The Grandfather of Rock-n-Roll: Part 2

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.

See the shadow to Robert’s right?
Some people claim this is 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:

  1. Go to the crossroads at midnight.
  2. Kneel and begin playing the guitar.
  3. A huge black man, whose face is lost in shadow, will tap you on the shoulder.
  4. Give him your guitar.
  5. He will tune your guitar and offer it to you.
  6.  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.

Posthumous Fame

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. 

Sources:

(Note on sources: These are the same ones I ran Wednesday.  I didn’t feel like trying to split them up.)

Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl (video)

The Search for Robert Johnson (video) 

Rolling Stone: 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time 

Deal with the Devil: Understanding Robert Johnson, His Music and His Impact

Cross Road Blues Meaning

Robert Johnson Wiki – This wiki is worth reading.  It is well documented and presents a ton of information.

Johnson’s Peers:

Ike Zimmerman More Details Around the Legend

David “Honeyboy” Edwards 

Johnny Shines Wiki

Son House Wiki

42 thoughts on “The Grandfather of Rock-n-Roll: Part 2

  1. Love the song. Great soundtrack for the post!

    As far as true stories versus myths, I dig them all. Both can be equally compelling, or not—lol. And I believe that a lot of fiction comes from truth and is often more honest.

    • “Love in Vain” is a cool song. It’s one of those I never get tired of hearing.

      You’re right. Truth and myth have the power to be interesting or not. And it seems to be one or the other.

      Thanks for stopping by. :D

  2. I had never heard of that “deal with the devil.” How interesting and the photo is so creepy with the “devil’s” ghost in the background…..shivers.
    Wonderful post Catie!

    • So glad you liked it. This is one of those stories I really love. It’s got all the elements–unsolved murder, lust, paranormal. And that picture is fantastic. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. on ,
    Dave said:

    I hear Eric Clapton channeling this man.

    I always go for the true facts rather as close as I can get to the facts. I must admit that facts surrounded by myth can make stories and history much more fun. As a matter of fact, myths can become more credible by the fact that people talk about the myths…….Umm!……maybe.

    I like the stories of UFO’s. I don’t believe in extraterrestrial visits but the whole notion unhinges the imagination like when you are a child. It’s comforting to go there once in a while. I find it amazing that some people are so devoted to the alien cause. It can be destructive in that it helps to legitimize conspiracy theories and leads to the breakdown of “truth” as a whole. It’s become fashionable to question 911, lunar landings, etc. I have met just too many people that engage in that stuff. Makes my head spin. It’s hard to believe that these people call themselves “Truthers”.
    Anyway ….I’ll de-rant now.

    I wonder if the blues and Voodoo have some links. I like the part of Robert’s story where he sold his soul to the devil. His unbridled lust caused his demise. These elements fit perfectly into the myth.

    This was a great post Catie! Made my day.

    • on ,
      Dave said:

      Yah! Isn’t my spelling lame?

    • I’m thrilled you like this post. And I hear Robert Johnson in Eric Clapton’s music, too. I have heard Nirvana compared with Robert Johnson. It is said they have the same raw, primitive feel. A human cry, or something like that. To some extent I agree with that. (Yeah, I’m a Nirvana fan.)

      UFOs. I find the idea fascinating. But I find the fanatics even more fascinating. Their conspiracy theories and paranoia are the stuff good fiction is made of.

      I would think Blues and Voodoo have links. The music is magical in its way. Very haunting and emotive.

      Robert Johnson really sounds like he was a hedonist. And it was the end of him. It is a great story.

      Thanks for stopping by and comment. Don’t worry about the misspellings. I can’t find them. But if you want me to edit your post and correct something, point it out to me and I’ll do so. :D

  4. on ,
    Dave said:

    What is a “Thruther”? I would like to know. Yes. All that Seattle stuff is pretty cool.

    • Confession: I thought it was a word or term I didn’t know. Some days I am pretty sure my brain is made of oatmeal.

      Consider “thruther” fixed. But, of course, everybody now knows you misspelled it since we had this conversation. ;)

  5. on ,
    Shein Die said:

    Thanks for this – so happy to have ‘met’ you :) …. I followed ‘the Robert Johnson Blues Trail’ throughout The Mississippi Delta …. took a bunch of pictures of all I could find relating to Robert Johnson I think your readers might like: http://www.tdblues.com/ … also links to my flickr =)
    Best in the Blues, Shein

    • Good to meet you, too Shein. The Robert Johnson Blues Trail sounds interesting. I have never looked into doing that. I have researched the Hank Williams trail in Alabama, but nobody in my family is interested.

