- Historic Sites
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
“Willie and I were playing again out at a little place east of Robinsonville called Banks, Mississippi. We were playing there one Saturday night, and all of a sudden somebody came in through the door. Who but him! He had a guitar swinging on his back. I said, ‘Bill!’ He said, ‘Huh?’ I said, ‘Look who’s coming in the door.’ He looked and said, ‘Yeah. Little Robert.’ I said, ‘And he’s got a guitar.’ And Willie and I laughed about it. Robert finally wiggled through the crowd and got to where we were. He spoke, and I said, ‘Well, boy, you still got a guitar, huh? What do you do with that thing? You can’t do nothing with it.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Let me have your seat a minute.’ So I said, ‘All right, and you better do something with it, too,’ and I winked my eye at Willie. So he sat down there and finally got started. And man! He was so good! When he finished, all our mouths were standing open. I said, ‘Well, ain’t that fast! He’s gone now.’”
Johnson had started down the hard road of the Delta blues singer, and once he began playing, he never thought of going to work in the cotton fields. For the rest of his few years he traveled with his guitar.
There were involvements with many women, and there were several children, but there were also periods of his life that were more stable. He married while he was still in Robinsonville, and he and his young wife moved in with a married sister in another of the small communities outside town, but his wife died in childbirth when she was only sixteen. In May 1931 he married again, an older woman named Callie—her full name was Calletta Craft—who already had three small children by a previous husband. Johnson moved in with her back in his mother and stepfather’s old town of Hazlehurst, and while he was there he met an older guitarist named Ike Zinnerman, who seems to have been the strongest influence on his musical style. In these Hazlehurst years he spent most of his time playing the guitar and learning songs, and when he began traveling again he was a professional musician. He moved north to Clarksdale with Callie; life there was lonely and hard for her, and when he began his wanderings, she called her family to take her back to Hazlehurst.
For the next four or five years he had a relationship with an older woman named Estella Coleman, who lived in Helena, Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River. She was probably fifteen years older than he. Her son, Robert Junior Lockwood, only three years younger than Johnson, was also a blues musician, and sometimes traveled with his stepfather. The Mississippi blues singer Big Joe Williams remembered that there was always work around the sawmill at West Helena. “I used to go there to play and I could always pick up something, people there, you know, had most of them just come out of Mississippi anyway, so they wanted to hear the blues.”
Robert Johnson hung around Helena for the chance to play and pick up some money singing whenever he was in town, and he had Estella Coleman’s house to stay in as long as he was there. She could have been the woman that he sang about in the first song he recorded, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues.”
When I left Commerce and Robinsonville during my trip to see Johnson’s part of the Delta, I drove across the Mississippi to look at Helena and West Helena. The only bridge that crosses between Memphis and Greenville, 140 miles farther south, rises above the line of levees at Powell, Mississippi, and puts you onto the road between the two Helenas. Like most of the river towns I visited along the Mississippi, Helena had seen better days.
The stores in the old business district were small and shabby, and even the white section up on the bluff had a run-down look to it. The black section of town was a row of dirty one-story brick buildings on Walnut Street and some more buildings straggling along the railroad tracks. A battered restaurant called the Kitty Kat Cafe still had a large sign painted on one of its windows: COLORED & MEXICANS .
West Helena, the section of town that Johnson had mentioned in the blues “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” (“If I can’t find her in West Helena, she must be in East Monroe I know”), is about five miles farther west, up on the high ground. When I visited, the lumber mill that Big Joe Williams remembered, the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, still dominated the small district of one-story houses with its tall chimneys and its chemical cylinders. The logs that came in from the hills to the south and west were stacked in long heaps inside the high fence, dark with water playing on them to keep them from splitting as they dried. Boys who lived in the houses outside the fence picked through the scrap pieces for slabs to burn in the family stoves.