July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
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.
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.”
When I wrote a chapter about Johnson for my book The Bluesmen in 1967, it was no longer necessary to apologize. The emphasis in the new book was on artists whom the growing young white audience considered to be the important blues singers, and Johnson was already becoming a legendary figure. Son House, an older bluesman from the same part of the Mississippi Delta, had been discovered, and from House we had learned the outlines of Johnson’s life. In 1962 I talked with Henry Townsend, a younger bluesman who had met Johnson in St. Louis in the 1930s, and in Chicago in 1965 I met Johnny Shines, who had traveled with him, singing and playing the blues alongside him in his wanderings into cities like Chicago and New York.
Each of them was able to fill in some of the details of Johnson’s life after he’d left the plantation where Son House had known him. By the time I finished a book transcribing and annotating all the songs in 1973—the book is titled, simply, Robert Johnson —I had also spent weeks photographing the towns in the Mississippi Delta where Johnson had played for parties and dances and the small cluster of shacks where he’d grown up. The researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow had found his death certificate, and there were long interviews with his stepson, the blues singer Robert Junior Lockwood. All this was added to what was already known in the long essay that introduced the songs.
On one level the mystery that was so much a part of the legend of Robert Johnson was slowly and patiently being unraveled. He was no longer a hazy figure standing in the dust at a Delta crossroads. In the 1970s two researchers working separately, Steve LaVere and Mack McCormick, found Johnson’s surviving relatives, and after their interviews there wasn’t much else to learn, except exactly what poison was used by the jealous husband who killed him. Finally, in February 1986, Rolling Stone magazine printed the first of two photographs that had been found (it is shown here on page 66). There was the face we had wondered about for so many years. Johnson looked very young, posed in his shirt sleeves with his guitar against a crude cloth backdrop. A cigarette was dangling from his mouth, and he was half smiling. His fingers, on the neck of the guitar, were—as one of the men who had supervised his first recordings remembered—very beautiful. On the cover of his book Searching for Robert Johnson , published in 1989, the blues writer Peter Guralnick reproduced the second photo, which showed Johnson a little older and wearing a stylish suit, tie, and hat (page 56).
Robert Johnson’s life, now that we finally can see who he was and how he grew up, isn’t that much different from the lives of hundreds of other boys growing up in the rough plantation system that still controlled most of northern Mississippi. A likely birth date is May 8, 1911, which would mean that he was twenty-five when he did his first recordings, in San Antonio. When he was growing up, there was some confusion about his name. His mother, Julia Major Dodds, had married a wicker furniture maker named Charles Dodds in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in 1889. She had had ten children with him when Dodds had to get out of town following a dispute with a local white family. She stayed behind in Hazlehurst with two small daughters.
Dodds stayed in Memphis for two years, using the name Spencer so no one would find him. His wife was finally forced out of their house in Hazlehurst, and her eleventh child, Robert, was born after an involvement with a field worker named Noah Johnson.
Julia Dodds wandered through the camps and small communities at the southern edge of the Delta, picking cotton while her daughter Carrie, who was eight, tried to watch out for Robert. There is a picture of Julia Dodds taken probably a year after Robert was born, and she is unsmiling, short, and round-faced, in a broadbrimmed hat and a loose dark dress with a bow at the neck and a wide cloth belt. There is nothing about her to suggest any of the confusion that had taken over her life.
Charles Dodds at first refused to accept the child his wife had had with Noah Johnson. Finally he relented enough to let the boy move up with him in Memphis, but he wouldn’t let his wife come along. Robert moved in with Dodds when he was three years old; Dodds had also gathered in all ten of the children he’d had with Julia. Robert, for the next few years, was called Robert Leroy Dodds Spencer. His older brother Charles Leroy is supposed to have taught him something about the guitar, but Son House, who probably first encountered Robert when he was fifteen or sixteen years old, remembered that he couldn’t play the guitar at all then. Robert’s mother eventually married again, a man named Dusty Willis, and when Robert was eight or nine years old, she took him to live with them in Commerce, outside Robinsonville.
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 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:
“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.
