Welcome to Freaky Friday. Today, I’ll finish Robert Johnson’s story–or what I know of it. I saved the information in this post for Friday because the content has both paranormal and true crime elements.
If you missed Part 1, click here to read it.
In 1930 or 31, Robert traveled to Martinsville near Hazlehurst, Mississippi–the place of his birth. Some believe Johnson was looking for his natural father. Some believe it was during this time that Robert made a pact with the devil. Interviews with Son House imply that Robert’s guitar playing was much improved when he came back from Martinsville.
One explanation for the improvement could be that Robert met Ike Zimmerman during his time in Martinsville. Zimmerman was an accomplished blues guitarist. He taught Robert his style of guitar playing.
[Note: Because of Robert's fondness for being known by different names, it is interesting to note that he was known as R.L. Johnson by Ike Zimmerman.]
Robert and Ike practiced guitar in white-owned Beauregard Cemetery both during the day and at night. Because graveyards have long been considered spooky places, this act lends itself to the belief that Robert made a pact with the devil.
Now, let’s talk about Robert’s supposed bargain with the devil. Probably the most famous legend about Robert Johnson is that Robert wanted to master the guitar so badly he sold his soul to the devil.
In my research, I ran across instructions on making a deal with the devil. They are as follows:
- Go to the crossroads at midnight.
- Kneel and begin playing the guitar.
- A huge black man, whose face is lost in shadow, will tap you on the shoulder.
- Give him your guitar.
- He will tune your guitar and offer it to you.
- Take the guitar, and the pact is sealed.
Whether or not you believe in Robert Johnson’s Faustian bargain, this is some entertaining stuff. I can imagine the whole thing.
But…the devil pact can be traced back to a rumor among white fans who discovered Robert Johnson’s music twenty years after his demise. I’ve also read that Son House was instrumental in spreading this rumor.
Willie Mae Powell, supposedly the Willie Mae from the song “Love in Vain,” confirmed that Robert told her he met the devil at the crossroads at midnight. On the other hand…Johnny Shines, who knew Robert Johnson well, said he never heard Johnson mention anything about a deal with the devil.
Listen to Love in Vain, which mentions Willie Mae:
(This is my second favorite Robert Johnson song, and this video has both takes of the song.)
To hear the Rolling Stones cover of “Love in Vain,” click here.
[Note: There is another school of thought on the deal with the devil that has to do with the African trickster god Legba. I don't know enough about African religion to write intelligently about this angle of the story. I did, however, want to note its existence.]
Robert was a busy man in 1931. He fathered a child with Virgie Mae Smith. Shortly after the child was conceived, Robert married Callie (Calletta) Craft in May 1931. Callie was ten years Robert’s senior. She supported Robert while he played music.
[Note: I regret not being able to talk about Robert's son, Claud Johnson. This post was getting so very long. Claud's story is interesting all by itself. Here's an LA Times article about Claud's fight for a claim on Robert Johnson's estate.]
Callie became ill, and Robert left to became a full-time traveling blues man. Robert spent the next few years traveling from town to town.
The Recording Sessions: An Interlude
Robert’s music was recorded in two sessions which took place in November of 1936 and in June of 1937. As mentioned Wednesday, twenty-nine unique tracks were recorded. Johnson recorded an extra take on many of the songs, however, so forty-one tracks of his music exist today.
The November 1936 sessions took place at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. At this session, Robert took the microphone and the chair and turned them to face a corner.
The acoustics this positioning created caused The Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Keith Richards, to believe there were two guitars playing in the Johnson tracks. Ry Cooder calls this technique “corner loading.” It is possible Robert knew the effect playing to the corner would produce.
Johnny Stiles, however, said in interviews that Robert Johnson didn’t like people studying on his guitar playing. He believed Robert faced the wall to keep people from seeing his fancy finger work.
Blues historians note that the June 1937 sessions, which took place at 508 Park Avenue in Dallas, Texas, produced more ominous and subject matter.
During this session Johnson recorded “Me and Devil Blues,” “Hell-Hound on my Trail,” and “Love in Vain.” Perhaps Robert knew he was running out of time.
Traveling Blues Man
Johnny Shines, a blues singer and guitarist who traveled with Robert, said Robert had the habit of slipping out of a room without saying goodbye. Johnny traveled with Robert all over the US. Robert left him behind in several places.
