“You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future,” writes Bob Dylan in his book Chronicles of Robert Johnson, the blues genius whose work is still celebrated, 100 years from the day he was born. Johnson’s 29 songs were prescient in the way they would shape folk, rock, blues, and soul—as was his groundbreaking style of playing and singing them—and this week marks the beginning of his centennial year. Had he not died in 1938 at the age of 27, Johnson would be turning 100 on this Sunday, May 8th—supposedly—since the facts as we know them are still being contested, over 70 years after his death. But as the calendar opens on events scheduled for Johnson’s home turf of Greenwood, Mississippi, and across the country, in his honor we thought we’d look at his blues and revisit the well-worn folk legend about his meeting the devil at midnight at the crossroads, while we also check on the state of the 21st century blues from the perspective of a contemporary Mississippi blues player, Cedric Burnside.
From old-time and ragtime, to uptown Chicago strut, Delta picking, and hill country stomp, the root of all blues can be found in Johnson’s songs, which have served all forms of folk, rock, and even soul-jazz; he has survived homages by artists diverse as the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones, to Gil Scott Heron, the White Stripes and Keb’ Mo’, and satirists like Tenacious D. Indeed there is something supernatural about the way Johnson’s music, as well as the Faustian myth surrounding him, has survived time, outstretching the work of musicians from here to Yazoo, but there is obviously more to his achievements than a simple midnight pact made on the hallowed ground where Highways 61 and 49 now stand.
“I have to say, I’m a big fan of Robert Johnson’s music, and always have been, but when it comes down to him selling his soul to the devil, I don’t believe in no type of stuff like that,” says Burnside. “I think he really buckled down and practiced a lot and came out blazing,” he says. Burnside is right about Johnson’s devotion to his music rather than the devil, according to the Johnson scholars who’ve studied his life and music for at least 50 years now. But there is enough drama, dirt, and lowdown on him to fuel a legend of his likeness and many more like him, drawing as it does from existing folk tales as well as details drawn from the hard scrabble lives of other blues players and the lives they led as black men in the post-slave/pre-civil rights South. As grandson of the late R.L. Burnside, the rural South is something that Cedric knows all about; he worked alongside his granddad who sharecropped for food and shelter until Cedric was nine or 10. As for what he knows about Johnson, he learned that from his grandfather, too. He says Johnson’s works ring true to his experience in the rural blues.
“Some people that ain’t used to the blues and don’t listen to it much, they might see a movie on television, and it might have blues songs in it and the scene might be sad or violent, and that’s what their interpretation of the blues is, but it’s really way different. It’s a deep music. It’s soulful. I think it’s good for you,” he says.
For Burnside, the blues isn’t about harsh reality, breaking up, or bad times; rather, he says, “It helps you appreciate where you come from. I feel good when I’m playing it. I think about having been there and done that, that I made it through it, and I feel good about that.”
Burnside (pictured right) sings and plays guitar with his own Cedric Burnside Project and drummed with guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm on the new album, 100 Years of Robert Johnson by Big Head Blues Club featuring jam band Big Head Todd and the Monsters, alongside tracks recorded with actual bluesmen: Charlie Musselwhite, B.B. King, Honeyboy Edwards, and Hubert Sumlin. Burnside and Malcolm caught their signature hill country groove on Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day”; they also cut a mean slide version of “Ramblin’ on My Mind.” “We play similar music to Robert Johnson,” Burnside explains. “That’s all I know.”
As a kid growing up, Burnside says the family didn’t have a radio. “My granddad used to have house parties. He’d invite all his friends over; they’d set up on the porch, set up a little raggedy drum set and a little piece of amp, and go to playing, and that was our music. He explained to us, some of it was Muddy Waters, some of it was Howlin’ Wolf, and some of it was Robert Johnson. That’s how I came to know some of the music, by my granddad playing some.” Burnside is not only a fan of the Johnson guitar style, notable for sounding as if more than one guitar is playing simultaneously, but equally for his lyrics. “Some of the songs he wrote you can relate to, like ‘Come on in My Kitchen’—I definitely related to that. And ‘When You Got a Good Friend.’ They hit you right where the heart’s at. Anybody that done heard Robert Johnson or hill country blues will love to come to a live show; if they’re hearing it for the first time, they’ll love it for the rest of their life,” he says.
Clearly Burnside is a blues advocate and doesn’t have to be persuaded to talk up his state’s most famous export. He touts the North Mississippi All-Stars as “great musicians” and when I ask for recommendations he tells me the sister/brothers act, Homemade Jamz Blues Band, from Tupelo, are “phenomenal” (I have to say I agree). But Burnside reserves his utmost respect for the living Mississippi blues men Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton, who made their marks with the Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters bands, as well as for Johnson’s contemporary Honeyboy Edwards, all of with whom he says it’s been his great honor and pleasure to play. The experience of sharing stages with these men places Burnside in a direct a line of Mississippi bluesman whose roots connect up directly with Johnson’s.