Most of the houses were made out of boards cut from the same logs, and they had the same forlorn sense of weathered impermanence as the shacks in Commerce. The streets were still unpaved, but there were some grocery stores, most of them with Chinese owners, and the stores were in the same kind of run-down frame houses, with only dilapidated metal signs advertising cigarettes and soft drinks and overhanging roofs out to the street to make them look any different from the rest of the town. Today even the stores are gone, their buildings boarded up. It was in the black communities like West Helena, around the scattered mills or railroad yards and warehouses where there was some work, that Robert Johnson spent most of his time after he left the farm in the Delta.
Even in the worst of the Depression years, when Johnson was doing most of his wandering, the record companies that worked the blues market were trying to find new singers. They didn’t pay very much, and royalties were almost nonexistent, but most of the singers who were working in the juke joints or the small local clubs managed to get onto one of the major blues lines. The talent scout who sent Robert Johnson to ARC, the American Record Corporation, was a music-store owner in Jackson, Mississippi, named H. C. Speir. Johnson’s older sister Carrie, who had taken care of him when he was a baby, was living in Jackson, on Georgia Street, and he probably stayed with her when he was in town. He could have come into the store and auditioned for Speir, who held regular sessions at which musicians stood in line to play for him, or perhaps another talent scout heard him first and sent him to Jackson. The ARC liaison man was the young white record salesman Ernie Oertle.
Johnson did his first recordings, for ARC’s Vocalion label, in San Antonio, on Monday, November 23, 1936. The A&R man, or artist and repertory director, for all the ARC recording on this trip was Art Satherley, who had done the same job for Paramount Records in the 1920s and worked with blues artists like Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson. He had set up a studio on the mezzanine of the Gunter Hotel in downtown San Antonio. The producer in the studio with Johnson for the sessions was another young white employee of ARC, Don Law.
After Johnson recorded “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” he continued, all in the same afternoon session, to do a series of songs that were among the greatest performances any blues artist ever was to record. One following another, he sang “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” “When You’ve Got a Good Friend,” “Come On in My Kitchen,” and “Terraplane Blues” and then finished with a minor title, “Phonograph Blues,” a weak song that wasn’t issued until the 1960s.
In these songs was everything that the other musicians had talked about in Johnson’s blues: the startling instrumental technique, the moody imagery, the heavy, brooding emotions, and the feeling of a kind of possession as he sang. Three days later, on Thursday, November 26, he recorded a single blues. Then the next day he began a session with an inconsequential jump song, another weak blues, and then “Cross Road Blues,” “Walkin’ Blues,” “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” “Preachin’ Blues,” and “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” On “Preachin’ Blues” he delivered a performance that was almost incoherent in its intensity.
Oertle and Law were recording a number of other artists at the same time—almost every style of music that was popular in San Antonio, from Mexican guitarists to Western swing but they recognized Johnson’s uniqueness. Seven months later they brought him back to Texas to record again, this time to a studio they had set up in an upstairs room in a warehouse in Dallas. Again, ARC was recording a number of other artists. On the first day, Saturday, June 19, 1937, Johnson recorded only three titles, but one of them, “Stones in My Passway,” was one of his masterpieces, and the last song, “From Four Until Late,” was as quiet and understated as it was unforgettable.
The next day, Sunday, he began with one of the greatest of all his songs, “Hell Hound on My Trail.” Then the session drifted through a number of styles and derivative blues until the fifth song, “Me and the Devil Blues,” another of his disturbingly unique compositions. The next to last song was the haunting “Love in Vain,” which was to become known everywhere through a version performed by the Rolling Stones.
The legacy of Robert Johnson is this body of songs he recorded with only his guitar for accompaniment in ARC’s improvised studios. What he did in those studios was completely his own achievement. Don Law and the engineer did little more than turn on the recording machine and tell him when to start. It isn’t surprising that elements of the songs can be traced to other blues singers who were popular at the time or that parts of the guitar style or the use of falsetto or sometimes the songs themselves have more or less obvious sources. What is still startling after so many years is that the greatest of his songs fuse together into a stark, magnificent musical statement that is unlike anything anyone else the blues has created.
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.