19 August 2019

Robert Johnson and the Hell Hound

Last Friday, August 16, was the 42nd anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. It was also the 81st anniversary of the death of an even more important music figure. On the same date in 1938, Robert Johnson, often called the King of the Delta Blues, died after drinking a bottle of poisoned whiskey. The story could become a great true-crime book if I had the bent for the massive research necessary, but I don't. Johnson's saga has already fueled works in various genres anyway.

Born May 8, 1911, Johnson was the guitar hero around the Mississippi Delta, standing on a pinnacle with Charley Patton, Son House, and nobody else. He only recorded 29 songs over the course of two sessions, one in a San Antonio hotel room in November 1936 (22 tracks in two days) and a Dallas hotel room over a weekend the following June (20 more tracks). The recording logs say 17 more tracks were recorded, but nobody knows what happened to them. We have 42 surviving tracks, one or two takes of 29 iconic blues songs.

Columbia released a vinyl LP of 15 songs in 1961, and among the musicians who heard Johnson for the first time were Eric Clapton,
Eric Clapton, circa 1968
Keith Richards, Jimmy Page,
Jimmy Page with the Yardbirds
Brian Jones, and Mike Bloomfield.
Mike Bloomfield
That spark fanned the flame of the American blues revival and the British Invasion. An LP of the remaining songs appeared in 1970 and stoked the earlier frenzy. There have been three remastered CD sets of Johnson's work. The last two went platinum, the latter in less than a week.

What did Johnson give us? Well, Eric Clapton played "Ramblin' on my Mind" with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers after he left the Yardbirds. He still considers "Cross Road Blues" his trademark song since he recorded it live with Cream in 1968. That trio also covered "From Four Until Late." Elmore James had a 1951 hit with his slide version of "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom." Delaney and Bonnie and Johnnie Winter each recorded "Come on in My Kitchen." Led Zeppelin played "Traveling Riverside Blues" in their live sets. I first heard "Walkin' Blues" on a Paul Butterfield album (Mike Bloomfield played guitar), and the Grateful Dead often played it live. The Rolling Stones did a killer version of "Love in Vain," mostly when Mick Taylor was their slide maestro. The Charlatans covered "32-20" on an early LP, and I can't begin to count the artists who have performed "Sweet Home Chicago."

That's a pretty good showing for a man who died three months after turning 27.

We have only two existing photographs of Robert Johnson, and they both show him holding a guitar in his amazingly long fingers, which may account for his virtuosity.
Along with that skill, sometimes attributed to his selling his soul to the Devil at a crossroads, Johnson earned a reputation as a lover of both whiskey and women, not always single. He carried on publicly with ladies who wore another man's ring, and it caught up with him in July of 1937.

He and Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards were performing at the Three Forks Store & Jook House when someone sent up a bottle of scotch for Robert. Edwards noticed that the seal was broken and knocked it out of his friend's hand with the warning "Don't never take a drink when the seal's broke."
The Jook joint where Johnson probably drank the poisoned
bottle of scotch, served by a jealous husband.

Johnson didn't listen. Another bottle appeared shortly and he drank heavily while playing. By late in the evening, he was very ill and showed symptoms of what was probably arsenic poisoning. He was making time with the wife of the man who owned the roadhouse, and since rats were around, so was poison. Johnson suffered for several days and contracted pneumonia, passing away on August 16.

This was in Greenwood, Mississippi. the local white sheriff didn't give two hoots about some dead colored singer, and while there were many witnesses and people who knew the situation, nobody ever followed up. Johnson's death certificate doesn't even give a cause of death.
Johnson's death certificate. Notice that the right side is blank except for the notation "No Doctor."

Months later, John Hammond wanted Johnson to play at his Spirituals to Swing concert (Dedicated to Bessie Smith, who had also died recently) at Carnegie Hall. He sent Don Law, who supervised Johnson's recording sessions, to find him. Law eventually learned of Johnson's death, but found another musician to take Johnson's slot in the show and revive his own flagging career: Big Bill Broonzy.

Johnson's playing was the stuff of legend, and his life and songs have inspired novels, plays and films. Elijah Wald explores Johnson and the Delta blues in Escaping the Delta, which points out that blues wasn't even recognized as a separate genre until the 1930s.

David Sheffield's "Love in Vain" is a short story told from the point of view of the coroner examining the body of a dead blues singer. I first found it in an anthology called, fittingly, Delta Blues.

Sherman Alexie's early novel Reservation Blues is a whimsical tale of a man who picks up a black hitchhiker in Idaho and finds a guitar in his back seat after dropping the guy off. Johnson was the hitchhiker who faked his death to cheat the devil out of his soul. He leaves the guitar behind so he can't be tracked, but the magic instrument enables a group of Indians to form a rock band. I assigned the book as a summer reading text one year and encouraged the students to track down Johnson's recordings. It turned out there were two guitarists in the class. Those young men will never be the same.

