Happy Birthday Robert Johnson.
Despite there being no known records of Robert Johnson's birth, all the most informed guesses have it as May 8th or 9th in either 1911 or 1912. As one of the truest traditions of Blues is not letting a lack of evidence ruin a good story, it seems like a great time to look back at works of the man who is possibly Blues' brightest star.
The influence Johnson has had on the genre borders on the immeasurable; Clapton called him "the most important blues singer that ever lived", he was among the first ever people to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was ranked fifth in Rolling Stone's list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. All of which isn't too bad when you consider he only made 41 recordings in his short life.
What can you say about a man who is a celebrated as this? Very little that hasn't already been said, which is why here we're celebrating his own words with the three of his songs that tell his story.
Ramblin’ on My Mind
“Running down to the station, catch the old first mail train I see
I got the blues about Miss So-and-So and the child got the blues about me”
As with so many of his song, ‘Ramblin’ on My Mind’ recounts Johnson leaving a woman who did him wrong. However, it could just as easily tell the story of his childhood. Born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, the young Robert had to leave an early age after his mother entered into a dispute over land with a lynch mob. In the following years he was passed backwards and forwards between his mother and father before joining his mother more permanently in Robinsonville, Mississippi in 1919.
Spending his youth wandering set the pace for Johnson’s life. Like many Americans, he spent the 20s and 30s of the great depression wandering the country looking for work. The recordings we have of him now all date from two sessions in this period, in San Antonio Texas. The recording roster shows he laid down the tracks between two other ‘ethnic’ acts, a hillbilly band and a Mexican guitarist.
Cross Road Blues
Around 1929 Robert Johnson met the musician and lay-preacher Son House, who had moved to Robinsonville to be closer to his musical partner Willie Brown. The elderly bluesman recalls the young Johnson following him around trying, and failing, to imitate his style. The legend then goes that Johnson disappeared for a few months and returned with an unnatural ability to play any song in any style. You can hear the debt Johnson pays to Son House’s traditional style in the younger man’s versions of ‘Preaching the Blues’ and ‘Walking Blues’.
So many legends surround Robert Johnson, from the cause of his death to the things he saw wandering the dusty American roads, that without his recordings it would be hard to believe he ever really existed. One, however, captures the imagination like no other.
The story of the crossroads has been added to various parts of Johnson’s life. It tells of his insurmountable desire to be a great Blues musician and that he is told (as we don’t know, let’s say it was by a wise old man with only one eye) to go at midnight with his guitar to the crossroads by the Dockery plantation. There he was met by a tall, black man who tuned his guitar, played a song and handed it back. When he received it, Robert could play anything he wanted on it. The crossroads and magical abilities he is given tie this story in with much older Voodoo and Black Magic rituals and the Christian idea of a Faustian pact, in which the devil gives you superhuman powers in exchange for your soul.
Whatever the truth or history behind this story, and overlooking the fact that ‘Cross Road Blues’ makes no mention of the Devil, it has certainly helped to make the myth of Robert Johnson so appealing.
Kind Hearted Woman
“Aint but one thing,
Makes Mister Johnson drink,
I’s worried ‘bout how you treat me, baby”
A two-in-one love letter to the women of the world and the drinking they drive men to, ‘Kind Hearted Woman’ is a song that has helped to prop up one of blues oldest clichés. The image of the travelling bluesman, living for whiskey and women, is one of the few that truly fits Johnson’s life.
After his first wife died during childbirth, Johnson reportedly had a string of female dalliances. These were probably helped along by his burgeoning musical career. Whilst he recorded his 29 songs (some of which had two or three takes) in just two sessions, taking to the road again as soon as he’d finished, that was enough to give him some fame within his own community. About as far from noble as a down-home bluesboy could get, Johnson exploited that fame to get girls.
Just as with his birth, nobody knows for sure the circumstances in which Robert Johnson died. According to one story, his womanising was his downfall. After a string of affairs with married women, a jealous husband poisoned the singers’ whiskey with strychnine, killing him at the age of 27.
Happy Birthday to you...
In his few short years, Robert Johnson helped to define what the Blues is. Never limited by genre, style or the seemingly impossible, he set the stage, put out the chairs and even baked some snacks for the generations of singers and guitarists that followed him. So, on his birthday, why not stick on some of his music (it's all out of copyright, so you can listen guilt free online), put a dash of strychnine in your whiskey and enjoy one of the greatest guitarists and singers of all time.