Seeking The Greatest Bluesman

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Who was Robert Johnson? For so many years that question haunted all of us who loved the blues. Certainly we knew about Robert Johnson’s music. He had time to make only a handful of recordings before he died at the age of twenty-seven in 1938, and outside of the small towns of the Mississippi Delta country where he had grown up he was almost completely unknown. Within a few years, however, the old 78-rpm recordings that he’d made in the two years before his death had become precious collector’s objects, and as his songs began to be reissued on LP anthologies in the late 1950s and early 1960s, young blues singers—many of them white—started to perform his classic songs, like “Cross Road Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Walkin’ Blues,” and “Love in Vain.”

 

Johnson had accompanied himself only with his guitar when he recorded, but his way of playing and singing became the root source for the Chicago blues sound, which used electric guitars and drums and instruments like the harmonica to capture the essence of his style. When Muddy Waters, who was still a young field hand from Stovall, Mississippi, did his first recording for the Library of Congress folk-music archive in 1941, the song he played was one of Robert Johnson’s blues, and when Waters went on to become the most important blues artist of the post-World War II era, he continued to record Johnson’s songs. Elmore James, another of the influential Chicago bluesmen, used Johnson’s “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” as his theme song.

In the 1960s young rock ’n’ roll musicians like Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones were strongly influenced by what they heard of Johnson’s music through the recordings of the Chicago bluesmen, so it isn’t an exaggeration to say that Robert Johnson was the father of much of the rock music that swept the world in those tumultuous years. His stature has continued to grow, and this year a two-CD release that brings together, for the first time, everything he recorded became a best-selling album on the pop music charts and went on to win a Grammy award for the year’s best historical recording.

But there is still the same question: Who was Robert Johnson? He was the most elusive of all the early blues legends. His original recordings didn’t tell us anything. The only information on the old 78s beyond the intense, uncompromising music itself was a small set of numbers pressed into the shellac, with code letters for the city where the masters had been recorded. For many years the only thing known about Johnson was that some of his recordings had been made in “SA,” which meant San Antonio, and the rest in “DAL,” which meant Dallas. I first went looking for him in the early 1950s, and I started in “SA,” walking the streets in the black neighborhoods of San Antonio, asking if anybody had heard of Robert Johnson.

I wrote about Johnson in my book The Country Blues in 1959, and he was still such a shadowy figure that I apologized for including someone about whom so little was known. I was trying to put the emphasis in that book on the blues singers who had been important to their own black audience; Johnson had done relatively few recordings, and they hadn’t sold in large numbers. I wrote, “It is artificial to consider him by the standards of a sophisticated audience that during his short life was not even aware of him, but by these standards he is one of the superbly creative blues singers.”

In the chapter I wrote, I gave almost no information about his life, and most of that was wrong—except that he was from northern Mississippi. Ironically, even the idea that the white audience was unaware of him turned out to be wrong. One of the most tantalizing artifacts from Johnson’s short life is the original advertisement for John Hammond’s “From Spirituals to Swing” concert, presented in Carnegie Hall on December 23, 1938. There, in a paragraph listing the artists who were to appear, is Johnson’s name.

Hammond was later to become a celebrity for signing Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughn to record contracts, but already by 1938 he had supervised the last recordings of Bessie Smith, helped Benny Goodman organize his great swing orchestra, discovered Billie Holiday in a Harlem nightclub, and found the Count Basic Orchestra in Kansas City.

 

Hammond had heard some of Johnson’s records, and he asked Ernie Oertle, who had been the contact for Johnson’s recordings, to find him for the concert. Oertle looked for Johnson in Mississippi and learned that he had been murdered that summer. The replacement for the country-blues segment was another Mississippi singer, Big Bill Broonzy. As a tribute at the Carnegie Hall concert, Hammond played two recordings by Robert Johnson: “Preachin’ Blues” and “Walkin’ Blues.”