march 2011

robert johnson centennial

Finding Robert Johnson

By David McGee

May 8 marked the 100th anniversary of Delta blues giant Robert Johnson’s birth. Stories have been rolling out all over the media marking the occasion and invariably quoting Keith Richards and Eric Clapton about the Johnson legacy and legend. The mainstream music press and general media has been content to regurgitate the tall (read: apocryphal) tales about Johnson’s life and sensationalize the “sold his soul to the Devil” mythology, but for decades blues scholars have been working hard to dig up facts about the mysterious wandering troubadour who died of poisoning--possibly at the hand of the man whose wife Johnson was consorting with, in David “Honeyboy” Edwards’s version, or, in the Johnny Shines version, by a woman “who really didn’t care for him at all, and Robert was almost always surrounded by that kind…”--on August 16, 1938, at age 27. Thanks to the efforts of Samuel Charters, Mack McCormick, Pete Welding, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Jim O’Neill, John Hammond, Jr., Peter Guralnick and Steven LaVere, foremost among others--and, not incidentally, to say the least--the testimonies of other Delta artists such as “Honeyboy” Edwards who knew and traveled with Johnson--the spooky story about Johnson selling his soul to the Devil in return for becoming a guitar master barely carries weight even as folklore anymore. We know that Johnson studied with a teacher in Arkansas, and Muddy Waters is on record as pinpointing Son House as someone Johnson studied closely: “I think Robert got a whole lotta little standpoints from Son House, too, you know,” he told Jim O’Neill. “‘Cause Son House was the daddy down there then.”

Finally, then, on Robert Johnson’s 100th birthday anniversary, we have arrived at a point where, though much of the mystery of his life remains unsolved, we know enough about the man to be able to enjoy the myth as an entertaining sideshow and hear the music as the real story of Robert Johnson. No one has summed up the situation better than Ted Gioia, one of the preeminent music writers of our time, who closes his eloquent, informed, heartfelt essay in a new Johnson box set from Columbia/Legacy (The Complete Original Masters Centennial Edition) with this: “…one certainty emerges, amidst this mist and haze, namely that, a century after his birth, Johnson remains the defining artist of American roots music, the most celebrated exponent of the blues, and the progenitor of countless later guitarists and singers.”

Robert Johnson, ‘I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man’

Johnson’s revival on record began with Columbia’s reissuing the first batch of his recordings on a 1961 album, King of the Delta Blues Singers, and on a later volume, King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II, in 1970, with an incisive Pete Welding essay included in the latter as an insert. These constituted the Johnson catalogue until the release in 1990 of a two-CD box set, The Complete Recordings, including 41 known recordings of 29 songs and an authoritative liner booklet essay by Steven LaVere. The box set became a commercial sensation, shooting up the Billboard chart and once again reviving interest in Johnson, the man and his music. In 1998 Columbia/Legacy reissued the original King Of the Delta Blues Singers remastered for CD, with a second volume following in 2004.

For Johnson’s Centennial, Columbia/Legacy has gone the extra mile with Robert Johnson: The Complete Original Masters--Centennial Edition, a box set encompassing stand-alone vinyl, CDs (a double CD of Johnson’s master recordings and alternate takes that bring the recording tally to 42 songs); a DVD of the 1997 documentary The Life and Music of Robert Johnson: Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl? (with Keb Mo’ portraying Johnson); and another double-CD collection of original 78 rpm blues rarities (Blues From the Victor Vault) and a second CD, Also Playing, comprised of 10 tracks by artists recorded during the same Dallas and San Antonio sessions as Johnson. In addition, the set comes with a hardbound book containing in its sleeves a dozen 78 rpm vinyl disc replicas (which play at 45 rpm) of Johnson’s original singles, plus the aforementioned Gioia essay, must reading to be sure. Without underestimating the darkness descending over many of his tales, Johnson clearly had a sense of humor, often overlooked, that he expressed in the buoyant, rag-timey “They’re Red Hot,” and a romantic bent, evident in the smoldering, late-night yearning of the poignant “From Four Until Late,” a stripped-down version of what would later come to be called, in arrangements fleshed out with strings and woodwinds, a “saloon song,” a style perfected by Frank Sinatra. These are anomalies among the sparse Johnson oeuvre, but perhaps indicate something about where might have headed had he lived, “searching for a conscious effect,” as Peter Guralnick put it in his inquiry into the life and legend, Searching For Robert Johnson.

