Me and the Devil Blues: Robert Johnson and His Legacy
Created | Updated Oct 6, 2003
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The Devil came there [to the Crossroads] and gave Robert his talent and told him that he had eight more years to live on earth.
- Unknown relative of Robert Johnson1
It was an old story, even then. Tommy Johnson had told people;
If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and goes to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little 'fore twelve, so you know you'll be there. You'll have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself... A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he'll tune. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you. That's how I learned to play anything I want to.
- Tommy Johnson*
The 'tall black man' of Tommy's tale was the devil (though it is worth noting that The Black Man was an alternative name for the Voodoo spirit Papa Legba, Opener of the Ways. Such superstitions were alive and well in the Delta, having filtered down from New Orleans), and it was stories such as this that gave the travelling men such an air of superstitious awe in the eyes of their audience. Yet none enjoyed the same reputation as Robert Johnson, the young singer and guitarist from Robinsonville, Mississippi who made a deal with the devil and died, on his hands and knees, howling at the moon.
Love In Vain: The short life of Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson was born on 8 May, 1911, of hard-working and respectable parents. His primary musical interest as a youth was the harmonica, and he appeared to have had little natural talent on the guitar. Both Willie Brown and Son House remembered 'Little Robert,' as House referred to him, as being keen but untalented and House often admonished the young Johnson for 'driving people crazy' with his primitive guitar playing.
In fact, Johnson was hardly 'little' at all. By any reckoning he was already nineteen or so by the time he took up with House and Brown, and already a widower (his first wife died in childbirth at the tender age of sixteen). However, at some point Johnson appears to have simply disappeared from Robinsonville for a period. It is difficult to tell exactly how long, but it was anything up to a year before he returned. When he returned, House and Brown were astonished at the transformation;
So he sat down there and finally got started. And man! He was so good! When he finished, all our mouths were standing open. I said, 'Well ain't that fast? He's gone now!'
- Son House, quoted ibid
Johnson had not made any spectacular deal with shady figures by the side of a road at midnight. He had travelled south to Hazlehurst, Mississippi where he had taken up with Ike Zinnerman, another competent blues player, albeit of a different style to House and Brown. Zinnerman, incidentally, claimed to have learnt to play the blues by sitting in graveyards in the dead of night. Johnson had expanded his musical horizons beyond the Delta, and had incorporated styles as diverse as pianist Leroy Carr and the much more subtle picking of East Coast players such as Lonnie Johnson into his repertoire, making him a decidedly formidable player with a style all his own. House summed up Johnson's early style thus;
…he played Blind Lemon's style, but more so. How it come about he played Lemon's style is this – Little Robert learnt from me, and I learnt from an old fellow they call Lemon, down in Clarksdale - and he was called Lemon because he had learnt all Blind Lemon’s pieces of the phonograph.
- Alan Lomax 2
Johnson continued to travel the length of Mississippi, and, as his fame and talent grew, played as far afield as Chicago and New York. It was inevitable, then, that he would be approached to record. In November 1936 and June 1937 Johnson travelled to San Antonio, Texas, where in four sessions he recorded 29 songs and 13 alternate takes (which remained unissued until the 1980s). Yet in those 29 songs Robert Johnson literally re-wrote the blues template.
Certainly, some of the songs were familiar to listeners – Johnson listened widely to other players and was not above adapting others songs for his own purpose (for example, at his first recording session he recorded a song he called '32-20 Blues,' which clearly owed more than a little to Skip James's '22-20 Blues'. Johnson merely upped the calibre of the shotgun), but Johnson was the first artist to consciously trim his songs for recording purposes. Whereas artists like Charlie Patton and Son House had thought of themselves primarily as live entertainers, Johnson approached the recording sessions not with a loose bunch of musical ideas that were edited for recording, but with a tight collection of songs which were polished, both musically and lyrically, to fit into the space allowed by the period's primitive recording techniques.
And what songs they were. Over the course of four days, Johnson laid down the basis for blues for decades to come, including several songs that were to become standards of the post war Chicago electric blues boom – 'I'll Believe I'll Dust My Broom', 'Sweet Home Chicago', 'Rambling on my Mind' and 'Love In Vain' amongst them.