      I did go look at your pictures. How interesting, especially the one of the house in which Robert Johnson was born. The Robert Johnson Blues Trail must have been a real adventure for you. :D

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  6. It seems at times that particularly talented and artistic people are at least haunted by demons. Robert clearly led an unstable life. It’s a shame that we lost his talent too soon. Who knows what more he could have contributed to rock-n-roll? Great post, Catie.

    • I think about that, too, Julie. I didn’t say this in my post, but Robert Johnson–if he was 27–was the first member of the Dead at 27 club. Most of those folks lived pretty hard. Thanks for your reply. :D

  7. on ,
    febe said:

    Great post! I love robert johnson! Such an interesting topic. Awesome post..as usual:-) And that “devil” photograph is so creepy!

    • Isn’t that the creepiest photo? I am sure it was just cigarette smoke or dust…but yeah, it’s spooky. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Fascinating post, Catie. I adore reading about myths along with the truths. It’s the unknowns that awaken the imagination and the facts that give the stories substance. Love the song. What a great musician he was. Maybe he turned to the corner so people couldn’t see the devil playing… ;-)

    • I loved the last sentence of your comment. So people couldn’t see the devil playing, indeed. Glad you enjoyed the reading the subject matter. I enjoyed writing it. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Another great post Catie! The Robert Johnson mystery is one of the best in music. I didn’t know there was a Robert Johnson or Hank Williams trail to follow, both would be a lot of fun. Thanks again for another great Freaky Friday post!

    • on ,
      Shein Die said:

      Hi, Tim :) i actually mapped it out myself … starting w. his birth in Hazlehurst, MS (and photographing the house in which he was born) .. stopping at the plantation (Abbay & Leatherman) in Robinsonville, MS where he grew up – and on and on throughout the various ‘roads’ in his life, ending with the three graveyards.. You may be interested in this interview/photos here: http://www.tdblues.com/ Best in the Blues, Shein

        • on ,
          Shein Die said:

          …you are a gem, Catie ….warm, informative, friendly and interesting … it’s a joy to come here and read what you have to ‘say’ … thank you so much! Shein

          • Aww, you’re sweet. I do hope you continue to stop by. I don’t talk about the blues every week, but I do talk about either paranormal or true crime every week. Either way, it was great to meet you, and I wish you the best of luck on your future endeavors. :D

  10. Loves me some Robert Johnson! If you like his story, you should look up stuff about Blind Willie Johnson, he’d be another great blues musician to discover and write about. I had a teacher in high school who let us watch the whole series of Martin Scorsese presents The Blues, which was revelatory for me at the time. I love blues music. I could totally make us a mix cd for our ghostly road trip. Some Son House, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters… Check out The Blues series if you can find it. My local library does carry it. I think it’s 7 cds total and each one talks about a different era or style of blues, so it’ll discuss New Orleans blues and Memphis blues, there’s piano blues, there’s the original greats, and also native islander blues. Truly fascinating and well done. Clint Eastwood is a blues fan and plays piano, so he does some of the interviews on the piano blues one.

    • Jess, thanks for recommending this. My library does carry it, and I put in a request for it. I am thankful to have such a cool library. We have seven libraries in this county, and they are all connected via internet. I can request an item, and it will be shipped to the location I use. Cool, huh?

      Blind Willie Johnson was an interesting character. I know a bit about him because I am interested in Texas blues and the differences between that and Mississippi Delta blues. Have you ever seen The Devil’s Rejects? At the very beginning (before the Midnight Rider montage) Blind Willie’s song Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground is playing. I also have Ry Cooder’s version of the song, which is called Paris, Texas. Perhaps I need to blog about Blind Willie?

      This has been such a fun post. I have learned so much from the conversations in the comments sections. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  11. Catie, my hubby’s a blues bassist, and Robert Johnson comes up a lot in our conversations. I have to second Jess on Blind Willie Johnson, all those guys are legendary (and yes, I like that they’ve passed into myth). Ken Burns Jazz series does justice to them also. Fantastic article!