King of the Delta Blues
In a classic early book on the subject of the blues titled The Poetry of the Blues, by Samuel Charters, bluesman Henry Townsend explained the blues as a story in which the singer can take sympathy with another. J.D. Short seconded the emotion when he explained, “Sometimes the people that’s listening at you have actually been through some of the same things that I’ve been through, and automatically that takes effect on them and causes their attention to come.” The personal story of Robert Johnson has plenty of instability and strife for a perfect blues tale of woe, and yet through his songs run the threads of compassion Townsend describes. Born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi most likely on May 8, 1911, young Robert was shuffled between his parents’ homes until he eventually settled with his mother and stepfather in the Tunica-Robinsonville region of Mississippi. Married at 17 to a young wife who died in childbirth, old and superstitious church types might’ve said that such a fate was his punishment for playing secular songs to earn his living. You could even say this is the beginning of the so-called devil myth, though the story of bluesman Tommy Johnson (no relation) who reportedly told folks that he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent also figures in; admittedly, it’s an attention-grabber.
Needless to explain, the Mississippi Delta region was rife with folktales and blues musicians in the early part of the 20th century, their traditions and sounds descended from slaves from West Africa. Dislocated from their homeland and mistreated to degrees that they don’t teach in school, these men, women, and children were often put to work picking cotton for landed gentry. In post-slavery years, those who did not escape or migrate north often found work as sharecroppers, tending farms for owners who paid them a grossly disproportionate piece of the pie. As time went by, conditions in the South didn’t necessarily improve for black men and their families, who subsisted in a cycle of poverty. A man could be incarcerated simply for being on the street at night (the subject of Johnson’s song “Crossroads”), then sentenced to work in a labor camp or on a chain gang. This was the fate that Johnson intended to escape, and it motivated him to master music; it also kept him on the move throughout his short life.
In 1930, the blues singer Son House moved into the area where Johnson, as well as Willie Brown (who Johnson shouts out to in “Crossroads”), stayed, and Johnson picked up what he could from the blues professionals. By now remarried and with a child, Johnson’s second wife fell ill, and the crisis sent Johnson leaving town again, this time to perform in towns around Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. He found a new mentor in Ike Zinnerman, said to have developed his power by playing in a graveyard—and there again, a supernatural connection. The details have been debated for years now, but historians generally agree it was a comfortable life Johnson created for himself, away from the hard labor that caused others to be too tired to enjoy much of anything, much less develop prodigious skills as a musician. But it was a tough life as well: Not only did Johnson have a habit of loving up other men’s women, the menfolk were jealous of Johnson’s ability to get away with not working (therein the beginnings of another archetype—the layabout musician—that has persisted in and around rock ‘n’ roll for years). When he eventually returned to Robinsonville, his blues elders like House and Brown were said to be surprised by Johnson’s new-found professionalism. And soon he was ready to record.
The two recording sessions where Johnson laid down his 29 songs to tape were in 1936 and 1937. First stop was in the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where the Brunswick label set up a studio. Johnson played facing the wall, a set-up that has occasionally led historians to conclude that he was shy; rather, it’s likely he was trying to create a good acoustic environment for his recordings of “Terraplane Blues”, “Cross Road Blues”, and “Come on in My Kitchen”, among others. In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas where he recorded more sides for Brunswick, including his epic classics, “Hell Hound on My Trail”, “Traveling Riverside Blues”, “Love in Vain”, and “Stones in My Passway.”
Now keeping company with Estella Coleman of Helena, Arkansas, a woman 10 years his senior and mother of Robert Lockwood, Jr., Johnson took a shine to “Robert Junior,” just four years younger than him, and taught him everything he knew, deepening the family ties among bluesmen and between de facto stepfather and son. Johnson also fell in with an alliance of musicians including Honeyboy Edwards, Hound Dog Taylor, Robert Petway, and Tommy McClennan, all of whom were forging careers of their own. He traveled with Edwards and Johnny Shines performing all types of songs, though his own, save for “Terraplane Blues”, weren’t really well-known. Somehow, the ladies loved this song concerning the flashing lights, oil checks, spark plugs, and starter on an automobile, although it wasn’t just the sensational metaphors that attracted listeners. Johnson had a smooth style, developed and honed it, and when he played, it was like listening to a one-man band. So extraordinary were his abilities that to this day there persists a misguided theory that his tapes were sped up to achieve the otherworldly effects.
In Chronicles, Bob Dylan writes about receiving a pre-release version of Johnson’s landmark album finally released in 1961 as King of the Delta Blues. Columbia Records executive John Hammond had acquired Johnson’s previously issued recordings and had newly signed Dylan, who describes running to Terri and Dave Van Ronk’s house where Dylan and Van Ronk would listen to Johnson for the first time. “Johnson’s voice and guitar were ringing the room and I was mixed up in it. Didn’t see how anyone couldn’t be.” Van Ronk didn’t especially care for what he heard, though Dylan was immediately mesmerized, taking the record home with him and listening to it repeatedly for several weeks. “Whenever I did, it felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fearsome apparition.” He was particularly impressed with Johnson’s writing; the sophistication of the verses and economy of the lines, the way “every couplet intertwined with the next, but in no obvious way.” Dylan says he wrote down the lines so he could study their construction, “the patterns, the sparkling allegories, big ass truths wrapped in the hard-shell of nonsensical abstraction… They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture.”
