Robert Johnson

He was born. He played guitar. He died.

Robert Johnson grave in Greenwood, Mississippi. He died on 16 August 1938 at the age of 27. Credit: Robert Knight Archive/Redferns/Getty

I say plee-ease
Please. Let us be friends.
—Robert Johnson

Was Robert Johnson the greatest of all the blues singers? Yawn. The question provokes yawns. In Mississippi this sunny afternoon, thousands of young men are bent over the polished fenders of their cars in the front driveway, their faces eclipsed under the hood, working to make things go faster. Only a few are out on the back roads, driving while the short day lets them. Let us be among the drivers.

Mr. Highwayman
ple-ease don't block the road.
Eeeeee-ee
Please don't block the road.

'Cause she's registering a cold one
hundred and I'm booked 'til I
got to go.
—Robert Johnson

When they hold a canoe race in the Trobriand Islands, in the Solomon Sea, we are told, there is no start and no finish. The Trobrianders in the audience comment on the skill of Trobrianders in the race, but they don't seem to compare one with another. They never argue over who is the best. They like the races fine.

From Memphis to Norfolk
is a 36-hour ride,
A man is like a prisoner
and he's never satisfied.
—Robert Johnson

"In my mind he was a nice little
quiet-spoken colored boy."
—Vince Liebler, recording engineer on the Robert Johnson sessions

Baby can't you hear that wind howl?
—Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson's home probably was Commerce, Miss., a little town on the levee west of Highway 61. He was raised there through the 1920s. Apparently he spent most of the 30s on the road. There is evidence that he was brought up by a family not his own, but otherwise almost nothing is known about his origin or his surroundings. The only things we know about him are the important things.

My poor father died and left me, and my mother did the best that she could. Every man loves the game you call love but it don't mean no man no good.
—Robert Johnson

There are really only two Robert Johnson stories. His legend is a skinny one—just the skin of these two stories, stretched over the big bones of his songs. One is about when Johnson was brought to San Antonio in November, 1937, to record for the American Record Corporation's Vocation label. Don Law, who was manager of the Texas branch of ARC, got Johnson a room in the colored hotel and went back to his place. He was eating dinner when he got a call from the police.

"Apparently he had nothing to do and he went into some dive where he played for nickels, and the place was raided," Law recalls. At the jail, Law found Johnson "back in a corner," beaten up by the cops. He bailed him out, escorted him back to the hotel and gave him 45 cents for breakfast. Back at his own hotel, Law got another call. "I'm lonesome and there's a lady here," Johnson said. "She wants fifty cents and I lacks a nickel."

The other story is that Johnson, in order to become the greatest guitar player in the Delta, sold his soul to the devil.

"I believe I have been inspired."
—George Frederic Handel, after composing the Messiah in three weeks, August 22-September 14, 1741.

The fact that white people are able to hear Robert Johnson is due to Ernie Oertle, and ARC traveling salesman who scouted blues and hillbilly singers for Don Law. He brought Johnson from a Mississippi plantation (according to Law) to San Antonio, where Johnson recorded in a room in the Gunter Hotel for three days in return for several hundred dollars in cash. Six months later, in June 1937, Oertle took Johnson to Dallas for two more sessions. There is no evidence that Johnson ever recorded otherwise, and his entire surviving work consists of these songs:

(San Antonio, November 23, 1936): Terraplane Blues, Come on in My Kitchen, Kindhearted Woman Blues, When You Got a Good Friend, Rambling on My Mind, Believe I'll Dust My Broom, Sweet Home Chicago. (November 26): 32-20 Blues. (November 27): Crossroads Blues, Walking Blues, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, Preaching Blues, Red Hot, Dead Shrimp Blues, If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day.

(Dallas, June 19, 1937): Steady Rolling Man, Four Till Late, Stones in My Passway. (June 20): Little Queen of Spades, Malted Milk, Drunken Hearted Man, Stop Breakin' Down Blues, Milkcow's Calf Blues, Me and the Devil Blues, Hellhound on My Trail, Love in Vain.

"Robert was tall, brownskin, skinny, had one bad eye. He looked out of one of his eyes; one eye looked like it had a cataract, in that bad eye. At that time he was playing on a Sears Roebuck Stella guitar. Yeah, he was good."
—David "Honeyboy" Edwards

"He was a little above medium height, not real jet black but real black. He had the most beautiful hands I've ever seen — long, slender fingers. By and large he was a very good looking boy."
—Don Law

Depending upon who you ask, Robert Johnson was tall, short ("Little Robert Dusty"), black or brown, a frightened boy or a ladies' man. The questions have been asked too many times. They long ago began to generate their own answers.

