The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame offered something called the American Masters Series and the seminar subject was a Mississippi musi- cian named Robert Johnson, who, had he lived, would have turned 100 years old last week. Born in Hazlehurst and died in Greenwood maybe 120 miles away, he made it as far as twenty-seven years; two years more than Keats and two years less than Hank Senior.
I felt obliged to attend because I shook the hand that shook the hand of Robert Johnson. The gentleman I was privileged to know was a master craftsman named Johnny Shines. In his wild years, he and Johnson had crisscrossed the country together as itinerant musicians. When I met him, Johnny and his family were living in Holt, not far from Tuscaloosa, but in terms of blues artistry, he had been around the universe a couple of times. Johnny was six years gone in ’98 and some of his last interviews were to be premiered in Peter Meyer’s docudrama Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl during the Cleveland event. I figured I could suffer for the blues by putting up with a Case Western University dorm room for a weekend.
The event turned out tonier than expected, with the dormitory supplanted by a Marriott and, instead of a club show with legendary bluesmen, a concert at the venerable Severance Hall headlined by the Allman Brothers. In between, the payoff for me was meeting some legends of blues scholarship, such as author Peter Guralnick and archivist extraordinaire Gayle Dean Wardlow. These people helped me realize that Robert Johnson was people, too.
Perhaps you are unaware of his sparse biography. An illegitimate child raised on a plantation in deep Mississippi, Johnson fooled around with guitar and harmonica as a young man, and in his teens decided farm life was not for him.
With no formal training, he suddenly acquired jaw-dropping skills as a guitarist, it was said, by making a deal with the devil. He developed a reputation playing parties throughout the Delta, then hopping freight trains to play joints in cities throughout the nation. He attracted the attention of record company scouts who arranged for him to record in Texas, once in 1936 and once in 1937. In autumn 1938, record impresario John Hammond Sr. sought to bring him to New York as part of the lineup for a historic concert called “From Spirituals to Swing,” but learned that he had died that summer in the Mississippi Delta under mysterious circumstances.
Though his records sold indifferently during his short lifetime, Johnson reappeared in popular consciousness in 1961 during a folk music revival, when Columbia Records issued an LP containing 16 of the 29 songs he ever recorded, under the presumptuous title, King of the Delta Blues Singers.
The singing was that good, the guitar playing even better. Unheralded, this primitive genius seemed to have invented the walking bass line that anchored so much of rock and roll, not to mention a whole new way of playing slide guitar. Robert Johnson transubstantiated from working musician to blues legend, and in 1991, The Complete Recordings CD box set hit went gold, won a Grammy and later became part of the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. In 1998 one of his only two known photographs graced a U.S. postage stamp (though with an inconvenient cigarette conspicuously airbrushed out). In the year of his centenary, the wild boy of the blues has become a very safe brand.
It is interesting to speculate that Robert Johnson might not have been uncomfortable with that. I am perfectly willing to accept that Robert Johnson walked with the devil. America was a sparsely populated place a hundred years ago, especially in southern Mississippi. It was easier to spot a stranger, probably easier to detect a malevolent intent. A young man anxious to get ahead in a world defiled might find it easy to strike up a conversation with a visitor of importunate manner and means. Or at least say he did.
Without proper context when introduced to this amazing music, I was content to take the romantic route to appreciating it. I was amenable to the notion that a noble savage had risen up out of the cotton fields with magic in his playing fingers. The fact is, in 1911, the delta blues was already on the way out, about to be taken mainstream by orchestra leader W.C. Handy. When the first “official” blues was recorded by Mamie Smith in 1920, it bore no more resemblance to the earthy rumble of a Charley Patton than does Taylor Swift to Tom Waits.
Thanks to so-called revisionist thinking by scholars such as Elijah Wald, whose book Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and The Invention of the Blues is highly recommended, it is now possible to see the young musician in a broader perspective. That he was not a mythic figure but a player looking for a good gig makes his artistic accomplishments perhaps even more remarkable.
Wald exhaustively deconstructs Johnson’s recordings to illustrate which vocal phrasing or guitar fillip was appropriated from which contemporary. What he cannot explain, what no one could, is how Johnson assembled them in the way he did and then made the composition sound like nobody else’s but his own.
Paradoxically, for an artist about whose life comparably little is known, there is too much to say. Maybe it is better simply to listen to his music and draw your own conclusions. You’ll hear that he could get a party started with songs like “Terraplane Blues,” but when he got quiet, he could, as Johnny Shines testified he had done singing “Come On In My Kitchen” in an Arkansas juke joint, bring a room full of dancers to tears. A hundred years out of Mississippi, there is still magic in Robert Johnson’s blues.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.