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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
The first record that was released was “Terraplane Blues,” with “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” on the other side. “Terraplane"—it took its name from a make of automobile—was imitated by dozens of young bluesmen, and for years the song was strongly associated in Mississippi with Robert Johnson. He was excited at being a recording artist, and he took copies around to most of his family, including some of his children. He even met his father again, Noah Johnson, who had heard about his son’s success. Since he was now a recording artist, he extended his traveling and went north to Chicago and Detroit with Johnny Shines. Shines remembers getting as far as even Canada and New York with him, despite the uncertainty of knowing where Johnson would be at any moment.
Certainly Johnson would have gone on recording had he lived, and he would have become part of the popular commercial blues scene in Chicago had he performed in the “Spirituals to Swing” concert. With his death his music was passed on to a younger generation of artists who heard him only on record.
He was so casual about involving himself with other men’s wives and girl friends that the musicians who knew him expected he would get into serious trouble sometime. The trouble came when he was playing in a roadhouse called Three Forks outside of Greenwood, Mississippi, and became involved with the wife of the owner of a juke joint across the road. On Saturday night, August 13, 1938, he was performing at the roadhouse with a young singer named Sonny Boy Williamson, and during a break somebody sent him an opened half-pint of whiskey. Williamson had some idea what was happening, and he knocked the bottle out of Johnson’s hand. Johnson protested, and when somebody handed him a second bottle, already opened like the first, he went ahead and drank from it.
The bottle had been laced with poison, probably strychnine, which was commonly used to kill rats. Johnson tried to go on playing, but he was in too much pain and was taken back to Greenwood in the middle of the night. He managed to survive the poisoning, but he was too weak to fight off a sudden attack of pneumonia. He died in the stifling heat a few days later, on August 16, 1938. If the May 1911 date for his birth is correct, he was twentyseven years old.
The interviews that have been done with his family will fill in more details, but essentially there isn’t any real mystery now about Robert Johnson’s life. If we don’t know what he was doing on a particular day in 1933 or 1934, we know most of the places he might have been and what he would have been doing on a day like it. There was never any mystery about the recordings. All of them were finally released, so it is possible to listen to everything he recorded, even the unissued takes that were done at the sessions so there would be a safety master just in case something happened to the first wax disc.
Sometimes, though, it seems that trying to find the essence of Robert Johnson is like trying to peel away the skin of an onion. There always seems to be another layer beneath the one you’ve just removed. We’ve peeled away the mystery of his life and his recordings, but what’s left is the mystery of the handful of compositions that are unlike anything else in all the blues.
Without being able to ask Robert Johnson himself, we’ll never know how he conceived “Hell Hound on My Trail,” “Come On in My Kitchen,” “Love in Vain,” or “Stones in My Passway,” and we’ll never be able to follow the steps that led him to develop the voice and guitar interplay in “Walkin” Blues.” We will go on pursuing the image of the young Robert Johnson we can imagine in West Helena because of the singer who created some of the blues’ most haunting and magnificent moments. It is these moments that will always be the mystery.
Perhaps the best way to remember him is to think of him getting out of bed in the middle of the night to pick up his guitar. Sometimes the girl he was staying with would wake up and see him sitting by the window, silently fingering the guitar in the moonlight. If he turned around and saw she was watching him, he would stop.