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A full moon cast its pallorous sheen
upon the mists of the humid Mississippi night. The young man
standing at a desolate crossroads could just barely see where
the roads of the four directions vaporized into darkness. A cigarette
hung from his long fingers, and occasionally he raised the smoke
to his expectant lips. On the ground beside him laid his guitar
in its case. The young man's heart pounded harder with each passing
moment until he feared the cessation of his own breath. Just
as his fear finally compelled him to pick up his guitar and leave,
a shadow approached him on a dark road.
The luminous mist seemed to breeze aside with sympathy and
allow the dark figure to pass. The young man could see the shadow
approach through the darkness of the northern road. Nearly paralyzed,
the young man only stood there listening to his heart beating
in the cage of his chest. Soon, the shadow was upon the young
man and became more recognizable as a less daunting human shape.
The young man could man make out a long black coat hung upon
a tall, thin frame. As the figure drew closer, the young
man could see the pleasant, mature face of a man in the darkness.
"Hey, there, I'm on my way through Hazelhurst. Am I heading the right way?"
The young man relaxed completely at the mention of his hometown. "Yes, sir. Just keep headin' down this here road 'bout a mile or two."
"Thank you, my good man. Is that your guitar there?"
The young man tensed and his heart began pounding once again. "Yes, sir," he said.
The dark stranger queried,"do you play?"
"Yes, sir," replied the young man.
"What's your name, son? Maybe I've heard you play."
The young man just dropped the name out of his mouth without
thinking and without emotion, as if in a daze, muttering, "Robert
Johnson," halfway under his breath.
"Ah, Mr. Johnson. I recall hearing that name spoken in
parts just north of here in a few lumber camps.
"I played some of those places, sure. But I never heard nobody talkin' 'bout me before. But I suppose they could talkin' 'bout me."
The stranger eyed the guitar case and asked, "why don't you play something for me. I'd like to know if you are the one they talk about."
Robert Johnson, without taking his eyes off the stranger,
bent down and opened his beat up guitar case. Inside, there laid
a guitar with a worn finish and scratches. He pulled it out by
its neck and knelt down on one knee, resting the wooden body
on his other knee. Taking his gaze just once off of the dark
figure to find his fingering, he looked back at the tall man
and began to play. His long fingers seemed to stretch the length
of the fret board as his right hand picked out a syncopated blues.
With the glowing mist all around now, Robert could see nothing
but fog just beyond the stranger. He felt as if he were playing
in a dream. There was absolutely no sound except for the notes
he picked, and the notes seemed to be absorbed in the mist as
if those tones existed without reverberation. When he finished
playing, he could see the stranger smile and say,
Robert stood slowly. He paused a few moments and stared at
the stranger's out-stretched hand. He swallowed and deeply contemplated
his next move. He knew in his heart that he was doing more than
just handing his guitar to a stranger. Poor Bob was there on
purpose. He was there to meet someone specific, and that specific
someone now stood winking at him in the darkness at a crossroads
Robert trembled as he handed his six-string over to the tall
man. The man took it and knelt on one knee, like Robert did,
and began to play. Once again, the mist constrained the notes,
but not the man's playing. He was smooth, clean and concise
- a technical marvel of dexterity. His tones were even and clear.
The steady rhythm on the low E string sounded like rolling thunder,
and the higher notes of the melody rang with the power and resonance
of church bells. Tovert had never heard his guitar sound so good.
Robert noticed that the man was playing exactly what he had just
played, but with greater emotion and skill. As he played, Robert's
jaw hung open and his eyes widened.
"I'll show you," said the stranger, and Robert looked
closely as the man's fingers slowly picked out the notes. He
payed close attention to the tall one's nuances in fingering
and picking. Once again, he heard thunder and church bells. Robert
was transfixed by what the stranger was showing him, but he understood
everything he saw. As he ended, the stranger smiled at Robert
Robert Johnson smile with approval and said, "yes, sir, I hope so."
With that, the stranger handed the guitar back to its owner
saying, "now, if you'll excuse me, young man, I have to
catch up with an old friend of mine down at the levee. He owes
me some money." The stranger bid Robert good night, and
strolled off down the road to the south as the mist parted his
However, Robert was very protective of his playing style.
He was know to turn his back on an audience when he played if
he thought someone might be trying to learn his technique. On
a few occasions when he was suspicious of curious eyes, he got
up and left in the middle of a song and disappeared for months.
Curious eyes might not have been the only reason for Mr. Johnson's
Robert Johnson was a lady's man. He was good looking, charming and obviously a talented showman. Women swooned over him much like Elvis' lady fans would swoon twenty years later. This caused a bit of trouble for Poor Bob among the men around town. Every so often, he would get into a fight over "friendliness" with another man's woman.
"You better come on
Usually, due to his small stature, a friend would have to come along and save him from a brutal beating. In addition, Robert took a liking to whiskey, which wouldn't help things when trouble came along.
