Robert Johnson Studio Portrait. Hooks Bros. Memphis. Circa 1935.

 

Only a few photographs exist of Robert Johnson, which only adds to the mystery surrounding the legend’s life and death. The most recognizable is his studio portrait taken in Memphis in 1935. The grainy black and white image shows the musician in a suit and hat, smiling and grasping his 1926 Gibson L-1 guitar between his long spidery fingers. The Gibson L-1 is now synonymous with Johnson’s hauntingly timeless Mississippi Delta sound and legacy. Is this the guitar that the devil might have held himself?

Blues music’s most notorious urban legend revolves around a mysterious man who met the devil at the crossroads. Robert Johnson, an early pioneer of American Blues, evolved the Mississippi Delta style that became the bedrock of the Chicago blues sound. Johnson never reached commercial success in his lifetime, mostly performing on street corners and dance halls. Columbia records reissued his recordings in 1961, and his music reached a wider audience and inspired many musicians such as Eric Clapton who called Johnson “the most important blues musician who ever lived.” Johnson became inducted to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 as an early influence. Decades after his death he became one of the most influential blues guitarists of all time and a predecessor of rock and roll.

“Early this mornin’ when you knocked on my door and I said, ‘hello Satan’ I believe it’s time to go.”

Robert Johnson died at the age of 27 on August 13th, 1938, just two years after his first studio session. His cause of death is unknown, rumor has it that he was poisoned. According to an account by blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson, he said Johnson was caught flirting with a married woman at a dance. The woman’s jealous husband spiked a whiskey bottle which she tried to get Johnson to drink. Williamson attempted to intervene, telling Robert Johnson to never drink from a bottle that he had not personally opened. “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand?” said Johnson. Who then accepted another drink from the woman, before experiencing agonizing pain over a three-day period. Although on Johnson’s death certificate the medical examiner noted that the owner of the property Johnson had perished at said his opinion was that the man died of syphilis. Johnson became one of the first memorable musicians to join the notorious 27 club, but he is more morbidly known for meeting the devil at the local crossroads of a Mississippi highway.

According to folklore, as a young Johnson had a deep admiration of blues and one day was instructed to take his guitar down to a crossroad at midnight where he was met by a large black figure. This dark entity took his guitar and tuned it, played a few songs, then returned it to him. The devil handed him back the guitar and thus granting him incredible skills. where he is said to have made a pact that he would give up his soul and die young in favor of becoming the greatest blues guitarist. After returning to his rural town, people had noticed his skills had gone from mediocre to a master of his craft.

“You may bury my body down by the highway side. So, my old evil spirit can get a Greyhound bus and ride.”

Robert Johnson’s style and lyrics were far ahead of its time. He became a virtuoso for his ability to play in varied styles, from jazz licks to country slide guitar, and achieving an advanced and complex approach to music. When members of The Rolling Stones were first introduced to his music Keith Richards he said Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself, saying “I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realize he was doing it all by himself. As for his guitar technique, it’s politely reedy but ambitiously eclectic—moving effortlessly from hen-picking and bottleneck slides to a full deck of chucka-chucka rhythm figures.”

 

Devon Ebersold for Keeping the Blues Alive

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