The more you peel back the layers of Robert Johnson’s life, the more you realize exactly what kind of demons he was wrestling with. We can begin by dismissing the Devil, Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, or other malignant character names history has associated with this legendary bluesman. In the pages of his biography there are unfortunately many gaps. But even as you shuffle through his incomplete story it’s not unreasonable to conclude that he probably wouldn’t have been that curious about nefarious mythologies anyhow. It’s evident that he was possibly more down to earth than we’ve given him credit for.
As a young man, he had grieved the death of his pregnant wife, traveled more than most local Mississippians of his day, and despite his great musical talent, his failure to be in the same ranks as Leroy Carr and Kokomo Arnold must have been a disappointing blow — of course, he would never live to see how his music would go on to outsell them both. By the time he died of an alleged poisoning, he was a relatively unknown 27-year-old blues singer. People who’d gotten the closest to him however, remembered his reserved demeanor. The picture that’s been drawn by most is how he kept an emotional distance from everyone he met. He was even characterized by fellow blues musicians as a loner who parted their company without muttering a simple goodbye.
Throughout the 1930’s Johnson had traveled out on the open road for several years. The full account of his experiences will probably never be realized. Though we’re sometimes left with contradictory views. Scores of fans who’ve cropped up since the Blues Revival of the 1960’s, assumed surviving blues legends from his day must have obtained some kind of inside knowledge where the pact at the crossroads is concerned. It would surprise most to know there are no secrets, but only a few colorful testimonies. Objectively speaking, none of what’s been said about him has ever really been put on public trial. And with all these assumptions, as far as we can tell, the legend of Robert Johnson and the devil might never go away unless his fan base insists on getting it right. In order to trim the rumors from his life, direct scrutiny of fabricated facts really ought to be allowed. It would be possibly the greatest thing audiences could do for him since his rediscovery into the world of music. So as we look back to find the genuine substance of his character, we need to listen to his recordings again, and again. It’s through these recordings that we can get a better sense of who he might have been.
The first step in extinguishing this soul selling canard is to understand that in most of his songs there are no mentions of the devil. Instead, when Johnson played he could be heard simply rhyming about life’s challenges. In the tune, When You Got A Good Friend, he’s the dedicated partner — or as he’s lamenting in a kind of hunched-over form, he’s beckoning a lost love to Come On In My Kitchen. These songs are so seductively raw, that they standout by themselves as perfect attestations of the human condition. There has been an ignorant scrubbing away of the image of Robert Johnson’s compassion for life. It’s abundantly clear how he’d expressed nothing less than stark humanity in his music. Why we’ve stared for years into his portrait only to see demons in the blemishes of his photograph is actually more telling of indolent fans.
The tune called Hell Hound On My Trail has raised a few eyebrows over the years. The title itself has been argued as indisputable proof to many that at the end of his life he was probably distraught about being captured by demons. But Robert Johnson wasn’t the first musician in his day to sing about this sort of thing. In 1930, several years before Johnson’s recording of Hell Hound, J.T. “Funny Paper” Smith recorded the song, Howling Wolf Blues no. 3, where he hauntingly ends with the line, “I get home and get blue and start howling, and the hellhound get’s on my trail.” A lot of people talked about Robert Johnson being the first bluesman ever to sing about demons, but just a little bit of research reveals how he was merely a link in the chain, albeit a more popular one.
Back in the day when the blues was first bursting onto the stage, the life of a young bluesman was filled with a lot of revelry and adventure. Most working people then could only experience that sort of thing during special occasions: Parties, weddings, or weekend celebrations at a Juke Joint. For a traveling blues musician finding themselves at the center of the chaotic festivities was all part of the job. By the time Johnson had finished recording his last session in Dallas, Texas in June of 1937 he had performed for several years throughout the south, up to Chicago, northeast into New York, and even going as far as Canada. While he was garnering admiration from small audiences in far away places, he gained moral support from other traveling blues musicians, who would credit him as being a great guitar player. But from the start, Johnson had to earn that kind of respect, and trying to wow people with his talent was a lot of hard work, even for him.
In his teens, when he blew the harmonica, he hung around two heavyweights, Son House and Willie Brown. Both men liked him enough to be cordial in conversation, but they would mock him in front of people for his poor guitar playing. When they’d performed for their audiences, Johnson would listen and watch very closely to everything they were doing. As they took breaks from playing, young Robert would pick up one of their guitars, and try his own hand at it. The intimate crowd would be dismayed. Son House recalled how he’d yell at him. But Robert Johnson was a very enthusiastic musician, and he wouldn’t relent. He was remembered as being very bright and impressionable. As sources later claimed he could play a whole song just by hearing it once on the radio. Years later, Son House told how Johnson took off for several weeks only to return with an unexplained guitar playing proficiency — and this is what some people believe to be the proof that while away he must have went to the crossroads and sold his soul to satan. However, it sounded more likely that Robert Johnson’s gusto for music was the culprit for his quick study. He probably practiced non-stop in those weeks. This seems to be the most logical explanation.
In researching Robert Johnson’s life, it’s difficult to discern fact from fiction because every biographer had to rely on stories told after the fact. Chris Hunt’s 1991 documentary The Search For Robert Johnson is a good example of on the fly interviewing that does well at entertaining the spectacle surrounding Johnson’s legend, but sells us short when it comes to giving us that much-needed objective, critical viewpoint. Even competent blues music historians like Elijah Wald had to practice a certain amount of hesitancy while combing over past interviews in order to consider any relative details:
The historic setting of the Mississippi Delta, along with the regional culture of the 1930’s music scene; the local superstitions and gossip, and the unsupported oral accounts that have been collected and retold by different people over several decades.