Don Law says positively that Johnson was only 19 when he first recorded him, a boy straight off the plantation. But the evidence is that he was at least a couple of years older, and that he spent those years playing "colored jukes" up and down the Delta.

"It is my opinion that Johnson learned to play bottleneck from Son House, and learned the finger stuff from Willie Brown," says Nick Perls, the blues collector. "Also, I think Johnson was the first of these country blues cats to listen carefully to records of other country blues cats to steal their songs."

Some of Johnson's songs are his own; others he learned. "Little Queen of Spades," for example, is an imitation of Peetie Wheatstraw, a piano player who booked himself as "The High Sheriff From Hell."

"He left here once and went west, way off somewhere. When he come back here he could just throw his voice . . . and you could hear it I don't know how far."
—Sol Henderson

"We were staying someplace — I don't remember where it was — and he got up in the middle of the night and left. Just like that!"
—Johnny Shines

"He didn't seem to stay in one place too long. You know, kind of restless."
—Muddy Waters

According to the liner notes on the two Columbia albums which contain Robert Johnson's recordings, he was a shy boy. Said Don Law, "He was very reticent and very shy. This was the first time he'd been to what he considered a big city, the first time he'd been off the plantation. I had some Mexican musicians in the studio, and I said, 'Robert sing something for us.' He wouldn't face us. He finally turned his back, turned into a corner and sang a song."

When John Hammond called Law in 1938, trying to locate Johnson for a Carnegie Hall blues and spirituals concert, Law told him, "I think you're making a mistake, because if you put him on the stage at Carnegie Hall, he'll die of fright."

The question of Robert Johnson's shyness is commended to the reader. Listen to him sing the line, for example, "When the train pulled into the station, I looked her in the eye," as you might listen to Bob Dylan sing his line, "Once I had a sweetheart, she was fine and good looking." Perhaps these are the work of shy, reticent men. Perhaps not.

"Communication? What communication could possibly have taken place between Robert Johnson and Don Law in 1936? Come on, man."
—Nick Perls The stuff

I got going to bust your brains out, baby. It'll make you lose your mind.
—Robert Johnson

"This gulf is so great and so many people live in it, that it seems, as it were, another world in itself."
—Marco Polo

Whatever else we know about Robert Johnson's brand of blues, we know we will never see it again. The conditions that produced the country blues were unique; now the last train has long since run, they've torn up most of the track, and no just man would have that track laid down again. While I was writing this a friend called and said, "When you feel bad, there's nothing like listening to those guys. I mean, you think you feel bad, and then . . . I guess it really is a bottomless pit."

"What we do is derivative. Very der-iv-a-tive."
—Mick Jagger

"She felt she had, somehow, forgotten something. She asked herself the question: "What should I do? What ought I want to want?" She stumbled over, the word 'ought' and giggled. The great memory passed near her, briefly, like a cloud down beneath your feet when you're sitting on a terrace high in the Alps drinking hard whiskey and you don't give a damn about anything. She was down on the railway, kneeing those dark old cogs."
—Fragment from the lost manuscript "Milwaukee"

I think I hear it coming now . . .
—Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson was murdered less than two years after he made the Dallas recordings. Ernie Oertle went looking for him in 1938, for the Carnegie Hall concert, and learned that he had been either poisoned or stabbed to death, by a woman, (Oertle died a couple of years later, of a heart attack.)

Said Son House:

"I gave him a little instruction. Said, 'Now Robert, you going around playing for these Saturday night balls. You have to be careful 'cause you mighty crazy about the girls. When you playing for these balls and these girls get full of that corn whiskey and snuff mixed together, and you be playing a good piece and they like it and come up and call you, "Daddy, play it again, Daddy" — well, don't let it run you crazy. You liable to get killed.' He must not have paid it much attention."

You may bury my body down by the highway side (Baby I don't care where you bury my body when I'm dead and gone). You may bury my body down by the highway side. So my old evil spirit can get a Greyhound bus and ride.
—Robert Johnson

According to the various stories, Johnson was killed in Greenwood, Miss., or in Greenville, or perhaps Friar's Point. There are as many answers as questions. Sol Henderson, a Delta blues singer who claimed to have known Johnson said: "He was killed on a Saturday night and they say he was buried the next Sunday. I don't know where they buried him at."