The Story Of Robert Johnson: Blues, Poison And The Devil

Only three photographs exist of the mysterious, yet supremely important blues musician, whose life was a story of troubled genius...
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Only three photographs exist of the mysterious, yet supremely important blues musician, whose life was a story of troubled genius...

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Dead by the age of 27, poisoned by a jealous lover’s husband, Johnsons legacy is embodied in the 41 tracks that he recorded in two key sessions in 1936 and 1937 in Texas. It was during these now famous sessions, where the coy and often secretive Johnson  famously played facing the wall with his back to the recording engineers, that Johnson laid down the songs such as 'Love in Vain', 'Steady Rolling Man' and 'Me and the Devil Blues', which have come to define both him and the whole image of what it is to be a troubled blues man.

Only three photographs exist of this elusive figure. In both he stares out enthusiastically at the camera. In both he is armed and dangerous with his trusty Gibson acoustic. Robert Johnson above all  has come to embody  everything that we expect from a blues man. Transient, secretive, mysterious. Because he died young and his life was largely undocumented, a myriad of stories have attached themselves to Johnson over the years and bolstered  his legend. His songs, the only time we can actually truly hear the man speak to us in his own words, betray a restless mind. A man troubled by personal demons and women alike. Themes which come together easily on the palette of any self respecting blues man.

Whilst the manner of his death confirms his bad boy status the defining story of his life was active whilst he was still very much alive. For this is a man, so the story goes, who made a Faustian pact with Old Nick himself.  Yes indeed ladies and gentlemen Johnson sold his soul to the devil. In return the devil imbued him with an incomparable talent to play the guitar.

Robert Johnson above all  has come to embody  everything that we expect from a blues man. Transient, secretive, mysterious.

The roots of this story are based on fact. During the thirties Johnson was something of an itinerant muso. Travelling around the country side  trying to turn a buck playing in Juke joints. By all accounts this early  version of  Johnson was nothing to write home about. Just another poor black guy with a guitar he could  strum a few basic tunes on. But then there came a change. A change big enough to get tongues wagging up and down the countryside. A little while later  when Johnson was out on the circuit and returning back a year onto play at the same places people started to take notice. He was signing out and playing the guitar like never before. It was as if he was possessed.

Blues with its roots in African culture has always been spiritual and God fearing. You want to get a girl? Muddy Waters trusted a mojo hand. Literally the atrophied hand of dead man. Johnson transformation may have been because he just got better. He learned his licks. But the story soon spread like wildfire that he had parked himself way out at the Crossroads one night down there in Clarksdale  where Highway 61 cuts across 49, and waited until the Devil himself mosied on up that lonesome highway from hell and took hold of Johnson’s guitar, tuned it up and did himself a deal.

It was deal that  should have been more properly made in heaven. Johnson tuned his guitar to various different ‘open’ tunings. Thereby increasing the range of sounds that his Gibson could produce. One of them –the famous open G has become Keith Richard’s favourite. Some of the greatest  songs written by The Stones feature this tuning. When you know it  you’ll understand.

Some of the greatest  songs written by The Stones feature this tuning. When you know it  you’ll understand.

Before electric music the Blues was born in the cotton fields of the Southern states. Johnson sang about the Mississippi Delta which was his world. The songs were all part of a great oral tradition. Tunes and riffs along with lyrics being  handed down from musician to musician  along the road. In the post  war period, as large Black communities started to establish themselves in the North around Chicago, electricity became the essential ingredient that players like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf  turned to  get their message across. The sound may have dramatically changed but the songs they were amplifying  were  often developed from many of the key riffs and lyrics that Johnson had already laid down onto acetate.

It wasn’t until the sixties in Britain that a whole new generation of  young eager players first started to pick up on the legend of  the man who had sold his soul. Face it if you come from Dartford, like a fledgling Mick Jagger, what the hell have  you got to lose? The recordings Johnson made in the  thirties were made available on disc for the first time and a whole new generation started to learn the licks and expouse the name of their new hero. The Stones covered ‘Love in Vain’. Clapton in Cream took 'Crossroad Blues' pistol whipped it around put it up on stage as a heavy metal crie de cour.  It was later used by Scorsese in the final shoot out in ‘Mean Streets’. Bob would have got that one alright.

These days Blues music is always lurking out there somewhere. Eric Clapton is as popular  as ever in a chicken and basket kinda way. Whilst it might be right to say that  the Blues is not at the cutting edge of popular music as it was in the Sixties. There may have been a general move away from guitar led music in the past few decades, but Johnson and his ilke are the true antecedents of Biggie, Tupac, Snoop and all them other bad boys who know that the devil has always had the best tunes.

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