'Blues Fallin' Down Like Hail': The Brief Life of Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson, circa 1935.

Listening to Robert Johnson is like listening to a ghost. The relatively few recordings he made during his brief career are more than seventy years old, and no amount of digital remastering can soften the tinny, frantically intricate guitar, the voice that shifts from sinister seduction to a plaintitive wail. Johnson plays from his soul, singing about love, sex, sweet home Chicago, the call of Glory and the lure of Satan. The blues often probes the dark recesses of human nature. Robert Johnson dug a little deeper.

There is such a great lack of detailed information about his short life that he may as well have never existed. The story of Robert Johnson is told in snippets - in anecdotes from his fellow blues musicians, a scant supply of official documents, and two photographs.

Johnson was born on or around May 8th, in 1911 or 1912, in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, to sharecroppers Noah and Julia Johnson. Robert never met his biological father, and there is no information as to Noah Johnson's fate. Mrs. Johnson went on to marry Charlie Dodds, giving birth to nine other children during the course of their marriage. THe family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Dodds, who had been forced out of Hazelhurst by a lynch mob, assumed the surname of Spencer. The young Robert Johnson would also adopt the name for his own.

In 1919 Johnson returned to the Delta, along with his mother and her third husband, Will Willis. Census records from 1920 show a Robert Spencer living with Julie and Will Willis in Lucas, Arkansas. Despite the nearly nomadic life Johnson led in his early years he is remembered by childhood friends as attending school, and it is evidenced by the signature on his marriage certificate that he was literate. According to Johnson's friend Willie Coffee, it was also around this time that Johnson began to display a seemingly natural talent for the harmonica and jaw harp.

In 1929 or 1930 Johnson reclaimed his natural father's surname and married sixteen year old Virginia Travis in Penton, Mississippi. Virginia died in childbirth shortly afterward. Robert began to roam once again. Along the way he met Son House.

Son House.

A legend in his own right, House had moved to Robinsonville to be near his musical partner, Willie Brown. Torn between the call of religion, (he would often play all-night blues sessions, switching to sermons at dawn on Sunday morning,) and the lure of the blues, House is quoted by author Peter Guralnick as remembering, "We'd all play for the Saturday night balls, and there'd be this little boy standing around. That was Robert Johnson. He was just a little boy then. He blew harmonica and he was pretty good with that, but he wanted to play guitar."

The trouble was, Robert couldn't play. House would say, "Such another racket you ever heard!" Johnson begged House, Brown, Charlie Patton, and other bluesmen to be allowed to 'sit in' onstage, but the answer was always no.

Charlie Patton.

The situation was briefly rememedied when Johnson simply vanished, only to return a few months (or two years, depending on the source,) still begging to sit in. It is generally accepted that sometime in 1929, House and the other musicians were taking a break when they finally let Robert play to a juke joint full of empty chairs. According to House, Johnson had pled, "I want you to see what I

learnt." Son House would say afterward, "He sold his soul to the Devil to get to play like that."

Thus begins the legend of the crossroads. Propogated by legions of fans, biographers, authors, fellow musicians, and perhaps Johnson himself, it has been said that Johnson had bargained with the Devil in order to gain his now astounding talents. The story has twisted and turned and been embellished over the years, but at its core is a Faustian deal with the Devil. It is said that Johnson carried his guitar to the crossroads near Dockery Plantation, a 10,000 acre spread between Ruleville and Cleveland, Mississippi. At midnight he was joined by a large black man, who tuned the guitar and then handed it back, thereby sealing the sinister deal. The legend gained further status in 1936 when Johnson recorded 'Crossroad Blues'.

