Blues legend Robert Johnson has always been an enigma, a man whose life was filled with dust bowl devils, a certain crossroads destiny and a virulent strain of the blues. His words spoke to the hardships and oppression felt by many different people, and it attacked injustice in a way that still stings almost a century later. And while the blues has always been a vehicle for this kind of difficult subject matter-a home for those whose outlook has been colored by anger, pain and frustration-Johnson was able to disseminate these ideas in a way that was both incredibly intimate and widely inclusive.
In a time when music distribution was sketchy and survived through the efforts of only a handful of determined individuals, the depth and detail of Johnson’s legend bloomed. Not much was known of this man before his untimely death at the age of 27, and we’re still piecing together bits of his personal and professional life. But his legend soon gave way to myth, and myth eventually gave way to tradition. And so we all carry with us a bit of that blues madness that seemed to influence his soul. It has become a part of our collective consciousness, a musical relic from a time long since past.
In Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in 1911 (probably), Johnson was born from an affair his mother, Julia Major Dodds, had with Noah Johnson. Dodds’ husband, Charles, had been previously run out of town. Eventually, Dodds left Hazlehurst with Robert but wound up sending him to live with Charles-who by this time had changed his last name to Spencer-in Memphis. He went back to live with his mother in the Mississippi Delta region, somewhere close to Tunica and Robinsonville, around 1919. In school, he went by the surname Spencer and was, by all accounts, better educated than many in his position.
He was married to 16-year-old Virginia Travis in February 1929; she died during childbirth. According to some sources, relatives of Virginia said that her death was a punishment from God for Johnson performing secular songs, which was equated with selling your soul to the devil. According to research collected by archivist Robert McCormick, Johnson accepted this characterization as a way of putting his former life behind him and focusing on becoming a full-time musician.
It was at this point that blues musician Son House moved to Robinsonville and became aware of Johnson, whom he came to know as a decent harmonica player and a terrible guitarist. Johnson left soon after, with some saying that he began a search for his natural father. It was during this time that he became friends with guitarist Isaiah Zinnerman and honed his playing at a remarkable rate. When he returned to Robinsonville, he displayed an unexpected prowess with the guitar, which promulgated the myth about him selling his soul to the devil.
Between 1932 and 1938, Johnson took on the mantle of a traveling musician, roaming from town to town and playing on street corners, in juke joints and anywhere he could get an open space. He spent time in Southern cities like Memphis before heading north to perform in Chicago and New York. According to interviews and various accounts of his performances, Johnson did not often play his darker, more complex compositions live, opting instead for songs that resonated with the general public-including pop, jazz and country standards.
However, the fame and respect that would be bestowed upon him by later generations were slow in coming. He was not a particularly successful artist and never garnered the kind of household recognition that other musical artists of his time achieved. The re-evaluation of his work began when producer John Hammond approached Columbia Records about collecting his songs in light of the folk revival of the early ’60s. Consisting of 16 mono recordings culled from both his singles history and personal collection, “King of the Delta Blues Singers” was released to quiet acclaim in 1961.
This record arrived with all the subtlety of a lightning bolt. Influence was cast aside, and the pure white light of Johnson’s work was revealed in all its magnificence. For those who hear and understand their power and relevance, these songs are a force of nature to be experienced and survived. Songs such as “Hellhound on My Trail” and “Terraplane Blues” instantly sear themselves to the inside of people’s brains. These songs are life-blood and sweat and death. Even in those early years, the record’s influence showed in the sounds of the musicians who were naturally attracted to this kind of musical veracity and strength.
Other tracks such as “Cross Road Blues” and “Ramblin’ on My Mind” are given weight and density by the earnest introspection that Johnson created. There is no unnecessary filler, no sound out of place. “King of the Delta Blues Singers” sounds like the wrath of God come down from the heavens looking to settle a couple of very old scores. There are moments of beauty, too, patches of picked notes and melodies that reveal the broken shards of light and kindness. But this record isn’t a celebration of life-it is a warning.
Life is hard, and music can provide the answers to many of the questions we’ve not even thought to ask. But Johnson knew those questions, even if he never responded to them. His music was a way for him and his audience to approach a lean and lithe blues landscape, composed of harrowing austerity and darkness. There are always devils around us in one form or another, and he could see them. And by exposing them in song, he gave us a choice as to whether we would follow in their footsteps or our own. It was a choice he had made himself many years before.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.