The myths surrounding Robert Johnson still loom large well over a half-century after his death. Considerably more is known of him now, following in-depth research by Gayle Dean Wardlow, Mack McCormick, Steve LaVere, and others. Books have been written, photographs unearthed, headstones erected, films made, and awards handed out, yet there are a number of perplexing questions that will probably never be answered fully. Where is Robert Johnson buried? As of now, there are a couple of gravemarkers placed where he is believed to have been laid to rest following his mysterious death in August of 1938. Those events themselves still raise conflict among scholars. Was he indeed poisoned by a jealous husband? Or, is it possible, as speculated, that he actually died from the serious effects of syphilis? On his death certificate, the cause of his demise is merely listed as "No Doctor." Yet the back of the certificate may shed more light on what ailed Robert just before he passed on. Did he bark and howl, on his hands and knees like a dog, as some have said? Certainly, pain from either poison, or a then little-known disease, could explain those theories. Yet of all the mysteries still unsolved in the curious life, and death of Robert Johnson, the one that rears its head most often, is his supposed "deal" at the cross roads with the devil. Why? The lure of the underworld, the imagination of what it may have been like to strike such a deal, and the refusal to let go of hard-to-believe tales because Johnson is one of the most important bluesmen who ever laid music to wax.
Much has been made of Robert's amazing transformation from a less-than-stellar guitarist, to a player of otherworldly talents, in a mere six or eight months. Again, that "deal" at the cross roads. Countless musicians have gone to the 'woodshed' and reappeared later as wunderkinds. Robert Johnson myths support that dark night of traveling to a crossroad, setting down, playing a tune, and handing his axe over to a mysterious figure he didn't even look at. Was it the devil who tapped him on the shoulder, took his guitar, retuned it, and handed it back, giving Robert talents he had dreamed of? If Son House is to be believed, Johnson did strike such a pact, but...
Tommy Johnson (no relation) boasted of a similar deal when Robert was still a teenager, yet it is the Robert Johnson story which is more believable. Why? Robert sang of shaking hands with the devil, walking with him, and it's been said he actually denounced God after his wife and child died during a difficult birth. Much has been made of what lies underneath the eerie lyrics that Robert Johnson penned and recorded in 1936 and 1937, although Son House, a major influence on Robert, crafted words for his 1930 Paramount session that were definite points for Johnson himself, to touch on; "blues walkin' like a man" or "good mornin' blues, give me your right hand," indeed. Others like Ishmon Bracey sang of kneeling in graveyards and sinking into holes long before Robert made his trek to Texas to record. But Robert Johnson is still, and may well always be, the one we think of when talk of the underhanded world of blues comes up.
Johnson's song titles were startling to the young turks who drew on his music when Columbia first reissued his seminal work in 1960, and it was almost a decade when the second volume appeared. "Hellhound On My Trail," "Me And The Devil Blues," "Stones In My Passway," "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day," and others raised the ante after Son House told interviewers that Robert had made a "deal" with Legba. Johnson's music was hardly one-sided or focused on tricksters though; he sang of a popular automobile (and sex) in "Terraplane Blues," he invited you into his kitchen to shield you from the foul weather outside, he spoke of milkcows, hot tamales, record players, big cities, dead shrimp, trucking on three legs, and any number of other subjects as much, if not more, than he dealt with Legba, devils, and underhanded legendary figures.
It's easy to find yourself sucked into the supposed deal, the myths, the mystery of Robert Johnson, and harder still, to pry yourself away from them. We have no control over something we can't touch, as Johnny Shines said, and we can't possibly trade away that which we can't reach. The imagination wanders far as we consider the many possibilities, and slips completely away from reality when listening to this master of blues guitar, the one with a voice which, at times, seems to have raised itself from the depths of the earth itself. Believe what you wish, hold onto that which ties you to blues forever, and listen to Robert Johnson with a keen ear. By the way, this 16 track, budget-priced CD is a fine place to start. Email is: email@example.com and the web address is: www.timcompany.com for more information.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Craig Ruskey, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.