Yet beside these songs were darker, more unsettling pieces. 'Crossroad Blues' told of nameless fear of the Delta late at night. Much has been made of this song being a reference to Johnson's supposed dealings with the devil, but is just as likely to be about the fear of a black man caught after dark by white authorities, who took a dim view of such travellin' men. (The song also gave lasting memorial to Willie Brown, who is namechecked by Johnson in one verse). More disturbing still were songs such as 'If I had Possession Over Judgement Day' and 'Stones in My Passway', with its haunting opening lines;
I got stones in my passway
and my road seem dark as night.
But the single song which firmly sealed Johnson's reputation as a trafficker in black arts was his 'Me and the Devil Blues', with its jolly greeting 'Hello Satan, I believe it's time to go'. The song closes with the lines that perhaps best epitomise Johnson as a man who stood at the crossroads of history;
You may bury my body ooh
Down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
Can catch that Greyhound bus and ride.
The sentiment was not new. Indeed many blues singers had sung about their expected burial by the roadside, but Johnson not only insists that his spirit, evil as it was, would continue to haunt the world, but it would do so by Greyhound bus - these vehicles were only just beginning to be a common sight in the Delta at the time the song was recorded.
Johnson continued to play around the Delta, as well as in places as far away as Chicago and New York, and his reputation continued to grow. 13 August, 1938 found him close to home in Greenville Mississippi, playing a juke joint with Sonny Boy Williamson I. At some point during the evening, Johnson was handed a bottle of whisky and he and Williamson argued about the merits of drinking from an opened bottle of whisky. Johnson insisted drinking, but Williamson had been right. Ironically, Williamson himself was murdered in 1948 at the age of 34, almost certainly as a result of a drunken fight. Within hours it was apparent that Johnson had been given an 'Ice Course', a strychnine-laced drink, almost certainly by a jealous lover or lover's husband. Although legend maintained that Johnson died on his knees howling at the moon like a madman, in actuality he survived the poisoning but contracted pneumonia, which killed him on 16 August, 1938. He was only 27 years old.
Phonograph Blues: The Legacy of Robert Johnson.
Almost immediately, Johnson's death started to have an affect on the blues and music world. John Hammond, a music entrepreneur from New York, was looking for suitable acts for a huge concert he was planning at Carnegie Hall to be called 'From Spirituals to Swing'. He had heard Johnson's recordings and was eager that he should play the concert. On learning of Johnson's death, Hammond instead hired the likeable and adaptable Big Bill Broonzy. Broonzy had in fact being playing sophisticated, jazz-influenced Blues in Chicago, but he obligingly returned to his Mississippi roots for the concert. The concert was a huge success and the newly reborn Broonzy went on to become a star and a leading light in the Blues industry. He was particularly important in taking the blues to Europe in the 1950s.
A whole host of musicians that had been greatly influenced by Johnson moved to Chicago, and took up electric instruments. Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, both of whom had known and learnt from Charlie Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson, were to become leading lights in the 1950s electric blues boom, and they retained much of what they had learnt in the Delta, including many of Johnson's songs.
But Johnson was never a huge seller on record. By the time Alan Lomax toured the south in 1941, Johnson was a footnote in blues history, and by 1959 when Sam Charters wrote his ground breaking 'The Country Blues', Johnson had been reduced to a name on a few old 78s and little more. But all that was to change again in 1962 with the release of the first volume of 'King of the Delta Blues Singers', which collected around half of Johnson's 29 songs.
Copies of the album made their way across the Atlantic, where young musical tyros Keith Richards and Eric Clapton were both transfixed by the sound of a man recorded some 25 years earlier. Through that posthumous album, Johnson was to have a major effect on the British blues boom of the 1960s. Since then his songs have been covered by bands as diverse as Eric Clapton's Cream ('Crossroads Blues'), The Rolling Stones ('Love in Vain'), Led Zeppelin ('Travelling Riverside Blues'), The Red Hot Chilli Peppers ('They're Red Hot') and The White Stripes ('Stop Breakin' Down Blues').
It is tantalising to imagine what might have happened to Johnson had he lived to see the electric blues age of the 1950s. It seems unlikely that a musician both as inquisitive and acquisitive as Johnson would have disappeared from view only to be exhumed as a museum piece, as happened to his mentor, Son House. Mayhap he would have travelled north and taken up the electric guitar and led the blues in new and wild directions. Such thoughts are exciting, but largely irrelevant in the face of the huge legacy that Johnson gave the world in 29 songs.
For as Johnson's restless spirit caught the Greyhound to haunt the world, his musical successors were boarding Greyhounds and trains to Chicago and Detroit, where they would write another glittering chapter in the history of the blues.