"I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
Asked the lord above "Have mercy now
save poor Bob if you please"
Yeeooo, standin at the crossroad
tried to flag a ride
ooo ooo eee
I tried to flag a ride
Didn't nobody seem to know me babe
everybody pass me by
Standin at the crossroad babe
risin sun goin down
Standin at the crossroad babe
eee eee eee, risin sun goin down
I believe to my soul now,
Poor Bob is sinkin down You can run, you can run
tell my friend Willie Brown
You can run, you can run
tell my friend Willie Brown
(th)'at I got the crossroad blues this mornin' Lord
babe, I'm sinkin down
And I went to the crossroad momma
I looked east and west
I went to the crossroad baby
I looked east and west
Lord, I didn't have no sweet woman
ooh-well babe, in my distress."

The myth of Johnson and his travels to the crossroads may stem from the ancient African religion of Yoruba, which likely originated in Nigeria and Benin and which would later splinter and reform into different spiritualities in both Cuba and Brazil. Legba (also known as Ellegua, and Papa Legba in Haitian Vodou,) is a god of the crossroads. Portrayed as an impish child in Yoruba, in Vodou he is considered to be the intermediary at the spiritual crossroads, allowing communication between the loa, or spirits, and this world.

Regardless of where and how Johnson had learned to play guitar, In a relatively short amount of time he had managed to overtake, or at the very least equal even his mentors in skill and passion. According to folklore, Johnson would often play with his back to the audience, as if he did not anyone to see what his hands were doing. In reality, if Johnson did turn his back, it was most likely to conceal his playing technique. Bluesman Johnny Shines, who often travelled with Robert, remembered, "Some of the things that Robert did with the guitar affected the way everybody played. He'd do rundowns and turnbacks. He'd do repeats. None of this was being done. In the early '30s, boogie on the guitar was rare, something to be heard. Because of Robert, people learned to complement theirselves, carrying their own bass as their own lead with this one instrument." Decades later, Rolling Stones' guitarist Keith Richards would say, "When I first heard [him], I was hearing two guitars, and it took me a long time to realize he was actually doing it all by himself."

Armed with his guitar and his talent, Johnson began travelling throughout the south, playing on street corners, barbershops, and other establishments for whatever money bystanders were willing to part with. He became a popular musician and gained a following throughout the south. In 1933 Johnson met and befriended young bluesman Johnny Shines, and the two would often 'cut heads' together. Cutting heads consisted of competing musicians standing on opposite street corners, seeing who could draw the larger audience and thereby make more money. However, Johnson had a knack for slipping away from his friend.

Johnny Shines.

"Robert was a very friendly person, even though he was sulky at times, you know," Shines told author Samuel Charters. "And I hung around Robert for quite a while. One evening he disappeared. He was kind of peculiar fellow. Robert'd be standing up playing some place, playing like nobody's business. At about that time it was a hustle with him as well as a pleasure. And money'd be coming from all directions. But Robert'd just pick up and walk off and leave you standing there playing. And you wouldn't see Robert no more maybe in two or three weeks.... So Robert and I, we began journeying off. I was just, matter of fact, tagging along."

Johnson journeyed off to Jackson, Mississippi, where talent scout H.C. Speir directed him to Ernie Oetrle, who offered to record Johnson at a makeshift studio in San Antonio, Texas. Sixteen songs were recorded over the course of three days. The first records to emerge were 'Terraplane Blues' and 'Last Fair Deal Gone Down.' 'Terraplane Blues' would sell over five thousand copies and become a regional hit, prompting Johnson to head to Dallas to lay down another eleven tracks. After the Dallas trip, he would never record again.

Johnson spent the rest of 1937 travelling to St. Louis, Illinois, Arkansas, Memphis, before finally returning home to the Mississippi Delta in 1938. He was booked for several weeks at the Three Forks juke joint outside Greenwood, Mississippi. The building sat in a field, near a crossroads. At the time, Johnson was carrying on an affair with the wife of the tavern's owner, an affair which almost certainly cost him his life.

The story of Johnson's alleged poisoning and subsequent death is, like most of his life, open to conjecture. The most reliable account comes from Johnson's friend David 'Honeyboy' Edwards, one of the last surviving blues musicians from that era.

David 'Honeyboy' Edwards.