Sixty years later, Cedric Burnside says Johnson’s stories pull him into the action too, which is how he came to record “When You Got a Good Friend” for the Johnson tribute project. “A lot of people want good friends and they want to keep good friends—somebody that can stay right by your side through thick and thin. You’ve got something good,” he says. “A lot of people can relate to that. Some can’t.” Far from the image of a blues tough guy, Johnson advocates caring for friends, in this case a woman in question, though according to those who remember, Johnson was hardly the loyal and steadfast type. Surely Johnson was not the first or last musician motivated to hook up with the woman who would provide him with a warm bed for the night, but he was apparently notorious for catching hell from the men who normally occupied those beds.
Which leads us to the jealous husband who poisoned him—a story that is most likely true, according to Honeyboy Edwards, who was with him that night. Although, the cause of death was more likely the pneumonia Johnson caught while he was laid up from the poisoning. Had he heeded the advice of Sonny Boy Williamson to never drink from an open container, he may’ve avoided this fate. But then he would’ve missed all the ladies who reportedly sat vigil for him, attempting to nurse him back to health. And had he not fallen so ill, who knows if he would’ve felt the need for a last-ditch conversion on his deathbed, written in longhand and printed on his tombstone (one of three gravesites in the Greenwood/Hazelhurst area): “… I know that my redeemer liveth and that he will call me from the grave.” To this day, there remain three burial sites for Johnson: Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Payne Chapel, and Little Zion Church.
The era immediately following Johnson’s death found his songs becoming embedded in the repertoire of his fellow Delta bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, to name but three whose blues helped shape rock ‘n’ roll. And yet it wasn’t until the release of King of the Delta Blues that the real obsession in the hearts and minds of musicians and fans began to swell. At the time that Dylan, followed by Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Eric Clapton, first heard Robert Johnson, there wasn’t even a photograph of him, just 29 songs and a myth a mile long. In 1973, the first photographs of Johnson were found, the familiar close-up with cigarette and long-shot with guitar. It was in these years that Johnson’s connection to rock ‘n’ roll was established that the crossroads bargain myth grew larger. Led Zeppelin, their “Traveling Riverside Blues” and obsession with all things blues and magical, certainly contributed to spreading the music’s mystique around rock ‘n’ roll, as did the high era of ’70s Rolling Stones and their back to country-blues period around Exile on Main Street. By the ’90s, when Columbia issuedThe Complete Recordings, a generation raised on the myth of Johnson and rock ‘n’ roll was ready to embrace him like never before.
Whether through the pursuit of blues purity by collectors or by Budweiser blues and festival enthusiasts (the film Ghostworld nicely differentiates the real thing from Blues Hammer), the blues enjoy greater popularity than ever, and it probably must be said, largely among white audiences. But in recent years, that is changing too, as African Americans return to the South seeking work and better lives away from urban centers, returning to reclaim the Southern heritage that is their birthright. In Mississippi, the blues is always in style.
In 2008, a third photo of Robert Johnson was published in Vanity Fair magazine. Moving footage surfaced but was quickly waved away by scholars; in particular it was nixed by Robert Lockwood Jr.who definitively stated the man in question was not Johnson. In lieu of that holy grail of all Johnson artifacts, the inevitable digitalization has occurred. Columbia’s issued The Centennial Collection of The Complete Recordings as both two-disc and four-disc sets; Big Head Blues Club has dates booked through the rest of the year; Dogfish Head brewery has announced the creation of Hell Hound on My Ale, a Johnson-inspired craft beer. An exhibit of Johnson ephemera will be on display at the Cottonlandia Museum in Greenwood, Mississippi, throughout the summer.
On the occasion of what would’ve been Robert Johnson’s 100th birthday, Honeyboy Edwards (pictured left), at 95 the oldest living performing and touring Delta bluesman, returned home to honor a friend. Edwards and the Cedric Burnside Project are among those on board for the official Robert Johnson Centennial Concert in Greenwood this weekend. Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’ Mo’, Lightnin’ Malcolm, Warren Haynes, Kenny Brown, and RJG—the Robert Johnson Grandson Band—also performed. Edwards wrote about Johnson’s unique playing style in his own blues memoir, The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing: “Robert came out with a classic blues style, with mostly a lot of minor chords. He had a lot of seventh chords in his blues and it sounded better than just playing straight. And that took with people, because he had a different sound.”
Edwards describes his fellow bluesman as a nice person who admittedly loved his whiskey and women, but who was no hellraiser. “Robert’s more popular because he died, like everybody else who dies young. But he was a great musician. He innovated his own way of playing. Robert had his own style and he held with it till he died. He wasn’t out there long, but he changed everything.”–published in Crawdaddy! May 6, 2011.