Like all geniuses his brilliance wasn’t realised by the world until well after his death. Like all geniuses his life is shrouded in mystery and coloured with legend. Like all geniuses his influence permeates almost everything that follows like so much tobacco smoke hanging in the air of the barrelhouses and juke joints that provided Robert Johnson his stage.
Information on Johnson’s life is sparse yet labyrinthine with rumour and anecdotal contradiction. Details are few and far between but there are a few bones from which the flesh of legend is hung. He was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and schooled in Lucas, Arkansas. He was married at the age of eighteen to sixteen year old Virginia Travis in February 1929. Virginia died in childbirth shortly after and Johnson decided to become a full-time blues musician. It is here where the legend starts to grow legs.
Hushed whispers among Virginia’s surviving family blamed Robert for the young girl’s death – divine punishment for his decision to sing the secular blues music that would make him famous. They saw Johnson as having “sold his soul to the Devil”. Blues researcher Robert McCormick believed that Johnson embraced the phrase. As a description of his decision to abandon the simple life of husband and father in favour of being a full-time travelling musician it must have seemed apt and roguishly antagonistic to a natural performer like Johnson.
Legend surrounds the ‘King of the Delta Blues Singers’; he could play any song after hearing it just once; he had a string of mistresses around the country and was capable of seducing any woman of his choosing during his first performance in any new town; he was poisoned by the jealous lover of one of these many infatuated dames. In fact, he did die under suspicious circumstances at the age of 27 – chairman of a very illustrious club - but no cause of death has ever been confirmed. Conjecture, claim, counterclaim and contradiction cloud the already murky waters surrounding the specifics of his death, the story slipping into the bluesman’s legend and music folklore.
Most of all, though, most of all it is music’s tallest tale that rings out through the decades – Robert Johnson sold his soul for rock and roll (well… for country blues, but still…).
The story goes that young Mr Johnson went down to the crossroads near Dockery Plantation between Ruleville and Cleveland, Mississippi, at midnight. There he was met by the Devil, a large, black man who took young Robert’s guitar and tuned it. The Devil played a few songs and returned the guitar to Johnson, imbuing the young musician with mastery of the instrument. Robert Johnson had bargained his soul with Beelzebub for a shot at greatness. And boy did he achieve it.
Robert learned guitar by first imitating fellow blues legend Son House, himself a wonderfully expressive vocalist and fantastic slide guitarist. Having perfected Son’s style Johnson expand his repertoire under the tutelage of Ike Zinnerman, a man who reportedly gained his 6-string talents supernaturally while visiting graveyards at midnight. So quick was Johnson’s transformation to a virtuoso of his time that his contemporaries were shocked, helping to give rise to his Faustian backstory. Besides, when your teacher is a voodoo guitarist who learnt from the dead it’s no real surprise that you’ve got some chops and a bit of the darkness about you. Robert Johnson had both.
The archetypal rock-star, Johnson was a womaniser, a booze-hound, an energetic, engaging performer that belied a private and soulful personality, and a rare and innovative talent. His music is infused with a deep melancholy, natural beauty and surprising stylistic and compositional variety for a guitarist of his time and place. His guitar playing swings from urgent and possessive on tracks like If I had Possession Over Judgement Day to soft and lilting on Kind Hearted Woman Blues, Ragtime playfulness infuses They’re Red Hot and dirty, driving, classic Delta Blues characterises perhaps his most famous track, Cross Road Blues.
The vocals, too, are wonderfully expressive and nuanced; soulful, painful - full in every sense; brimming with emotion. Full of truth, the truth of his hardship, his existence in a time and place so far removed from the here and now that listening to these songs, endearingly still pock-marked with the original vinyl hiss despite their digitation, you just can’t help but feel like you’re looking back into history – going back in time.
That is the key thing here, I think. These songs have been covered and recovered and moulded and re-shaped and re-used a hundred times or more. Each one is a recognised blues standard that we have heard time and time again, but when you hear it like this – as it was written, with the expansive urgency of an entire era behind it – it just sounds so alive.
He may be known as a master of the blues but really Johnson should be lauded as a ground-breaking musician who displayed a variety and creativity in his song-writing unmatched by his peers. His influence can be felt in the music of BB King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Rush, Tony Iommi, Randy Rhodes, Eddie Van Halen, Metallica, Jack White – I could go on and on. The truth is that all guitar music since those pre-war Johnson cuts owes a debt to this legendary blues man. The truth is that every guitar riff, or hook, or phrase, every slide and every solo rings with the crackling, 78rpm echoes of 29 songs recorded 78 years ago.
Those 29 songs recorded between 1936 and ’37, brought together here in 2003’s The Complete Collection are collectively as much a masterpiece as Turner’s The Fifth Plague of Egypt, Milton’s Paradise Lost or Lenny Bruce’s The Carnegie Hall Concert and should be equally celebrated.