    • on ,
      Shein Die said:

      Hi, Debra :) I’m listening to Blind Willie Johnson (double vinyl album) while I’m ‘chatting’ … he usually sang with one of his wives, had a super deep voice and then a high voice ..sounds like 3 people actually =) … very bad childhood, awful demise … church goer, singer … I think you’ll enjoy his music… Best in the Blues, Shein

    • Until you and Jess mentioned Blind Willie, I hadn’t thought of him in years. I got interested in his music because he was from Texas and because I heard his song (and liked it) in the Devil’s Rejects. I might decide to do a blog post on Blind Willie sometime.

      You know, while I really like blues, I have had the hardest time liking Jazz. I like a few songs here and there, but for the most part, I would like to like it more than I actually like it. Perhaps I’ll grow into it some day. :D

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

  12. on ,
    alandhopewell said:

    CATIE- I love both, especially as both seem to intermingle so much.
    Speaking of blues, have you ever heard (or heard of) the song, “Gloomy Sunday”? This song, written by a Hungarian composer and popularized by Billie Holiday, was allegedly banned from radio because it caused suicides; indeed, its composer killed himself.

    • No, I hadn’t heard of that song. But I listened to it yesterday after you commented. Then, I never got back to answering comments. ;)

      I like Billie Holliday. She was interesting. And the way she sings that song is great. I need to make a point to research the suicide story associated with the song. Very interesting, and thanks for sharing. :D

  13. Sorry for my late response. Learned so much in this post. Loved the song, and the picture with the “devil” is very haunting and creepy. I love the myths and urban legends, and it’s interesting that Robert was murdered on the cusp of being famous. Sounds like he was a complex man who played too close to the fire (no pun intended). I love the creative history aspect with this post, and I think whoever invented the idea of his pact with the devil was a marketing genius;)

    • That’s a good point about the devil pact being a great marketing ploy. It is. People eat this kind of stuff up. Robert Johnson’s music is unforgettable, but I wonder if it would have become so famous without the devil story. I listened to it for the first time because of the devil story.

      This round of Robert Johnson research brought me into contact with the Carnegie Hall story. It made me sad. Playing Carnegie hall for Robert would have been like us making the NYT Bestseller list. :D

      Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for stopping by.

    • on ,
      Shein Die said:

      Hi, Stacy :) … Bluesman Tommy Johnson was way ‘ahead’ of Robert Johnson, saying he, himself, had made a pact with the devil … later on, when Bluesman Son House was asked how he thought Robert Johnson had become so good said that he must have made a pact with the devil… and so, it became ‘legend’ … Best in Blues, Shein

  14. Two points:
    One: It has been well-established that the Greenwood Little Zion Church is, in fact, the actual last resting place of Johnson. The body (no pun intended) of evidence is overwhelming in that regard.
    Two: Regarding John Hammond and the “From Spirituals to Swing” Caregie Hall concert. Hammond was really the person who was largely responsible for Johnson becoming a legend and myth.
    Hammond had become enthralled with Johnson’s music in 1937, the first year any of his recordings were released. Writing under the pseudonym “Henry Johnson” (the J. and H. of his own name reversed) for the Left-wing magazine New Masses, he produced one of the first (if not the first) reviews of a Johnson record in the March 2, 1937 issue:
    “Before closing, we cannot help but call your attention to the greatest Negro blues singer who has cropped up in recent years, Robert Johnson. Recording them in deepest Mississippi, Vocalion has certainly done right by us in the tunes “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and “Terraplane Blues,” to mention only two of the four sides already released, sung to his own guitar accompaniment. Johnson makes Leadbelly sound like an accomplished poseur.”
    Three months later, this time using his real name, he once again extolled Johnson’s music for the New Masses readers:
    “…Hot Springs’ (Mississippi) star is still Robert Johnson, who has turned out to be a worker on a Robinsonville, Miss., plantation.”

    It was natural for Hammond to want to include Johnson as part of his big show, and indeed, the original promotional ad for the concert, printed in November of 1938, lists Johnson among the performers scheduled to appear. What Hammond didn’t know at the time was that Johnson had died in August. Discovering only three weeks before the concert that Johnson had died, and having already printed Johnson’s name on the programs, Hammond was not to be denied his star’s presence. Instead he created an introduction that would launch Robert Johnson into the realm of myth: inaccurate, but gloriously so.