We can scrutinize every conversation his contemporaries ever had about him after his death, but for the sake of being productive we should just take a closer look at where the holes lie in each of their alleged memories. Many of these individuals who met him, will admit that their relationship to Johnson wasn’t as simpatico as contemporary blues fans would like to believe. And the conditions of which they hung around were not ever that stable:
Fellow musicians playing at crowded dances, where men and women flirted under the peer pressures from family and friends. The music was not electronically amplified, therefore the acoustic guitars had to compete with the noise of laughter, arguments, foot stomping, darkness and all the inebriated confusion that’s accompanied when the whisky flows from hand to hand in fast paced times.
It’s a giant leap of faith to take every word of David “Honey Boy” Edward’s account regarding the night Johnson died from alleged poisoning of a jealous boyfriend. Johnson was supposedly slipped a bottle of tainted whiskey from an anonymous boyfriend of a woman he had been involved with. Johnson’s reputation as a womanizer was also speculative among his peers, and it’s likely given the setting that there was opportunity to mess around with many women. But there’s actually better evidence to support the idea that he valued monogamy.
When a woman named Willie Mae Powell was discovered years after his death, she claimed to be romantically involved with Johnson. It was revealed by her reactions as she talked about him that she was emotionally connected to Robert Johnson the person, and not the star. His song Love in Vain was most likely written with her in mind, because when she first heard the recording decades later — played for her by John Hammond Jr. — she was persuasively smitten by the lyrics, in a way that was personal.
It’s difficult to understand precisely how Johnson really felt about the people around him. It will never be fully known how he and “Honey Boy” actually got along as friends. And we’ll never get all the facts about what kind of romance he had with this woman who had claimed to capture her heart. But if we imagine years after his death that there was a feeding frenzy of people in those parts who wanted to be included in his fame, understanding these stories in that context takes on a new level of appreciation. To stay objective however, as a researcher of the unsupported facts, it’s vital to weed out the least convincing accounts. Because these oral histories are worth deconstructing if only to be fair to the man everyone has been talking about.
When white biographers started to visit the poorer rural parts of Mississippi, they went around asking questions about him, and probably offering cash as compensation. Old acquaintances with half a story might have been tempted to embellish their accounts, or just couldn’t remember every detail, and so possibly made some of them up. But the easiest accounts to decipher are accompanied with concrete facts, like the vital records uncovered from the state archives.
There’s a legal document proving that he married Virginia Travis in February 1929, and it speaks well of his commitment to one woman. His death certificate in August of 1938 is incomplete — there was never an autopsy performed on his body, therefore the circulating story of him being poisoned continues to be a puzzle.
So how did Robert Johnson die? It’s been by far more alluring to create any sort of picture of his death through his music. In the last recording sessions it’s been widely speculated that he may have either wanted, or seen the end of his own road. But it’s just another tidbit — and a romantic one at that — which comes with no supportive evidence.
If we remove all the myths and unsupported statements ever made about him, and try relating to Robert Johnson as a person, one thing to consider is his personal losses. When Robert Johnson was a kid he was estranged from his father. It has been thought that he might have went looking for him. As we can image, losing a father is significant. Perhaps fatherhood was the reason why he decided to marry young. He was only 19 years old, and she was just 16 when she died. They both were living among her family and friends at the time. People in the Delta back then, much like some of the folks living out there today, were just as provincial in regards to turf. Since he was the outsider who married a local girl, it’s likely some of her kin laid blame on him for her death. Whatever kind of individualistic Hoodoo was being practiced from person to person — this being a popular regional spiritual occult — the kinsfolk there might have been superstitious enough to see a young pregnant teen dying as a result of getting involved with an aspiring blues player — known to the old Delta working classes as the devil’s music. This scenario seems more valid where Robert Johnson’s innuendo of a personal curse could have been formed.
Over the past sixty years since white audiences have rediscovered the music of Robert Johnson, it’s mostly been a guess as to whom has told the most plausible back story. By all credible accounts nobody has ever legitimately observed any bluesman or blueswoman taking their instruments to the crossroads to be tuned, only to watch as the prince of darkness walks away with their signatures. If music audiences want to juxtaposition witchcraft and the devil with the roots of Robert Johnson — or Blues music in general, just to make it interesting for themselves — they might want to consider that it reveals nothing about the history of Rock n’ Roll, but rather reveals the obsessions that our Judeo-Christian culture has about unproven mythologies, crafted in biblical scenarios where good verses evil. Perhaps the Blues community needs to start distancing themselves from these animated stories, just for the sake of going forward, but also helping us to maintain a more realistic view of the past.
It’s hoped the next generation of blues musicians and fans will realize the importance of wiping clear all the murky nonsense of bargaining with evil just to gain musical proficiency. In the realist possible sense, Robert Johnson was an individual talent who deserved all the credit himself for having acquired the skills to play amazingly well. It’s been embarrassingly absurd, strange, and even childish how we’ve associated real people with a folklore that’s not only bizarre, but unflattering, and even hostile. Do we really think that dead, black blues players like Robert Johnson are sitting in the underworld, burning up in flames, playing his guitar for the Devil? Robert Johnson’s reality — from how he embraced his art form, to the people and places he brushed up against — was indisputably more enticing than the legend of the crossroads, and even more relatable. So as we try to fill in the spaces of his incomplete biography, we might want to try averting our attentions away from hyperbolizing what we see in the overexposed spaces of his photograph. Rather, we should just look right at the man himself, and realize how human he really was – James Geezil