Thunder Knocking on the Door, a play by Keith Glover, premiered at Yale Rep in the 1990s with Johnson's music front and center. The script is good and the acting was fine, but the loudest applause went to the blues band that made the songs come to life.

Then there's the forgettable film Crossroads. The premise is that an old black harp player knew Johnson and learned a thirtieth song from him that he never recorded. The script and acting don't do it justice. The best part of the film, no surprise, is the soundtrack, created and performed by Ry Cooder and a host of surviving blues legends including Blind Sonny Terry on harp. Cooder and Albert King performed the title song live on TV at (I think) the Grammies that year.

My own novel Dark Gonna Catch Me Here takes its title from a line in "Cross Road Blues." The whole line is "Sun goin' down, dark goin' catch me here/ I ain't got no woman to love and feel my care." When I heard the line for the first time, my reaction was, "What a great image!" Then I thought it could be a title. My cover designer loved it too, and started working before I even wrote the book. He said, "You better go darker than usual, because I am."

I did. By now, the book has probably sold dozens of copies.

Johnson has been dead three times longer than he lived, and he's still fertile ground for musicians. The songs are haunting and evocative and push guitarists to try the impossible. And his archetypal existence and lifestyle continue to inspire legends and stories. Someday, maybe someone will write the work that does him justice.


  1. A fascinating tale, Steve. It’s still an intriguing mystery, especially to guitar players like me. I’ve read that we’ve been typically hearing Johnson’s recordings at the wrong speed all these years, and the proper correction slows them down. Any truth in that?

  2. Steve, I learned a few new facts from this, and you brought back a memory. The night my younger son discovered Robert Johnson, he woke me up in the middle of the night to say, "Mom, listen to this." Years later, my teenaged grandson is a fan also. I'll share your column today with both of them.

  3. Last year the time travel TV series TIMELESS did an episode called "The King of the Delta Blues," about you know who.

    There is a story about one of the Rolling Stones, I think Keith Richard, being told as a teenager he had to listen to Robert Johnson. He was not that impressed. "So who was the second guitarist?" Oh. That was all one guy...

  4. Some interesting stuff here. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. Lawrence, I recently found a book of transcriptions of Johnson's songs with updated tablature, which helps a lot because only five or six of his songs use standard tuning. The book's discussion points out that, since Johnson frequently changed to alternate tunings during his recording sessions, he tended to become progressively sharp as the sessions continued. I don't know if the different speeds are also a factor or not. I know of some later artists who sometimes sped tapes up or slowed them down. The Beatles and Jefferson Airplane come to mind.

    Rob, Keith Richards tells the "second guitarist story on himself. I think when Brian Jones played the first album to him for the first time.

  6. I was interested in your comment on Johnson's tuning. That is more rare with the violin, but I recently heard some of Biber's sonatas with extremely odd and inventive tuning. Can't imagine the virtuosity required!

  7. Janice, retuning the guitar makes fingering certain chords easier for different harmonies. The hard part is remembering that a particular string and fret now will give you a different note from what you're used to. I only got the courage to experiment with different tunings a few years ago.

    In Johnson's case, his tunings are purely functional. He moves the notes around on the fingerboard so he can use a few fingering patterns over and over in different keys. Since he had very long fingers and could reach a wider span than I can, some of his stuff is still out of reach, like the intervals Liszt wrote for piano. But I understand the theory of what he was doing, so I make do.

    And, of course, his lyrics have been recycled so much they have become cliches, but that's not his fault.

  8. Fascinating column, Steve. I grew up fifty miles from Greenwood, and have heard these stories most of my life.

  9. Oh, Robert Johnson was incredibly seminal. I think everyone did "Come on in my Kitchen" including David Bromberg (whom I LOVE), Allman Brothers, Steve Miller Band...

  10. Well, I'm one of the dozens who bought "Dark Gonna Catch Me Here" (a couple of years ago), and it's one helluva good book.

  11. Fran,
    Thanks for passing word of this on to your son & G-son. Hope they feel it's worth their time.

    And, Don, as one of the dozens, how did you hear about the book? Do you know my other stuff, did you recognize the title as a Johnson allusion, or what? I don't recognize your name, which could be because my memory is fading, but I'm curious. Not to mention thrilled that someone actually liked it...

  12. My parents were fans of classical, opera, swing, and… blues. Growing up, I was lucky enough to have heard Johnson, W.C. Handy, and other blues greats. Thanks for the memory job, Steve.


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