    The lights went down in Carnegie Hall with a single spotlight showing a phonograph sitting on the stage. From out of the wings walked Hammond to give the following speech:
    “It is tragic that an American audience could not have been found seven or eight years ago for a concert of this kind. Bessie Smith was still at the height of her career and Joe Smith, probably the greatest trumpet player American music ever knew would still have been around to play obligatos for her… and dozens of other artists could have been there in the flesh. But that audience as well as this one would not have been able to hear Robert Johnson sing and play the blues on his guitar, for at that time Johnson was just an unknown hand on a Robinsonville, Mississippi, plantation.

    “Robert Johnson was going to be the big surprise of the evening for this audience at Carnegie Hall. I knew him only from his Vocalion 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 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 its way onto phonograph records. Tonight we will have to be content with playing two of his records, the old “Walkin’ Blues,” and the new, unreleased “Preachin’ Blues,” because Robert 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.”

    Although Hammond was a masterful manipulator of information, even he probably had little conception of how the words he spoke would lay the foundation for Robert Johnson’s legendary, indeed mythic and iconic status. What is certain, however, is that he consciously shaped that evening’s image of Johnson: from the recordings he chose to play to the information he provided about Johnson’s life.

    By the time of the concert fully twenty of Johnson’s recordings had been released. Among those releases were Johnson’s only commercial “hit” Terraplane Blues (selling a modest 5,000 copies), as well as those Johnson compositions that would become legendary and rank among the best known blues “standards”: Cross Road Blues, Sweet Home Chicago, I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, Hellhound on My Trail, and others. Hammond was well aware of these recordings.
    If Hammond was as well-versed in Johnson’s recorded repertoire as evidence suggests one wonders why he chose to play two of Johnson’s lesser works at the opening of the concert? “Walkin’ Blues” and “Preachin’ Blues” (subtitled “Up Jumped the Devil”) were among Johnson’s most derivative pieces; compositions that owed a huge debt to one of Johnson’s mentors, Son House, who recorded songs by the same titles and with similar verses in 1930, six years before Johnson’s first recording session. Johnson’s versions are energetic and enthusiastic, but they were not nearly as adventurous or inventive as his compositions Hellhound on My Trail, or Stones In My Passway, nor as commercial as Terraplane Blues or Kindhearted Woman Blues. So we must ask again, why did Hammond choose Walkin’ Blues and Preachin’ Blues, songs that Vocalion Records thought not even interesting enough to release until three years after they were recorded, one year after Johnson’s death (the two songs were actually released after the “From Spirituals To Swing” concert)?

    Part of the answer can be found in how Hammond described Johnson’s replacement – Big Bill Broonzy. Broonzy, already an established recording artist, was described by Hammond as a “primitive blues singer” who “shuffled” onstage. In truth, however, by the time the concert was held Broonzy had been living in Chicago for eighteen years, had recorded over two hundred sides, and wore very fashionable suits. Hammond’s use of Walkin’ Blues and Preachin’ Blues was probably due to an attraction to a “primitive” blues sound. By selecting these two pieces to introduce Johnson to the northern, white, liberal world Hammond would help create a very specific image of what constituted the “true” delta blues as sung by “the greatest Negro blues singer who has cropped up in recent years… (who)… makes Leadbelly sound like an accomplished poseur.” But in addition to helping create a stereotypical idea of the sound of the Delta blues, Hammond also helped create the “myth” of Robert Johnson.

    Numerous factual errors in Hammond’s various statements about Johnson can be excused due to a legitimate lack of information or misinterpretation of cultural context. When Hammond states that he didn’t believe Johnson worked as a professional musician and was, rather, a hand on a Mississippi plantation, he was probably thinking within the “professional” musical framework with which he was accustomed. Traveling from juke joint to tavern to house party might not have been what Hammond considered “professional.” How it might have surprised Hammond to learn that during his short lifetime Johnson had actually played as far north as Canada (he actually performed in Detroit and Windsor, Ontario), and as far east as New York and New Jersey, travelling that great distance from the Delta! Johnson was about as “professional” as a “blues musician” could be in the 1930s.

    Hammond also largely invented Johnson’s original mythic status with his claim that “Robert 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.” Hammond certainly must have known that this was not true, but it made a terrifically romantic story. In any event, Hammond’s praise of Johnson’s music and his concoction of a mysterious ethos surrounding him was enough to capture the interest of Hammond’s friend and folk song collector Alan Lomax, whose father John had “discovered” Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter in the early 1930s; the same Leadbelly that Hammond had earlier claimed was made to sound “like an accomplished poseur” by Johnson’s music.

