16 April 2011

Resting in the Blues

This is one of the two confirmed pictures that exist of early Delta blues legend, Robert Johnson.

Only twenty nine of Johnson's recordings exist, and practically nothing in his biography can be taken as fact. We don't know for sure when he was born, or what killed him. His death certificate says only 'no doctor' in the section where the cause of death is meant to be described, and his place of death says only that he was outside Greenwood, Mississippi.

Yet he's a genius, no doubt about it. His voice is wavering, high, eerie and supernatural, and his guitar playing is so good that experienced and talented musicians have a hard time recreating it. The picture below is the only other confirmed picture. Note his unnaturally long fingers.

Robert Johnson was born out of wedlock, and his mother went on to have ten other children. One imagines that he got the short end of the stick when it came to attention and affection, and he married young, perhaps looking for that missing something. But his young wife died in childbirth, and he, a widower at nineteen, must have decided that a dusty sharecropper's cabin in Mississippi and a dozen children weren't meant to be his fate.

He's remembered as being a novice, not very good, someone who 'annoyed crowds' with his inept guitar playing. And then he disappeared for two years, apprenticing himself to a blues musician named Zimmerman, and when he came back, he could play any song he wanted. And not just the blues; he played polka, country, and pop. Either he got really good, really fast, or he did just what the legends say he did. He sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads.

Johnson became a 'walking musician,' traveling the South, playing for coins on street corners, at dances, and in juke joints. He was said to have a string of women, one in every town, who were glad to see him every time he came around. But he never spent more than a few weeks in one place, and then he disappeared, onto the next town, the next woman.

He had a little success with a raunchy tune called the Terraplane Blues, and he made his only known recordings at that time, including a couple of tunes called, notably, Hellhound on my Trail, and Crossroad Blues. Was he thinking about his deal with the devil? Was he regretting it, and did he have some premonition that it was about to catch up with him?

Johnson died on August 16, 1937. He was twenty six or twenty seven years old. It might have been strychnine poisoning that killed him, poison that was put in a whiskey bottle by a jealous husband. It might have been syphillis. Or, possibly, it might have just been the hellhound on his trail.

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