Edwards claims that Johnson was given an open bottle of whiskey, which musician Sonny Boy Williamson took from him, telling Robert never to drink from a bottle that had already been opened.

Sonny Boy Williamson.

Johnson is said to have reprimanded Williamson, "Don't ever knock a bottle out of my hand." He was then offered another open bottle, which he drank.

At some point during the night, Johnson fell ill - so ill he could no longer play. Edwards claims that Johnson was curled in a corner, obviously sick and in pain. He was taken to his bed, where he would die two days later, wracked with convulsions and in excruciating pain. Honeyboy Edwards claims that just before he died, Johnson was crawling on all fours, howling like a dog. It is unknown what type of toxin was used to kill Robert Johnson, although eyewtiness accounts tell of symptoms closely mimicking those of strychnine poisoning. His death certificate gives his age as twenty-six and lists the date of death as August 16th, 1938. It states that no doctor was present.

Johnson was allegedly buried the day he died, although some accounts claim that his mother travelled to Greenwood to have her son's body reinterred . His final resting place, like so much of his life, is a mystery. There are three possible grave sites; at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Greenwood, Payne Chapel Memorial Baptist Church in Quito, Mississippi, and Mount Zion Baptist Church in Morgan City, Mississippi. While Columbia Records placed a memorial stone for Johnson at the Mount Zion Church, it is widely believed that Little Zion is where Johnson's body lies. As a bittersweet epilogue to his short life, in 1938 producer John Hammond attempted to add Johnson to the lineup of performers at the 'From Spirituals to Swing' concert at New York's Carnegie Hall. It was then that Hammond, and the rest of the country, learned of Johnson's death. Two of Johnson's records were played onstage in his stead.

It would be another thirty years before fans, biographers, and the public could put a face to Johnson's increasingly influential name. Researcher Steve LaVere and Johnson's half sister, Carrie Thompson, were rifling through a chest when they discovered a tiny black and white photograph that had apparently been taken in a photo booth sometime in the early 1930's. In the photo Johnson is straight-faced, a cigarette jutting from his lips. His long, slender fingers curl around the neck of a guitar. It is obvious he is very young. He seems to staring out at the viewer from someplace far away.

The other remaining photograph of Robert Johnson also came from Mrs. Thompson. It is a well-executed studio portrait, taken by Hooks Bros. of Memphis, Tennessee. Showcased against a dark background, Johnson, dressed in a suit, is seated on a stool, legs crossed, his guitar in his hands. He grins widely underneath a hat tilted at a rakish angle. The date is 1935.

Two photographs, a death certificate, a few dozen songs. These are all the world has to remember Robert Johnson by, yet he has endured the changing tide of society's preferences, it's fickle tastes, to emerge as one of the most - if not the most - influential modern musician. Few outside his fanbase may recognize his face, his style, his story, but nearly everyone has heard his influence, or even his words, in modern music. His creations have been redone, paraphrased, and referenced by such diverse artists as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Judds, Led Zeppelin, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, John Mellencamp, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles, the Yardbirds, Johnny Winter, Jeff Beck, and more. Former Cream member and solo artist Eric Clapton once said,"At first the music almost repelled me, it was so intense, and this man made no attempt to sugarcoat what he was trying to say, or play. It was hard-core, more than anything I had ever heard. After a few listenings I realized that, on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man's example would be my life's work."

Robert Johnson looms over the blues and many other musical genres in an almost mythical fashion. His presence is felt like a gust of wind - one does not see it, but feels that it is there. His music has endured not only because of the superior talent and songwriting it was built upon, but because of the legend and enigma behind it. Robert Johnson certainly did not sell his soul at the crossroads, but in the end his wish was granted. He is perhaps the greatest and most influential blues guitarist of all time. How he became such a towering presence, through natural ability or supernatural bargaining, is his secret. His spirit, smiling out at us from an old black and white photograph, is the only one who knows the truth.

Robert Johnson, early 1930's.