    In 1942 Lomax, spurred by this interest, travelled to the Mississippi Delta in search of information about Robert Johnson and in the process “discovered” Son House, Muddy Waters, and our Johnson Centennial Concert’s special guest David “Honeyboy” Edwards. Lomax recorded them all for the now famous Library of Congress recordings. But Lomax also added to Johnson’s myth by finding Johnson’s “mother.” I put “mother” in quotes because the woman who was introduced to Lomax told him “Yessuh, I’s Mary Johnson. And Robert, he my baby son. But Little Robert, he dead.” But in truth, Johnson’s mother’s name was Julia Ann Majors, so we are left with several possibilities: Lomax made the story up, or he was introduced to a woman who only claimed to be Johnson’s mother and was duped. Whether or not he actually met Johnson’s real mother, Lomax added to the myth by insisting that he did and including the following narrative he allegedly collected from her in his seminal book The Land Where The Blues Began:
    “I’m mighty happy that someone came to ask about Little Robert. He was a puny baby, but after he could set up, I never had no trouble with him. Always used to be listenin, listenin to the wind or the chickens cluckin in the backyard or me, when I be singin round the house. And he just love church, just love it. Don’t care how long the meetin last, long as they sing every once in a while, Little Robert set on my lap and try to keep time, look like, or hold on to my skirt and sort of jig up and down and laugh and laugh.
    I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen and guitar pickers. Sometime he wouldn come home all night, and whippin never did him no good. First time there’d be somebody pickin another guitar, Little Robert follow um off. Look like he was just bent that way, and couldn help hisself. And the tell me he played the first guitar he pick up; never did have to study it, just knew it.
    I used to cry over him, cause I knowed he was playin the devil’s instruments, but Little Robert, he’d show me where I was wrong cause he’d sit home and take his little twenty-five cents harp and blow all these old fashioned church songs of mine till it was better than a meetin and I’d get happy and shout. He was knowed to be the best musicianer in Tunica County, but the more his name got about, the worse I felt, cause I knowed he was gonna git in trouble.
    Pretty soon he begun to leave home for a week at a time, but he always brought me some present back. Then he took off for a month at a time. Then he just stayed gone. I knotweed something gonna happen to him. I felt it. And sure enough the word came for me to go to him. First time I ever been off from home, and the last time I’ll go till the Lord call me. And, Lord have mercy, I found my little boy dyin. Some wicked girl or boyfriend had give him poison and wasn no doctor in the world could save him, so they say.
    When I went in where he at, he layin up in bed with his guitar crost his breast. Soon’s he saw me, he say, ‘Mama, you all I been waitin for. Here,’ he say, and he give me his guitar, ‘take and hang this on the wall, cause I done pass all that by. That what got me messed up, Mama. It’s the devil’s instrument, just like you said. And I don’t want it no more.’ And he died while I was hangin his guitar on the wall.
    ‘I don’t want it no more now, Mama, I done put all that by. I yo child now, Mama, and the Lord’s. Yes – the Lord’s child and don’t belong to the devil no more.’ And he pass that way, with his mind on the angels. I know I’m gonna meet him over yonder, clothed in glory. My little Robert, the Lord’s child.”

    A romantic story to be sure – the prodigal son, a natural musician who played the devil’s music, being “saved” on his death bed with his mother by his side – but one we now know to be full of factual inaccuracies. Johnson’s first instrument was, in fact, the harp (harmonica), but he was not known to be a natural guitarist. In fact he was so bad at playing guitar that Son House and others used to chase him away when he would pick up their instruments and make nothing but noise on them. Johnson was originally so bad at playing guitar that he disappeared from the Delta for a period of almost a year after being ridiculed for his lack of talent. But when he came back, he could play better than anyone. It was this apparently mysterious and seemingly impossible musical transition that helped give birth to the “selling his soul to the devil” myth, for no one could understand how someone previously so bad could suddenly become so good. What really happened during that year, however, was his apprenticeship to a guitarist named Ike Zimmerman outside of Hazlehurst, Mississippi where Johnson was born, some 240 miles south of Tunica, Mississippi.

    As in Lomax’s story, Johnson was, in fact, poisoned by a jealous husband, but Johnson’s real mother was definitely not with him when he died. He died with no family at his side and his half sister Carrie, then living in Memphis, was notified of his death and travelled to Greenwood, Mississippi to give him a decent reburial (he had originally been quickly laid down in a simple pine box by the county).

