By James Calemine
Robert Johnson contends as the greatest bluesman of all time. Born May 8, 1911, in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, Johnson’s legend radiates from his 29 compositions. Johnson played harmonica at an early age, but soon took up guitar. Johnson learned songs and styles from Ike Zinnerman, Charlie Patton and Son House when they played neighboring juke joints. After a few years, upon hearing him perform, Son House said of Johnson, “He had to sell his soul to the Devil to play like that,” fueling Johnson’s mysterious soul-selling deal at the crossroads.
Johnson constantly traveled through Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas, gradually cultivating a loyal following. His record “Terraplane Blues” sold well, but none of his other songs matched its success. Johnson also traveled to Texas, Chicago, St. Louis, Illinois, New York, Detroit, and even Windsor, Ontario, Canada, to play music.
In the summer of 1938, Johnson returned to his home state. He played his last gig outside of Greenwood, Mississippi, at a country roadhouse called Three Forks. On August 13, Johnson drank poison whiskey given to him by a jealous husband. He died three days later in dire poverty at the age of 27. For years very few people knew the exact location of his burial, and only two photographs of him exist, shrouding him in even more mystery.
Columbia Records’ Robert Johnson:The Complete Recordings contains 41 tracks–including alternate takes of the 29 songs recorded in 1936 and 1937–like “Hellhound On My Trail”, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”, “Come On In My Kitchen”, and “Love In Vain”. Keith Richards once told the story about the first time he heard Robert Johnson. His fellow-Rolling Stone, Brian Jones played the record. When Richards asked Jones who was that playing guitar, Jones responded “Robert Johnson”. Keith said, “No, the other guy.” Brian Jones’ response went something like, “There ain’t no other guy…”
Before his death, Johnson operated at the apex of his musical powers. For many rock musicians (including The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers Band and Led Zeppelin), his haunted lyrics and mercurial guitar style cast a spooky resonance verifying there’s some truth to every legend. Robert Johnson’s voice sounds like that of some tormented ghost when you hear him sing sinister lyrics on “Me And The Devil Blues”: “Early this morning/When you knocked upon my door/I said hello Satan/I believe it’s time to go…”