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When Robert Johnson Sings

May 2024
4min read

A novelist and historian who has been fascinated by Johnson’s music for decades tells why

Robert Johnson has had an all but spectral aspect for his admirers down the years. He came seemingly out of nowhere and went back into nowhere within the span of less than a decade, which began with a rumored Faustian compact with the Devil and ended in agony from strychnine-laced whiskey slipped to him by the husband of a woman he had been seeing on the side. His legacy—apart, that is, from a couple of posed photographs that do little to resolve the mystery, except that one shows the delicate, long-fingered hands of a born guitarist, and the testimony of acquaintances, most of whom disagree about his nature—consists of those 29 songs recorded under comparatively primitive conditions in San Antonio and Dallas, in late 1936 and mid-1937, over a total of five days. They were enough—enough, even, to put him up there with Bessie Smith, who recorded 159. These two, Bessie and Robert, are by common consent the top of the heap in the field of the blues, and they died within a year and sixty miles of each other in the Mississippi Delta, where Johnson was raised and learned his art.

Not counting the recurrent cries of delight and screams of pain, when he would break into falsetto, each had a range of about one octave. A severe limitation, you would think. But that octave served its purpose for them both, packed as it was with emotion, which comes across with naked force, rhythmic phrasing, which drives the meaning home, and boundless humor, the saving grace even for the blues, which Johnson in one of his songs calls “a aching old hard disease,” adding: “You ain’t never had ‘em, I hope you never will.”

Recognition came slow for him for a number of reasons, including the very words he sang. Outlanders—New Yorkers or San Franciscans, say—had to get over a language barrier nearly as difficult as Carmen would be for a listener with less than a year of high school French. A doney , for instance, is a woman of worse than doubtful morals, and a nation sack is a cloth pouch worn on a string around the neck for holding mojos and small change. Nor was the difficulty only with unfamiliar words; familiar ones sometimes had unsuspected meanings. Lonesome , for example—and thereby hangs a tale.

Don Law, who was in charge of all five of the Texas recording sessions, met Johnson in San Antonio when he showed up for the first of them. He got him a room in a Jim Crow rooming house, gave him forty-five cents for breakfast next morning, then left for dinner with friends at the Gunter Hotel, where tomorrow’s session would be held. Midway through the meal he was called to the telephone. It was Johnson, who sounded urgent, and Law asked him, “What’s the matter?”

“I’m lonesome.”

“You’re lonesome? What do you mean, you’re lonesome?”

“I’m lonesome and there’s a lady here,” Johnson told him. “She wants fifty cents and I lacks a nickel.”

So now we know what he means when he sings in “Love in Vain”:

was lonesome, I felt so lonesome,
And I could not help but cry.

He had, as you see, a supple way with words that carry and project his hopes and fears, the hopes tenuous at best, the fears devastating, particularly in matters of the heart. Women, for him, were heaven and hell on earth, and his attitude toward them varied. Sometimes he would reproach himself:

I mistreated my baby
and I can’t see no reason why.
Every time I think about it
I just wring my hands and cry.

Other times he’d bluster:

Me and the Devil, oo,
was walking side by side
And I’m go ’n to beat my woman
until Iget satisfied.

In the end, though, he might beg forgiveness for such thoughts:

Why’nt you bring your clothes
back home
and try me one more time?

But the music, ah, the music. It was his handling of the guitar, his fellow bluesman Johnny Shines declared, that “caused many a woman to weep, and many a man, too.” Johnson’s skill on the instrument—with “boogie bass and dimininshed chords, ” Shines explained—gave rise to the legend of his compact with the Devil. Uncanny as the sound was, however, what produced it was canny indeed. Johnson worked hard at his songs, revising and refining them in utter privacy, and when he got one into the shape he wanted, he played it (as we can tell from the dozen backup takes that have survived) just that way from then on out.

Special effects abound, but they are never accidental or artificial; they were arrived at. In “Traveling Riverside,” for example, when he sings the line “I got womens in Vicksburg, clean on into Tennessee,” on the final syllable, see, voice and guitar are indistinguishable; both are singing, yet it’s not even detectable as a duet. All you know is that the hair on the back of your neck stands up and your throat constricts.

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.

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