Robert Johnson: Legend and Reality

Robert Johnson (1911 - 1938) is widely celebrated as the greatest of the early Mississippi bluesmen, a primary inspiration for rock stars such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Led Zeppelin, and countless more in the worlds of blues, rock, and jazz. His sparse recorded output and the sketchy details surrounding his life have also inspired a mythology that sometimes obscures the reality of his artistic accomplishments.

It is a profound irony that such an impact could never have been imagined by the artist himself. When Johnson died at the age of 27 on Aug. 16, 1938, he was virtually unknown beyond his home region of the Mississippi Delta — and even there, he was only one of several young guitar players and singers who plied their trade on street corners and at weekend dances in impromptu “juke joints.” True, a few of his peers recognized his unique talent, and some of them — most famously Muddy Waters and Elmore James — would later record electrified versions of his songs. But by the late 1930s, local audiences had moved on to the big band sound of Count Basie and the urban sophistication of Billie Holiday. They had little interest in rural guitar players.

While Johnson’s music seemed strange and primitive to many in the late ’30s, over the next two decades he maintained a small cult audience among urban record collectors. Meanwhile, some of his Mississippi peers settled in Chicago and gave birth to a new, electrified version of the Delta style that would become known as Chicago blues. Several of his songs became standards of their repertoire: “Stop Breaking Down,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and the city’s blues anthem, “Sweet Home Chicago.”

It was only in the 1960s, though, that Johnson’s own work began to achieve international fame. In 1961, thanks in large part to influential writer and record producer John Hammond’s indefatigable enthusiasm, Columbia released an LP of his recordings, titled "King of the Delta Blues Singers." The album changed the lives of a generation of young (and mostly white) guitarists. In Britain, it was taken as the touchstone for pure blues soul, and Johnson’s songs were covered by many of the top rock groups. In the United States, Hammond’s son John Paul Hammond became the most dedicated of modern Johnson interpreters and Johnson’s work became the foundation for our modern understanding of the deep Delta sound. In 1990, Sony released a double CD called "The Complete Recordings" that made the pop charts and attracted a new, young audience to Johnson’s work, cementing his reputation as the greatest of all the pre-World War II bluesmen.

His image no doubt played a role in his belated rise to fame. A legend that he had attained his skill as a guitarist by selling his soul to the devil at a lonely crossroads thrilled the popular imagination. The story had not been circulated until nearly three decades after Johnson’s death, but it fit well with the dark leanings of bands like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. There were only two known photographs of the musician and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death — some accounts having him die after drinking whiskey poisoned by a jealous husband — only added to his mystique. To this day, no one knows for sure where he was buried, although three different grave markers can be found in Mississippi.

But Johnson was never limited to blues. His sometime playing partner Johnny Shines recalled that Johnson was a voracious radio listener and would perform pretty much anything he thought audiences wanted to hear, from pop songs to the cowboy yodeling of Jimmy Rodgers and even European immigrant styles like polka. One of Johnson’s less typical recordings, the ragtimey “They’re Red Hot,” suggests that he had mastered the kind of hip guitar style favored by radio stars like the Ink Spots. By the end of his life, some witnesses recall him working with a drummer and saxophone, moving toward the kind of jazzy combo style that would make T-Bone Walker a star in the early 1940s. As great as his records are, they represent a limited picture of an artist who was by all accounts an extremely varied and multi-talented musician.

That said, it is those records that have made Johnson a legend and enduring influence on generations of musicians. We hear the whine of his Delta slide guitar style on movie soundtracks and mixed into hip-hop jams. His songs are standards at blues festivals and played by thousands of guitar heroes in smoky barroom jams around the world. The poetic imagery of his lyrics has resurfaced in the writing of acts ranging from Bob Dylan to the White Stripes, and his soulful voice has inspired singers from Mick Jagger to Cassandra Wilson.

In his short life, Robert Leroy Johnson preserved only 29 songs, but what astonishing fruit those songs have borne.

Writer-musician Elijah Wald has written about folk, roots and international music for various magazines and newspapers, including over ten years as "world music" writer for the Boston Globe. He is author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and has written books on subjects ranging from Mexican drug ballads to hitchhiking.