Although most of us live within amplifier range of Eel Pie Island, that nursery of early 60’s British Blues, there isn’t very much that any of us know of Robert Johnson, described by Eric Clapton as “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” In fact because his life is so poorly documented there is little that any of us really know about him apart from the fact he has become a prime influence in blues and a legend - the man who sold his soul to the devil one night on a Mississippi crossroad in exchange for success.
Robert Leroy Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, on the Mississippi Delta, on May 11th 1911, the eleventh and illegitimate child of Julia Major Dobbs, and son of Noah Johnson, a plantation worker. In 1914 Julia’s husband, Charles Dodds, now called Charles Dodds Spencer and father of her ten legitimate children eventually took young Robert into his home in Memphis where the boy learned the rudiments of guitar from his brother Charles Leroy. He wasn’t very good. Blues singer Son House said:
“We’d all play for the Saturday night balls - and there’ll be this little boy standing around. That was Robert Johnson. When we’d get a break we’d set our guitars up in a corner… and he’d pick one of them up. And such a racket you never heard! It’d make the people mad, you know. They’d come out and say, ‘Why don’t y’all go in and get that guitar away from that boy. He’s running people crazy with it!’ But he didn’t care. He’d do it anyway.”
But Son House was in for a shock. In 1931 Robert Johnson, now aged 20, had returned to his old birthplace Hazelhurst which he used as a base for gigs out on the Delta. One Saturday night Son House was playing at Banks in Mississippi when Robert Johnson walked through the door, carrying a guitar. Son House said “Well boy, you still got a guitar huh? What do you do with that thing? You can’t do nothing with it!”… and Robert Johnson said “Let me have your seat for a moment”, and he sat down and started to play. It was a moment of revelation. Son House later said “Man, he was so good. When he finished all our mouths were standing open… and I said ‘Aint that fast!’” Another blues musician Johnny Shines was equally impressed. “I thought Robert was about the greatest guitar player I’d ever hear. The things he was doing was things that I’d never heard nobody else do, and I wanted to learn it. Robert changed everything, what you might say.”
There have been many stories about how Robert Johnson had become so proficient. One account came from a fellow non-related bluesman Thomas Johnson…
“If you want to learn how to play anything you want and learn how to make songs yourself you take your guitar and go to where a crossroad is. Be sure to get there just a little before 12.00 that night so you’ll know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece by yourself. A big black man will walk up and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. Then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way you’ll learn to play anything you want. You give your soul to the devil.”
The idea that Johnson had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent was echoed in a number of his songs.
Early this morning, when you knocked upon my door. Early this morning, uunh, when you knocked upon my door. I said ‘Hello Satan’, I believe it’s time to go.
Me and the Devil Blues -‘Robert Johnson’
I got to keep movin’, I got to keep movin’ Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail Hmmm-mmm, blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail And the days keeps on worryin’ me There’s a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail Hellhound on my trail.
Hellhound on my Trail - Robert Johnson
Others described Robert Johnson as tormented and haunted but for all this he was very popular, both for his repertoire which ranged from blues and country songs to polkas and waltzes and for his smart looks in pinstripe suits and fedora hats. He was a big hit with women, usually involved with other men’s. Johnny Shine described his technique. “He was not crude but he was direct. His first words were put in a blunt but shy way. He’d simply ask them ‘Can I come home with you? Can I be with you?’ These were young girls living in a rural situation… and for the most part the answer was yes. The relationship ended when their husbands came home or Johnson moved on.”
Robert Lockwood said that this lack of judgement meant that Johnson was always on the verge of trouble - ‘I’ve got a woman that I’m loving but she don’t mean a thing’ and on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, near Greenwood, Mississippi, it finally caught up with him. As with the rest of his life there is much uncertainty about how he actually died. Some say he was stabbed to death. A plantation owner thought he died from syphilis but the most common account is that while playing at a country dance he was poisoned by a jealous husband. Johnny Shines said that Johnson crawled on his hands and knees and barked like a dog before he died. Maybe the devil had finally turned up to claim his due.
Although he is now recognised as one of the most influential and gifted blue musicians most people only know Robert Johnson through his songs as covered by other artists and there are many - ‘Dust My Broom’ by Fleetwood Mac, ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ by the Blues Brothers, ‘Love in Vain’ by the Rolling Stones and ‘Crossroad Blues’ by Cream are just a few examples. As the American writer Peter Guralnick once put it…
Robert Johnson never died: he simply became an idea.
Robert Johnson singing ‘Sweet Home Chicago’
Recorded in the Gunter Hotel, San Antonio, Texas on November 23rd 1936.
– from Martyn Day