Back then, if you lived in the country or in a small town, and you wanted to hear bluesmen play, you´d head for the local juke joint on Saturday night, usually a house on the edge of one of the plantations …They´d shove the furniture into a backroom, sell whiskey and chitlins, and hire whoever was in the area: Robert Johnson, Honeyboy Edwards, Johnny Shine, to attract a crowd, and everybody would just cut loose
Many famous guitarists in blues, rock, and other genres cite Robert Johnson as being one of the greatest guitarists of all time. However, if it weren´t for the handful of recordings, and the three known photographs of Robert Johnson that exist, only a smattering of individuals might have ever heard stories about the incomprehensibly talented guitar player with one eye narrower than the other, abnormally long, slender fingers, and a penchant for whiskey and women.
Robert Johnson was one of many itinerant or ´wandering´ musicians that would travel around Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and at times other regions (he reportedly even played as far north as Canada) playing music on street corners, in work camps, bars, country dances, and anywhere else where there would potentially be an audience. What set apart Robert Johnson, however, was his exceptional guitar playing. He could play the guitar the way most played the piano, integrating basslines into his playing, and forming intricate chords with his peculiarly long and dexterous fingers.
He wouldn´t just play his original blues compositions such as ¨Come on in my kitchen¨ either. He could play anything he heard from any genre. He would often function as a human juke box, playing whatever was requested of him.
Thankfully, a handful of Johnson´s brilliant, and often eerily dark, compositions were recorded and released by the Vocalion record label. These recordings did not sell exceptionally well when they were first released. It wasn´t until twenty three years after his death, and a renewed interest in American folk music prompted Columbia to release King of the delta Blues Singers in 1961. This album compiles everything recorded by Robert Johnson that was released commercially during his lifetime, alternate takes of the same, as well as previously unreleased material.
The music of Robert Johnson was thus introduced to a new generation of listeners, and the legend began to grow. There is no known film footage of Robert Johnson, and there are only 3 still photos. There´s the photo that appears on the cover of the Columbia album, another photo taken in a photo booth (in which the famous fingers are clearly seen), and a photo showing Johnson and his recurrent travelling companion and fellow delta bluesman Johnny Shines. It was a huge deal when this last photo was authenticated only a few years ago.
Then of course, there is the Faustian myth associated with Robert Johnson. Supposedly, his prowess as a guitarist and a southern blues man was granted to him by someone who came from way, way, way further down south — Hades to be precise. Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads, and sold his soul to the devil so he could play the blues. That´s the way the story goes anyway.
Historians and musicologists will continue trying to piece together the history from the shreds of evidence available, and oral tradition that had been passed down.
Robert Johnson died on August 16th after drinking whiskey that had been poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman Johnson had been cavorting with. That´s the official story anyway. Nobody can say for sure.