How Robert Johnson showed the way to Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and a whole generation of musicians
Given the lack—perhaps permanent—of good hard data, most of what gets written about Robert Johnson runs along the same rutted paths: a few facts, a few conjectures, a threadbare reminiscence from one of the usual grizzled informants, and that’s about it—pretty thin gruel, especially considering the richness of Johnson’s music. It seemed wise to me, when I set out recently to write about Robert Johnson for Musician magazine—for the third or so time—to seek less traveled ground: Johnson’s impact on some of today’s most influential pop musicians.
Rock ’n’ rollers aren’t scholars, and the nine I interviewed for the article (Andrew Franklin handled Keith Richards and Eric Clapton) often knew less about Johnson’s life and music than I did. But I found exceptions: the Memphis record producer Jim Dickinson, the great guitarist Ry Cooder, the blues singer John Hammond, Jr. (son of the famous talent scout). And factual knowledge isn’t relevant here. What matters is inspiration , the force with which these dozen imaginations have been gripped by one man’s music. It would be a mistake to equate Johnson’s influence with that of, say, the Beatles or Elvis. The latter are tidal waves, rerouting pop music in single, overwhelming instants; Robert Johnson is an underground stream. But when the roots nourished belong to Eric Clapton, the most admired rock guitarist of the last quarter-century, or to Keith Richards, the musical heart of the hugely influential Rolling Stones, or even to Robert Plant, whose Led Zeppelin sold tens of millions of albums to two decades of teen-agers, then the vast outline of Johnson’s shadow begins—with grandeur, bit by bit—to emerge.
Every one of our famous interlocutors was eager to talk, sometimes for hours, often with an acuity you just don’t expect from rock stars. As I wrote in Musician , “Ask them about themselves and they’re testy, glib or unreachable; ask them about Robert Johnson and you’ve got an interview.”
“He’s the one that laid it down for us all to pick up,” said Eric Clapton, interviewed last year in Manhattan. “And what’s amazing to me is that 50 years later, young musicians are still playing what he laid down without [their] even knowing it. They think I invented it, or that I got it from Jimmy Reed or B. B. King or Howlin’ Wolf, when in actual fact there’s one guy in the back of it all.”
Keith Richards, whose scruffiness and three-chord fundamentalism long ago elevated him into the paragon of the rock ’n’ roller, says, “You can hear Robert Johnson every time Eric Clapton plays, and hopefully now and again when I play too. He condensed it all, just like that. Everything you want to know about the blues is in those 29 tracks … and if you haven’t heard about him, do yourself a favor and give him a listen.”
He condensed it all…” That’s one clue to Johnson’s grip on musicians; he was a water-shed. In his music—technically advanced, lyrically rich—rural blues of the 1920s and 1930s gathered itself up into a peak of refinement before heading north for Chicago and modern times.
“I’m sure Robert was influenced by Lonnie Johnson, by Leroy Carr, by WiIlie Newbern and all of those guys; I hear Scrapper Blackwell in him, and Kokomo Arnold and Skip James. But his stuff is the synthesis of that whole era, the most intense.” That’s John Hammond, Jr., who learned guitar so he could play Johnson’s music. “His stuff was so finished ,” says Billy Gibbons, whose trio Z Z Top crosses the most advanced technology with the rawest blues. “Of the rural bluesmen, he’s the most listenable, the most fun to listen to.” And for Ry Cooder, if Johnson’s Mississippi Delta was a kind of quattrocento Florence of rural blues—“this is not some isolated giant here. You have a flowering of music in the ’20s and ’30s”—then Johnson was the Janus-faced hero who, in summarizing his milieu, moved it forward: “Robert Johnson found his technique within that Mississippi rhythmic structure; he made his strides by playing what everybody else played, but doing it a whole lot better.”
But musical brilliance isn’t the only source of Johnson’s allure. His aura of darkness refuses to dissipate. First, there’s his restless, troubled persona. “He is the original rock ’n’ roll guy,” says Chris Thomas, an up-and-coming blues-rock star from Texas. “Robert was an outlaw … he didn’t have no ties, he didn’t have much of a family. Just moving through the Delta with a guitar. If a motorcycle had been around, he would have looked real comfortable on that.”
Nor, in the end, can you dismiss the power of the legend of Robert Johnson’s bargain with Satan, the midnight meeting at the crossroads. To Johnson experts it’s a bit of a bore they hear it so often—but to an artist the idea of a blues-singing Faust can be pure inspiration. Long before his songs for the Band—“Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”—became latter-day classics of Americana, Robbie Robertson ran across the myth of Robert Johnson. “Years later I wrote this song called ‘Daniel and the Sacred Harp.’… It’s a disguised version of the Robert Johnson story of selling your soul to the Devil to be able to play amazingly. Now, we know these are just silly stories, but it’s kind of fascinating American mythology. The point is, Robert Johnson’s influence on me is more in story than a matter of stealing his licks. For me, the music just made the story more true… This is kind of half-believing the stuff, but at the same time being very affected by it. And having it never, ever go away.”
I wrote the bulk of my Musician story on the eve of Columbia Records’ September 1990 release of Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (if ever a music-biz product deserved the adjective long-awaited, this was it). If the interviews were intended to introduce Robert Johnson to today’s record-buying public, I needn’t have worried: The Complete Recordings became 1990's surprise best seller, leapfrogging merrily up Billboard ’s Top 200 chart and winning a Grammy (the record industry’s equivalent of the Oscar) for best historical recording. By April 1991 sales had climbed past 350,000 copies—and an album of old Mississippi folk music had, no matter how improbably, invaded the glossy realms of pop.
Robert Johnson is no longer the property of rock stars and cognoscenti. An unlikely star, fifty-two years dead, has arrived.