Seeking The Greatest Bluesman
Robert Johnson died in obscurity in 1938; since then he has gradually gained recognition as a genius of American music. Only recently have the facts of his short, tragic life become known.
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
It doesn’t do much good to ask about him in his hometown. No one stays in such a place very long.
Commerce, where Robert lived until the end of his adolescence, isn’t much more than two rows of shacks built to house the workers on the Abbay and Leatherman cotton plantation. A dirt road runs from the ramshackle houses back past the plantation buildings to Robinsonville. The shacks were small and poorly built, without insulation against the cold and without any ceilings or attics to blunt the searing heat. The bare earth around them was dusty in the summer and muddy in the winter. There was no place to shop. When Johnson was growing up there, the workers got most of what they needed from the Leatherman store. When I traveled from Memphis down to Commerce in the early 1970s, I had the feeling that the small community must have looked almost the same when Johnson was growing up.
Commerce isn’t far from Robinsonville, only four and a half miles west of the town. Unless you ask somebody, there’s no way to know that you’ve gotten to Commerce since there’s no sign telling you you’re there. If you go on past the end of the houses, you can leave your car and climb up on the Mississippi River levee, and you can see small communities looking a lot like Commerce scattered in dust-colored clumps over the flat Delta countryside.
On the weekday when I first went there, most of the men who lived in the shacks were at work in Robinsonville or on the farm. There were children in muddy overalls playing outside, and they gathered behind me when I walked up onto one of the weathered porches and knocked on a ragged screen door. Usually I saw a child’s face first, looking up at me wide-eyed, then the face of a young mother or a teen-age girl who was helping take care of the children staring warily through the rusty screen. It didn’t do much good to ask about Robert Johnson. Few people stay very long in places like Commerce. The women might answer nervously: “No, I don’t know nobody been here long. This is Commerce, all right, but nobody been here long that I know of.”
As I walked along the row of buildings, I wondered how they could have stood up to more than a winter, to more than a growing season. They weren’t much more than boxes made out of cheap pine boards, and for foundations they had two or three concrete blocks piled up at the corners and under the steps. The houses had been covered with sheets of laminated building paper scored to look like bricks, but corners had torn away on most of the houses, and edges of the paper flapped in the wind. The only things with any permanence along the road were the brick buildings of the Leatherman farm. When people in Robinsonville remembered Johnson’s stepfather as the short man they called Robert Dusty, his clothes covered with dust when he came into town, they were remembering his fast, striding walk on the dry, rutted stretch of road from Commerce.
When he was fifteen he couldn’t play the guitar at all. Then he went away and came back changed.
When I went back on a Sunday afternoon, there were more people around, most of them still in their best clothes from the church service. Johnson wouldn’t have been much different from the other adolescents who were talking in a loose group behind one of the board storage sheds. They were thin and gawky, and their Sunday best was a carefully ironed white shirt and dark trousers that had a line across the knee from the hangers where they hung the rest of the week. They glanced at me shyly, but mostly they were laughing and joking with one another.
Robert Johnson went to school for a short time at the Indian Creek School in Commerce before eye troubles forced him to stop. These boys sounded as if they were telling what had happened during the week of classes. When the laughter took on a different tone, it was obvious they were talking about girls. It was the kind of easy talk that Johnson would have fitted into when he was living in one of the shacks. The boys looked about the same age he was when he left to get away from his stepfather, and in a few years most of them would leave as well, to go on to a life that offered more than the cotton fields that waited for them in Commerce.
Johnson’s stepfather was short, like Johnson, but he was stocky and strong, with none of his stepson’s look of young sensitivity. The two didn’t get along, and Willis was against music as a way of making a living. Johnson first learned to play the harmonica; but he and Willis quarreled, and when he left, he still couldn’t play the guitar.
He probably went to stay with one of his sisters, and when he came back, he had a guitar hanging down his back. Son House moved to Robinsonville in 1930. Talking to the novelist Julius Lester thirty years later, he described how Robert came into a little country dance where House was playing with his friend Willie Brown, also a bluesman: