When Robert Johnson Sings

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Two guitarists of note, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton—both of them born well after Johnson was laid in his unmarked grave, three years short of thirty, in 1938—have been awed and strongly influenced by his art. Richards, when he first heard him on an LP issued in 1961, asked in amazement, “Who’s that other guy playing with him?” Later he understood better, but he never stopped being astonished at what he was hearing. “Some of the rhythms he’s doing and playing and singing at the same time—you think, This guy must have three brains.’ ” Voice, melody, bass line—all combine to remind us of Browning’s Abt Vogler, who “out of three sounds” frames “not a fourth sound, but a star.”

Clapton has expressed himself even more strongly than Rolling Stone Richards, calling Johnson “the most important blues musician who ever lived. He was true, absolutely, to his own vision.… His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.”

If Robert Johnson had avoided that jealous husband (or his wife, or the other jealous husbands who were sure to have followed and stood in what he called his “passway”), he would have been eighty years old this past spring, not an impossible figure but a highly unlikely one, for him. Besides, if he had lived, who can say what might have become of him? He might have switched to jazz or—God forbid gone electric like Muddy Waters, his closest rival for the title King of the Delta Blues Singers, which was given to Johnson by a record company a full generation after he was no longer around to enjoy it. But all that’s nothing, or next to nothing; what-ifs and might-have-beens will get us nowhere. He died and he was gone, even more suddenly than the way in which he first came on the scene, and no doubt, whether the Devil was involved or not, it is altogether fitting that it should be so. This way, like the figures on Keats’ urn, he will be forever young—forever twenty-seven and forever singing the blues as only he and Bessie Smith could sing them.