I say plee-ease
Please. Let us be friends.
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.
ple-ease don’t block the road.
Please don’t block the road.
‘Cause she’s registering a cold one
hundred and I’m booked ’til I
got to go.
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.
“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’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.
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.”