Robert Johnson, ‘From Four Till Late’

Guralnick: “Perhaps this very facility, this openness to new sounds and experimentation, would have led to a new kind of fusion music in the forties and fifties. Johnny Shines is convinced of it. ‘Robert’s material was way ahead of his time,’ says Shines. ‘He was already trying to play jazz, you see, diminished sixths, diminished sevenths, all that kind of stuff that you still won’t hear today. A lot of people think that if Robert was around today he’d still be playing the same thing, but he was playing stuff then that they’re only catching up to now. If he was around today, you can’t imagine what he’d be doing.” Shines envisions a kind of Wes Montgomery progression, or perhaps something close to what Robert Jr. Lockwood plays today--a mix of swing, bebop and traditional blues--and perhaps this would have been the case. Or perhaps, like some of the less fortunate blues singers rediscovered in the sixties, in middle age he would have lost the edge off his singing, his playing would have become clumsy and conventional, and he would have appeared a sad reminder, a near-parody of the great artist he once had been. Unlike Shines and Lockwood he may not have been stable enough to have survived the rigors and dislocations of meeting a whole new audience which knew nothing, save for what it had read, of the background of his music. And yet in the end none of this speculation really matters, for Robert Johnson, like Housman’s athlete, like Orpheus, Keats, and James Dean, was kissed by the flame of youth and never lived to see the effects of the infatuation wear off.”

Born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, on May 8, 1911, Robert Johnson would now be a century old. One hundred years after his birth, seventy-two years after his death, he he walks among us still, his fingerprints all over our music, his spirit unvanquished, his art an unassailable touchstone for generations that have since followed him to the grave, for generations still trying to fathom what he wrought, and available for generations yet unborn to make of what they will. Hear the wind howl?

Robert Johnson, ‘Walking Blues’


Memories of Robert

‘Oh, Yeah, Boy, You Can Make It Now’

Houston Stackhouse

stackhouseBetween 1972 and 1974 Jim O’Neill, founder and editor of Living Blues Magazine, interviewed Houston Stackhouse six times in Memphis and Chicago and published their conversations as a mammoth Q&A in Living Blues #17, Summer 1974. About Stackhouse, O’Neill quoted blues historian David Evans in his introduction, to wit: “There was no more central figure in the Delta blues scene over such a long period as it passed from a prewar acoustic style to a postwar electric style than Houston Stackhouse.” In part of the interview, O’Neill asked Stackhouse about his friendship with Robert Johnson and elicited the warmest memories anyone has offered of the late, great blues legend by someone who knew him well. In this excerpt, Stackhouse talks of getting Johnson ready for his only recording sessions, in Texas, of buying him a slide for his finger at a shop on Pearl Street in Dallas and the sound it made when Johnson used it, how Johnson came by the hat he sports in his famous photograph, and of meeting up with a proud Johnson upon his return from Texas with his recordings in tow.

You said you once had a chance to do a session with Robert Johnson.

I was aimin’ to, but he died ‘fore I got a chance to do it. I met him in Jackson in ‘36, when he was getting’ ready to do that recordin’ for Mr. Brock out of New York. [Note: “Mr. Brock” is Paul Brockman, an Atlanta-based A&R man at the time for OKeh and ARC, which operated under the same ownership. In a Living Blues interview with Roger S. Brown, Brockman said he had travelled to Dallas and San Antonio to meet with or record blues artists, but did not specifically mention Robert Johnson as being among those whose path he crossed at that time, although Stackhouse’s reminiscence would seem to indicate otherwise.] Carried him to Dallas, Texas. I bought him a slide to go on his finger. We walked several streets ‘fore I found it, but I happened to find one on Pearl Street that fit his finger. He had little, keen fingers, you know. It didn’t cost but a dime, but I bought it for him. And they put him on a new set of strings, there at Mr. Speir’s Music Shop on Capitol Street in Jackson at the time.

Now that I think about it, I ‘bout bought me a steel guitar from Mr. Speir that day. Robert went around there foolin’ with the guitar. And Robert come up, and says, “Here Robert is now,” he was totin’ his guitar on his shoulder, Gibson guitar what he had done been havin’. I think he was livin’ in Martinsville, that’s between Wesson and Hazelhurst. He was goin’ up there to see about the man that Mr. Brock’s supposed to had told him to meet him down there. They drive way up there, they were a little late gettin’ there. It was one o’clock when they made it there. He come down the street. His guitar on his shoulder and walkin’ around. He said, “I ain’t got no strings,” you know, so, the man give him a set of strings. Put them on, put the new string wire on, then he played him some more tunes. He said, “Yeah, boy, you’re all right.” And that boy looked for a slide and didn’t have no slide. I said, “Well, I’ll, go help you find one.” I bought that for him. We all went back, and he played a number or two slidin’. I said, “Oh, yeah, boy, you can make it now.” Oh, we had a time. So he wound it up and played them numbers, “Terraplane” and all that kinda stuff. So Mr. Brock says, “Yeah, you’re all right, so I’m gonna have to carry you down to Dallas, Texas, you’re gonna have to put on one of them big hats now when you get down there.” [Laughs.] He said, “Yassir, I’ll wear it.” He went on, and in about two weeks I heard them records goin’ on. They was professional. He come back through and bought me a pint of whiskey. He spent the night with me. He come back, he come on to Crystal Springs, and he was saying, “Stack, I got my records now!” I said, “Is you?” So the next two or three days he had ‘em all around in Crystal Springs, and he was deedin’ ‘em out, boy!