    Nor did Johnson’s real mother live her whole life in Tunica, as claimed in Lomax’s narrative, but rather did a lot of traveling after Johnson’s illegitimate birth in 1911: from Mississippi plantation to plantation, to Memphis, to Crittendon, Arkansas, and then back into Mississippi, living with several different men and marrying at least one of them. But again, another wonderfully romantic tale and grist for further growth of the Johnson myth. The foundations of Robert Johnson as American myth were laid, and when Columbia Records, fueled by the folk/blues music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s released the 1961 Thesaurus of Classic Jazz album “Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers” with sixteen of his recordings heard for the first time since their initial release in the 1930s, Johnson’s iconic status was assured. A whole new generation of young white musicians and fans discovered this acknowledged “king” and the cult that Hammond had started in 1938 was fully born. As Eric Clapton was to say upon hearing the album:
    “It came as a something of a shock to me that there could be anything that powerful… It was as if I were prepared to receive Robert Johnson, almost like a religious experience… I have never found anything more deeply soulful… His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.”

    There was no questioning of Johnson’s greatness, for it was taken as truth that he was the ultimate and purest example of the Delta blues. Even those people to whom Johnson owed his musical form and style – Son House, Charley Patton and others – took an immediate back seat to his stature. After all, hadn’t John Hammond and others told everyone Johnson was the best? And hadn’t Son House confirmed that Johnson had “sold his soul to the Devil?” And hadn’t Johnson died at the tender age of 27, a promise unfulfilled, one of American culture’s greatest fixations? Johnson, as we were told, had everything: the actual talent and the mythic proportions.

    In truth, of course, Johnson was a great artist. His lyrics completely transcended the norm that had been the blues. His imagery could reach into the transcendental. No one else had ever written lyrics like those angst-filled lines in Hellhound On My Trail:
    I got to keep movin, I’ve got to keep movin,’
    Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail,
    And the days keep on worryin’ me
    It’s a hellhound on my trail,
    Hellhound on my trail,
    Hellhound on my trail.

    No one else had ever approached the guitar with such a combination of complex intensity and subtle simplicity, both in his chordal arrangements and his slide guitar playing. No one else had ever sung with such personal anguish. No one else had such a mythically short life, shrouded in mystery, around which almost anything was possible. And no one else had someone like John Hammond create such an immediate cult of personality around him the first time he was introduced to a larger, white audience.

    Robert Johnson was a great musician, composer, and singer. And as Hammond said in 1938, we are lucky that his voice was preserved on record. But Robert Johnson was also the perfect vehicle for elevation to mythic proportions, and his life, factual or not, as indeed been raised to that status.

    • Thanks for the info, Bruce. I am glad Robert Johnson’s place of interment has been found and confirmed. When I first read about all the monuments in different cemeteries, I was sort of sad. I’m not sure if you know that Zora Neale Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave until 1973. Her work really speaks to me (just like Robert Johnson’s music), and it made me sad to know such a talent was buried in an unmarked grave. Again, just like Robert Johnson. So, anyway, that’s a cool piece of info.

      The other information about Robert Johnson’s elevation (or descent, depending on how you look at it) was equally fascinating to me. If the woman in the interview was not Robert Johnson’s mother–and it makes sense that she may not have been–what happened to the real Julia Ann Majors? Was she already dead at that time?

      Thanks again for stopping by. I’m definitely going to look for your biography on Robert Johnson.

    • I have a question. What is the purpose of the beer bottles on the gravestone? Is something to do with folklore or are they there just because Robert liked his drink?

      (I ask because I’m thinking about southern bottle trees and the folklore associated with them. Google the term if you don’t know what it is. There are better explanations online than I can give you.)

      • on ,
        Shein Die said:

        Hi, Catie :) visitors tend to take their guitars, and bottles of whiskey over to Robert Johnson’s grave … sit and play and drink… then leave their empty bottles there, with their cig. butts – each evening or so, someone from the church cleans the gravesite by pushing all the empty bottles etc. aside .. then, people come by, put them, flowers etc. back at the grave site .. and so it goes from day to day … nothing to do w. folklore but a way, I think, fans honor him. Best in the Blues, Shein

      • You’re right on about the folklore of bottle trees… the bottles are hung on trees to catch evil spirits. Now, whether or not those people who put bottles on Robert’s grave were aware of that is another question entirely! They could have just been having a drink with Robert and leaving him a bottle because of his own drinking proclivities. I tend to agree with Shein Die and that it’s more the latter than the former.