The Myth of Robert Johnson

One Man, Two Narratives

“Up until the time I was 25 if you didn’t know who Robert Johnson was I wouldn’t talk to you.” That was Eric Clapton, who, it seems, was thoroughly invested in the myth of Robert Johnson, and released a CD titled Me and Mr. Johnson. The myth of Robert Johnson begins with an account of Robert as a young musician. He was, for a time, like a kid brother following more experienced bluesmen. They were the veterans and he was the novice. Then, as the story goes, he went away for a year and came back a guitar master, excelling over his former teachers. His mastery was so complete that any natural explanation seemed insufficient.

The explanation? Naturally – or, to be exact, supernaturally – he had sold his soul to the devil.

We even have lyrical corroboration: “Me and the devil were walkin’ side by side.” (Me and the Devil Blues) Then there were stories about how Robert Johnson was always on the move from town to town as if restless. He sang:

I got to keep movin’, I’ve got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
Umm mmm mmm mmm
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
And the days keeps on worryin’ me,
There’s a hellhound on my trail… (Hellhound on My Trail)

In other words, the devil was using his hellhound to haunt Robert Johnson and begin extracting the pain Robert owed as part of the exchange for his musical gifts.

Then there were anecdotes, like the one attributed to Muddy Waters:

…this guy had a lot of people standing around him. He could have been Robert, they said it was Robert. I stopped and peeked over, and then I left. Because he was a dangerous man. (Deep Blues by Robert Palmer, paperback p. 111)

Robert Johnson died at the age of 27 (like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Kobain), and, as the myth concludes, he spent his final hours on all fours barking like a dog as the devil began to collect his debt in earnest.

Admittedly, it must be quite an eerie and moving experience to listen to Robert Johnson with the devil narrative in mind. But pardon me while I offer a different interpretation. It starts with a pretty rough childhood in which Robert was the eleventh child of his mother and the first illegitimate one. Robert lived with his mother for a couple years, lived (with other children both legitimate and illegitimate) with his father for several years, then rejoined his mother. There are also stories about Robert spending time in foster care and having to change his last name more than once. His childhood years were full of playing hooky and crude guitars. His childhood, such as it was, concluded, and he got married at age nineteen. He married a sixteen year old who died young while trying to give birth. Not many people would trade the first 20 years of their lives for the life Robert Johnson had.

Blacks didn’t have many vocational choices in the Delta in the early 1900’s. Robert could have done hard labor in the fields for uncertain pay. But there was one way to avoid hard labor and maybe even make a good living: entertain with music. Playing on the street for tips and playing in juke joints would bring the thrill of local fame. Maybe he could even get paid for making records. Robert’s preference for playing guitar in a nice suit over working the fields wasn’t so crazy.

Robert was gifted with long, nimble fingers. Having no domestic distractions, he made rapid progress in his craft. He borrowed techniques from more experienced guitarists and learned how to work a crowd. He also learned – perhaps with the advice of record producers – that a little mystique is good for business. Just as rock stars would later find, a mention of the devil is good for business.

Robert was no saint and all blues men know you reap what you sow. He lived a fast life that probably came to an end because someone poisoned his whiskey at a juke joint. His alleged “barking like a dog” was less likely a satanic possession than it was Robert Johnson vomiting in his final hours.

Whichever narrative you believe, you’re going to have to meet Mr. Johnson if you’re serious about the blues. I’ll still talk to you if you’ve never listened to him, but you won’t have any blues cred until you have a favorite Robert Johnson song. My favorites, arranged by category:

High, chilling emotion: Hellhound on My Trail.

Truckin’ along: Ramblin on My Mind. By the way here’s one woman who understands the blues with her slower-paced version of the song.

After a long week, lights low, with two fingers of whiskey: Come Into My Kitchen.

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10 Comments

Filed under Blues

10 responses to “The Myth of Robert Johnson

  1. Lily

    Thanks MM. The link to gospellily’s cover was o’ so fine!

  2. Lily

    Amazing clip. As good as she sounds, it makes me wonder what she might sound like in a professional studio? I also kept wondering how old she is. High school? College? I’m not very good with ages anymore.

  3. She’s 25. She does some blues/rock stuff. On a blog and Facebook she is The Coppertone. I don’t have any of her music.

  4. This whole scenario is just begging for some kind of humorous comment but I will lay off it.

  5. Leon

    The myth and facts are not only mixed up at this point – 75 years after his death – but most likely nobody is alive who knows the entire truth. With that in mind, I thought this deconstruction of the myth (tongue and cheek and very humorous) was very well done. Them Bird Things perform “I Know Who Killed Robert Johnson” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNYrARg0cQw

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