Legends aren’t dependent on mystery. Louis Armstrong and The Rolling Stones are legends, and they have been all over the place for decades. A bit of mystery helps, however. Blues player Robert Johnson is legendary, and part of the reason is that there only are 29 recordings of him playing. There are no verified films. Archival footage of somebody that looked like Johnson did turn up. The video had no audio and the verdict seems to be that it was a false alarm. It is fascinating regardless.
Here is the essence of the legend of Robert Johnson:
The power of Johnson’s music has been amplified over the years by the fact that so little about him is known and what little biographical information we now have only revealed itself at an almost glacial pace. Myths surrounding his life took over: that he was a country boy turned ladies’ man; that he only achieved his uncanny musical mastery after selling his soul to the devil. Even the tragedy of his death seemed to grow to mythic proportion: being poisoned by a jealous boyfriend then taking three days to expire, even as the legendary talent scout John Hammond was searching him out to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City. (Continue Reading…)
Hub Pages’ item on Johnson includes an except from Stephen Davis’s Hammer of the Gods:
In the delta of the Mississippi River, where Robert Johnson was born, they said that if an aspiring bluesman waited by the side of a deserted country crossroads in the dark of a moonless night, then Satan himself might come and tune his guitar, sealing a pact for the bluesman’s soul and guaranteeing a lifetime of easy money, women, and fame. They said that Robert Johnson must have waited by the crossroads and gotten his guitar fine-tuned. (Continue Reading…)
Wikipedia notes the importance of Son House in the growth of the legend:
Late in life, House remembered Johnson as a ‘little boy’ who was a competent harmonica player but an embarrassingly bad guitarist. Soon after, Johnson left Robinsonville for the area around Martinsville, close to his birthplace Hazlehurst, possibly searching for his natural father. Here he perfected the guitar style of Son House and learned other styles from Isaiah “Ike” Zinnerman. Ike Zinnerman was rumored to have learned supernaturally to play guitar by visiting graveyards at midnight.When Johnson next appeared in Robinsonville, he had seemed to have acquired a miraculous guitar technique. House was interviewed at a time when the legend of Johnson’s pact with the Devil was well known among blues researchers. He was asked whether he attributed Johnson’s technique to this pact, and his equivocal answers have been taken as confirmation. (Continue Reading…)
Above is “Crossroads Blues,” which is among the most important blues songs ever written. It was most famously covered by Cream. The Rolling Stones covered “Love in Vain Blues.” Two takes of Johnson’s recording are in the video below.
(Home page photo: Joe Mazzola)