left Johnson to play to the tables and chairs while he and his buddies stepped outside to take in the air. A devastatingly brilliant sound suddenly came from inside the roadhouse unlike anything House had ever heard.
Said House of Johnson: "He sold his soul to the Devil to get to play like that."
Indeed, there are few stories about Johnson that don't include references to the Devil. And what stories there are about a man whose extraordinary skills influenced so many musicians are usually short on details (let alone there being only three photographs of him extant; two of which are reproduced here).
Johnson had an ineffably shadowy life so poorly documented that there are entire books and a movie or two not about his life but about how little is known about it.
We do know that this life included the recording of 29 landmark tracks under the guidance of Don Law in 1936-1937 before Johnson's death in 1938 at age 27 possibly by a jealous lover who poisoned, stabbed or shot him. (Pick one.)
As film director Martin Scorsese says in his foreword to Alan Greenberg's Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, "The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend."
In fact, the legend is far more interesting than Robert Leroy Johnson's upbringing in Hazlehurst, Mississppi as one of 10 children born to Julia Major Dodds, a brief interlude in Memphis and then a return to the Mississippi Delta region where he got a relatively decent education and was remembered for playing the harmonica.
According to the legend -- one that plays perfectly to white racial stereotypes -- Johnson lived on a plantation.
Burning with desire to become a great blues musician, he was told to take his guitar to a nearby crossroad at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil, of course) who took the guitar from Johnson and tuned it, giving him mastery of the instrument before handing it back to him in return for his soul.
Never mind that only six of Johnson's songs mention the Devil and he was much more preoccupied with sex.
* * * * * What Son House heard that night is only one third of Johnson's extraordinary legacy -- that intense guitar chording that could make him sound like an entire band.
Add to that a high and deeply emotional singing voice (that one critic said made him sound "like he's about five minutes away from the electric chair") and lean but staggeringly powerful songwriting, and it's easy to see why Johnson had such an influence on musicians as disparate as Muddy Waters, Elvis Presley, Dion, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan.
One of the better pieces on Johnson and the blues in general was written by Greil Marcus in Mystery Train. While his prose can by hyperbolic to the point of breaking glass (he was older then, he's so much younger now), Marcus understands that the blues grew out of the need to survive in a brutal world:
"Unlike gospel, blues was not a music of transcendence; its equivalent to God's Grace was sex and love. Blues made the terrors of the world easier to endure, but blues also made those terrors more real. For a man like Johnson, the promises of the church faded; they could be remembered -- as one sang church songs; perhaps even when one prayed, when one was too scared not to -- but those promises could not be lived. Once past some unmarked border, one could not go back. The weight of Johnson's blues was strong enough to make salvation a joke; the best he could do was cry for its beautiful lie."
When Johnson arrived in a new town, he would play for tips and play what his audience asked for and not necessarily his own compositions, let alone the blues. As fellow bluesman Johnny Shines (photo, right) noted, Johnson also was interested in jazz and country and had the ability to pick up any tune at first hearing, be it a polka or Bing Crosby hit.
Shines (photo, below right) told Samuel Charters, the author of Robert Johnson, that he first met Johnson in 1933:
"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 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."
Those journeys took them out to Texas and up to Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago, and to Greenwood in the Delta in August 1938 where he was murdered. As befits Johnson, his exact gravesite is not known and there are three different markers bearing his name at three different burial grounds outside of Greenwood.
* * * * *There are many claims on who "invented" rock 'n' roll. My own view is that there was no single progenitor, but Johnson must be given a share of the credit when you consider all of the great rock musicians -- black and white -- who have been moved by him and covered his songs, and that his influence on pre- pre-rock black music during his life was minor.
In fact, the era of the Delta blues had pretty much ended by 1940 and his records were out of print from then until 1961 when John Hammond, the hugely influential music producer, persuaded Columbia to release King of the Delta Blues Singers, the first album-length collection of Johnson's music. The album was a modest hit -- not bad for a dead guy who consorted with the Devil that one had heard of -- helped spark a blues revival and caught the attention of many young rock musicians, including Mick Jagger, Robert Plant and Eric Clapton.
"Robert Johnson, to whom we all owed our existence, in some way," is how Plant of Led Zeppelin calls his influence on rock.
And as Marcus notes, who can deny the inescapable pull of Johnson's music when Mick Jagger used to bring down the house singing "Love In Vain" in the middle of a Rolling Stones concert.
I never could.