"I'm a drunken hearted man
Through all of his travels and troubles, Robert always kept his mind on his career. For him, the idea of living out his days as a sharecropper was one he would rather not realize. In the mid-1930s, Robert set his sights on recording - just like Charley Patton and Lonnie Johnson, whose records he'd studied while learning to play. The went to Jackson, Mississippi, to see a man named H.C. Speir, who owned a music store and was a part time talent scout for several recording companies. Mr. Speir had a unique insight into what the black communities would buy, and was highly regarded for his ability to find the right talent. After an audition in the music store, Mr. Speir passed Robert's name along to Ernie Oertle of the American Record Company. Mr. Oertle asked Johnson to audition again.
In November, 1936, Robert Johnson traveled to San Antonio,
Texas, for his first recording session with Erinie Oertle. From
that session came the release of "Terraplane Blues"
which became his most widely known song. It also made a moderate
amount of money for Vocalion Records. Based on the strength of
"Terraplane Blues," Robert was invited back to San
Antonio, in the following summer to record again. This time,
though he produced some fine recordings with Don Law, sales of
his records never reached the same numbers as "Terraplane."
Fame began to creep up on Robert Johnson after his two recording
sessions. He began to travel extensively once he discovered that
he could fill a room just about anywhere in the country. Bob
traveled north through St. Louis, Sweet Home Chicago, Detroit,
and Windsor, Ontario. He was traveling with two other bluesmen
named Johnny Shines and Calvin Frazier. Mr. Frazier got off the
tour and stayed in Detroit. Mr. Shines followed Johnson east
where they played in New York and New Jersey.
Upon his return home, he picked up a drummer and a piano player for some gigs. His repertoire also grew and he became able to play just about anything anyone wanted to hear. His fortune grew in accordance with his fame. The stranger's words at the crossroads years before were beginning to ring true for Robert Johnson.
* * * * *
In August of 1938, at a rural jook joint outside of Greenwood, Mississippi, Robert Johnson was playing with Honeyboy Edwards on Saturday nights. He had been in town for less than two weeks when he had caught the interest of a young lady. Unfortunately, another young man had already married this woman. This man also managed the roadhouse at Three Forks where Johnson and Edwards were playing.
On the night of August 13, 1938, Robert and Honeyboy were
scheduled to play a Saturday night gig at Three Forks with harmonica
master Sonny Boy Williamson. Robert's new girlfriend was there,
and, of course, her husband the house manager. Sonny could sense
the tension and could only watch as Robert began flirting openly.
While Sonny and Robert took a break, someone passed Robert a
bottle of whiskey. Sonny noticed that the seal had been broken
and smacked to bottle out of Johnson's hand telling him never
to drink from a bottle with a broken seal. Johnson, a lover of
whiskey, yelled at the elder bluesman and told him never to smack
another bottle out of his hand. There was nothing Sonny could
do, then, when someone passed Robert Johnson another open bottle.
During the next set, Robert began to get sick and soon could not even sing. Sonny had to cover for him. In the middle of a song, Johnson got up and went outside where he began to wretch on the ground. He had been poisoned with strychnine.
Robert Johnson survived for days. Considerably weakened by the poison, he caught pneumonia. It was the pneumonia that finally killed him on Tuesday, August 16, 1938. There is little doubt that it was someone close to the jealous husband who poisoned the bottle.
"My enemies have betrayed me
Later that year, a promoter named John Hammond, of New York, was scouting for talent for his Spirituals to Swing Concert at Carnegie Hall. He got in touch with Johnson's record producer, Don Law, who sadly informed Mr. Hammond of Poor Bob's demise. The concert certainly would have elevated Robert Johnson to the level of fame and fortune that he desired and richly deserved. Instead, his fame had to wait until the 1960's to flourish when musicians such as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards found his recordings and attempted to emulate his style.
Robert's influence over following blues musicians earned him the title: "King of the Delta Blues Singers." His music inspired generations of musicians after him like Muddy Waters, who helped create the electrified Chicago blues, which, in turn, was key to the development of rock and roll. Few musicians have had such an intense, lasting impact through six decades of music.
Robert Johnson achieved the fame that the stranger at the crossroads promised him. But that fame came at the cost of his life...and perhaps his soul.
Of course, Robert Johnson never sold his soul to the devil, but his story seems to fit well within that legend. The truth of the matter is that he was a musical and creative genius whose virtuosity on the guitar came to him the same way as any virutuoso of any art - plain old hard work.
The results of Johnson's hard work are evident in the blues, country, and rock and roll that followed him. For a direct examination of his work, listen to "The Complete Recordings." It's a two CD box set that is manufactured by Columbia Records and produced by CBS Records, Inc. copyright 1990. It includes the entirety of Robert Johnson's recordings (the two sessions in San Antonio in 1936 and 1937) which were originally released by Vocalion Records.
content copyright 2000 the author
art copyright 2000 skewed perspective