I have two images in my head of Robert Johnson. One is the stuff of myth. Born in Mississippi, steeped in the Delta blues, Robert made a name for himself as an itinerant bluesman during the Depression. The earliest stories of him playing guitar in public say that he was terrible, and was essentially run out of juke joints for being so bad. Then he left the Delta for a time, anywhere from one to two years, no one is sure. By the time he returned, he’d become an extraordinary guitarist. No less than the legendary Son House himself remarked that Robert must have sold his soul to the devil to be able to play like that.
Over the course of two separate sessions, Robert recorded twenty-nine songs. Several became blues classics, dark, existential nightmares that decades later inspired an entire generation of young British rockers. The tale of his Faustian deal excited imaginations as much as his music. Then there was the mystery surrounding his death. Was he poisoned by a jealous husband, or did the devil come to collect his due? The fact that Robert died at the age of 27, making him a member of the infamous 27 Club, only adds to the mystery around him. In the mythos of American music, the legend of Robert Johnson looms large.
|I've visited all three of Robert Johnson's grave sites - these photos were taken on my honeymoon ten years ago.|
But the legend is only one image. Robert Johnson, the man, was a complex and fascinating individual. Before becoming a musician, he tried his hand at sharecropping, during which his wife and baby died during childbirth. After that there are no known attempts by him to keep a steady job or apply himself to anything but music. Born illegitimate, Robert called himself by many names, frequently going by R.L. (his middle name was Leroy). He traveled all across the US and even into Canada. Sometimes he traveled with another musician. Frequently his only companion was his guitar. He was known for turning his back to audiences so that other players couldn’t discern his techniques. He had no trouble finding women to put him up for a night or even longer, but never stayed anywhere long. Many of the songs he recorded had the self-awareness of an artist struggling with both his art and the world around him, but he was also known to be a consummate entertainer. On street corners and in juke joints and house parties, he could play all the latest hits and keep the dance floor full.
And as for that crossroads story? It makes for great fiction, but if you ask me, the truth behind his vast improvement is even better. After being told he was a lousy guitarist and leaving the Delta, Robert returned to the town of his birth, Hazlehurst, Mississippi, supposedly to search for his biological father. Whether he found Noah Johnson is unknown, but he did find Ike Zimmerman, who mentored him in the blues. Ike would take Robert to a country cemetery at night where he’d have privacy to practice on the guitar. Can you imagine spending every night for a year, maybe two, your only company the departed in their graves and anything creeping through the surrounding woods in the dark, as you practiced chords and songs until your fingertips bled and the sun rose in a ball of fire to break the spell cast by you and your guitar? How badly would you have to want something to do that?
After his death, Robert became known as the quintessential journeyman blues musician, the lone guitar-slinger who made his home nowhere and everywhere, who made his way through the world alone. But he left behind friends and family who remembered him, a surviving child who never knew him, and countless obsessed musicians, musicologists, and fans. And rumors that he was playing with a band toward the end of his brief life. He is considered one of the grandfathers of rock and roll, but we don’t know where he would have wound up, musically speaking. Perhaps rhythm and blues, perhaps jazz. Another mystery.
It’s no mystery why the crossroads myth is still so popular. It adds to the legend, turns Robert into a dark, tortured figure who tried to take the easy way out and paid for it with his life. But if there was a crossroads it was only within his own heart, and he by no means took the easy way. Robert worked hard at his craft, hour after hour, night after night. He understood the blues, musically and symbolically. He knew how to make people dance, make them laugh, make them drop their hard-earned coins into a cup, brings tears to women’s eyes and fan the flames of desire. There’s beauty in even the darkest songs he recorded, the ones where he’s having conversations with the angels and devils that lived inside him.
That, even more than the crossroads myth itself, is the real reason Robert lingers in the imaginations of musicians nearly eighty years after his death. He is a symbol of the question, how far are you willing to go for your art? How deep within yourself, how far outside of your comfort zone? Are you willing to work at it until you bleed? Are you willing to find yourself alone in the dark, surrounded by shadows, old nightmares and faded dreams? Are you willing to give up pieces of yourself in songs and stories?
Of course, it’s not just musicians who wrestle with those questions. Writers do too. Robert has been something of a spirit guide for me for twenty-five years now, since I first heard the opening notes of Kindhearted Woman, the first song on The Complete Recordings. I was a kid who knew music, all kinds of music, but this was like stepping into another world. I’ve studied his music, read books about him, visited all three of his grave sites. Been enthralled with the crossroads story but ultimately discarded it because it feels like it cheapens the work he put into his craft as a guitarist and songwriter. From Robert I learned to never stop working on your craft, because there is no easy path to being good at something. Bleed on the strings, and don’t be afraid to put your heart and soul in the stories you have to tell. Those are useful lessons for every kind of storyteller.
(But just to be safe – never make deals in the dark with anyone but yourself.)
Learn more about Sonya Clark at www.sonyaclark.net.