Robert had a different name in every town. Some of the names he used were Robert James, Robert Barstow, and Robert Saks. He had a habit of picking a woman his very first night in a town and going home with her.
He’d stay with the woman until her boyfriend or husband showed up or her father came to run him off. Some of Robert’s fast exits could have been him running from an angry husband, boyfriend, or father.
“He loved whiskey and he was crazy about his women.” ~David “Honeyboy” Edwards, blues guitarist and singer
David “Honeyboy” Edwards was related to Willie Mae Powell (from “Love in Vain”). He and Robert became friends on the basis of their shared relationship with Willie Mae and their being musicians. Honeyboy claimed to have seen Robert’s death firsthand.
Robert’s love of whiskey and women ultimately killed him.
The Death of Robert Johnson
August 13, 1938.
Robert was staying in Greenwood, Mississippi. He was invited to play for a crowd at Three Fork, which was an area right outside Greenwood. Some time on that night, Robert consumed poisoned whiskey.
By the time Honeyboy Edwards came on the scene, Robert was too sick to play his guitar. He was taken in another room to lay down and ultimately taken to a house in an area called Baptist Town, where he died on August 16, 1938.
Yes, it took him three days to die. No doctor was called because nobody had any money to pay one. Honeyboy Edwards implied in an interview that he believed a doctor could have helped Robert.
For those interested in Robert’s devil pact, it is Honeyboy’s account of Robert’s death that seems to resonate. Honeyboy said that Robert, in his death throes, fell to his hands and knees and barked and howled like a dog.
It turns out Robert was poisoned by an angry husband. Honeyboy Edwards remembers Robert was fooling around with a beautiful, long-haired–married–woman. Her husband learned of the affair through his friends. The husband sent Robert the poisoned whiskey through another woman.
[Note: I couldn't learn what poison killed Robert Johnson. The most I was able to understand is that it was probably not strychnine.]
Robert “Mack” McCormick, a musicologist and folklorist, tracked down Robert’s murderer. The man said he’d never imagined murdering Robert would cause so much trouble. To the best of my knowledge, “Mack” McCormick never named Robert’s murderer for legal reasons.
And that’s the true crime aspect of today’s blog post.
At the time of Robert’s death, American record producer and civil-rights activist John Hammond was putting together a concert called From Spirituals to Swing. The concert was to be held at Carnegie Hall in December of 1938.
The concert’s purpose was to showcase African-American music from its beginnings as slave spirituals to the current incarnation, which was jazz in 1938. The event was dedicated to Bessie Smith who had died a year before in a car accident.
John Hammond sought out Robert Johnson to play the concert. He learned that Johnson had died a few months earlier. Two of Robert Johnson’s records were played for the audience.
Robert Johnson and his wonderful music were largely forgotten until the early 1960s when a compilation record of his music was released. This is probably when musicians like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Robert Plant discovered him. And that’s great because their music would not have been the same without him.
In 1986, Robert Johnson was one of the first inductees into the rock n roll hall of fame. In 2008, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Robert Johnson as number five on their 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time list.
Robert Johnson’s Grave
The true location of Robert Johnson’s grave is unknown. There are, however, three different grave markers at different locations in Mississippi for fans to visit.
Columbia Records paid for a one ton obelisk to be erected in the graveyard of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City (not far from Greenwood). Another monument is in the cemetery of Payne Chapel near Quito, Mississippi. Sony Records has placed a monument in the cemetery of Little Zion Church, north of Greenwood.
It is suspected that due to lack of funds, Robert Johnson was buried in a potter’s field near Greenwood, Mississippi and that the location of his final resting place is lost.
If I let go of the logistics of Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil, I can almost believe it. He died right on the cusp of becoming famous. He was the victim of an unsolved, unprosecuted murder. And he became more famous in death than he was in life.
Thank you for your interest in this article. I often receive requests for further information on these articles. Please understand my knowledge of this topic is limited to what you’ve read in this article. I have no plans to update or expand these articles. I am currently focusing on my fiction writing career and am no longer writing or researching for non-fiction articles. If you’re interested in seeing what else I write, please check out the My Fiction page on this website or visit my Amazon Author Page on amazon.com.