Robert Johnson, ‘Terraplane Blues’

Did they sell his records in Crystal Springs?

Yeah, they was sellin’ ‘em at that time. At Garland and Harper, they had a furniture store at that time.

So I had done been pickin’ cotton. And I sold me a couple of bales of cotton. I just went on to Jackson and bought me a steel guitar while I had that money in my hand. [Laughs.] My old lady got a little mad at me, but I wanted that guitar and I’d been wantin’ one all the time after the Mississippi Sheiks come out with all them pretty steel guitars down there. We went to havin’ some fun then. I caught the bus that evenin’ and went on back to Crystal Springs. My old lady was still mad at me about that. I didn’t have but a 10-dollar bill. I had it rolled up in my sleeve. I unrolled my sleeve and told her, “Take this 10. That’s all I got now.” [Laughs.] I picked another bale of cotton the next week. I told her to take all the money if that’d make her satisfied. Me and Robert had a little fun there, and he went somewhere, back to Martinsville, I reckon. He come back in a couple of weeks and he went to playin’ around in Crystal Springs.

Where was he playing?

He was playin’ out on the Frank Ford plantation. I was playin’ out on Burnett plantation out west of town. I asked him, I said, “You gonna play with me tonight, Robert?” He said, “No, I gotta play over on Frank Ford tonight.” I said, “Oh, I gotta play out on Burnett’s tonight. Well, I’ll break up kinda early and come out there and meet with you tonight.” He says, “OK.” I got out there with Robert. He was pattin’ his foot so, some of ‘em was sayin’, “We sure is glad you done made it here, ‘cause that man pattin’ and stompin’ his foot so you can’t hardly understand what he’s doin’!” But I got away, and we had a nice time. And then he said, “Well, I’m goin’ on up the road now.” I said, “OK.” So he come on back up in the Delta, or Helena, Arkansas, or somewhere up in there. And so in ‘37 he come back down home, we played together some more. And it was a truck out of Detroit, come down there and buy them cabbage and things. I was farmin’, so we load up a big trailer load. So he caught that fellow with the truck; he left there on that truck then, that Wednesday. The next thing I heard of him he was dead. [Johnson died Aug. 16, 1938.]


‘The delta blues is a low-down, dirty shame blues. It’s a sad, big wide sound, something to make you think about people who are dead or the women who left you.’

‘If He’d Left That Man’s Wife Alone, He’d Probably Have Lived Longer’

David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards

Excerpt from an interview by Kevin McKeough
Chicago, February 2011

My first time meeting Robert, I was 20 years old, in 1935. I had started playing pretty good with the Memphis Jug Band. I tried to catch a ride back to Greenwood. I stopped in Lake Carmen and went into a country store. Two young boys my age were sitting around talking. They said Robert and Son House are playing across the field over there, go listen. I said, “I believe I will.”

Robert Johnson, ‘Crossroad Blues’

[Soon afterwards] he disappeared, left. People were surprised by him coming back and playing in that style. [Johnson’s newfound, much improved technique prompted the legend that he’d sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his ability.]

Me and Robert played together all of ‘37 and half of ‘38. We used to run around in Greenwood, Mississippi. There were a lot of bootleggers around then, serving whiskey and gambling in the back [of a local juke joint]. We played music in the front.

Robert Johnson, ‘Phonograph Blues’

You were with him the night he was poisoned. Can you tell me about it?

Robert had been playing for [the juke joint owner] for about a year. What happened was Robert started going with his wife. Greenwood was a small farming town, and if it rained in the country everybody would go into town. They’d see Robert and her. [The owner] didn’t want to lose his woman, so he got him out of the way. She was a pretty woman. Her hair hung down to there [pointing to his waist.]

When I got there about 11 o’clock, he was getting sick. He tried to play for a while, then he said, “I don’t feel good. I’m kind of sick.” I went home that Sunday morning, and I thought he’d be all right. Tuesday, I went over to where he lived, and he was crawling around, his stomach all upset, people giving him soda water and different stuff to try to make him heave that stuff up. He passed August 16, 1938. They buried him the same day because he didn’t have no insurance.

Robert was crazy about whiskey and women, but he was the easiest musician I met playing the blues. I never heard him cuss or holler or want to fight like a lot of musicians. He was a nice guy. If he’d left that man’s wife alone, he’d probably have lived longer.

The delta blues is a low-down, dirty shame blues. It’s a sad, big wide sound, something to make you think about people who are dead or the women who left you.

Robert Johnson: The Complete Original Masters--Centennial Edition is available at


Robert Johnson, ‘Sweet Home Chicago’

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