May 8 is the birthday of Robert Johnson (1911-1938).
I find it amazing that we know that (i.e., that today is his birthday), or that we know anything about him, because it used to be that we didn’t. One learned about him as “the greatest bluesman who ever lived” but everything that was known seemed to be legend, it was all very murky. It was a rural story, and as far as anyone knew, not recorded for posterity, apart from a few musical tracks recorded in 1936, and a single photograph (the one above). Apart from this, there was a legend that he had originally been untalented, went and sold his soul to the devil at midnight at a crossroads (or a graveyard) and emerged the greatest player who ever lived. And then he was killed at age 27, poisoned by a jealous husband.
(This legend inspired my play Universal Rundle. I was obsessed with it for years and remain so. For many reasons. My brother is a blues musician. My father was a sharecropper in the south. And there’s this supernatural aura hanging over the thing, this mist of metaphorical significance. Even the FACTS of it. As a teenager, Johnson was married to a girl named Virginia TRAVIS. Travis not only happens to be my own given name, but that name VIRGINIA TRAVIS could not be more symbolically fraught with meaning, as if it were written that way by design. The name “Travis” literally means “at the crossroads”, the whole peg of the story. And Virginia! A virgin at the crossroads — from innocence and purity to experience and sin. It is a universal journey, and Robert Johnson seems to embody it.)
Johnson was an obscure figure in his own day, marginal even in the blues community. He was primarily an itinerant musician, a busker who traveled from town to town and sang on sidewalks and in bar-rooms. His music did not become well known until a 1961 reissue of his recordings, spurring his adoption by rock and roll people like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones.
Hand in hand with the mystery of his life went the mystery of his sound. No one sounds like Robert Johnson. Both his playing and singing are completely unique. Even people who claim to be emulating him don’t sound remotely like him. Most glom on to the most superficial aspects, facets of his style that are frankly not unique to him. Somebody like Eric Clapton? Bears NO resemblance to the genuine, original Robert Johnson sound, even on Robert Johnson covers — whatsoever. He would be the first to confess it. Johnson’s unique, complex approach to playing guitar involved attacking several places on the fretboard practically at the same time, making it sound like two or three musicians were playing. It is like ragtime fingerpicking in that way, but even playing rags involves a relatively static placement of the hands. It is believed that Johnson had extremely long fingers, and employed his thumb to get bass notes. I once seriously sought out classes to learn to play in a similar style. I couldn’t afford Dave Van Ronk’s classes, although I did talk to him on the phone. Another guy whom I did meet and study with in his kitchen in Queens, was just dreadful – -like everybody else, he seemed to approach the thing mechanically without remotely getting at the messy passion, the tension, the anxiety, which REALLY drives Robert Johnson’s music. Why do we believe he met the devil? Because he sure SOUNDS like he met the devil. Not just because his music is good (it is) but because it is terrifying.
In recent years, all sorts of stuff has begun popping up: family anecdotes, more photographs, official documents with dates, and more. Much of this (more than one could ever hope for, actually) has been gathered for the new documentary Devil at the Crossroads: A Robert Johnson Story. The film was produced by the Zimbalist Brothers (who unthinkably have nothing to do with this guy apparently) for the Netflix series Remastered. I’ve caught several other installments in the series: Tricky Dick and the Man in Black, The Two Killings of Sam Cooke, and The Miami Showband Massacre, but this one tops them all. It was directed by Brian Oakes, who also directed Who Killed Jam Master Jay? in the series
The movie contains so many treasures it’s hard to know where to start. One major thrill is the presence of Johnson’s actual DNA. His grandsons Steven and Michael Johnson are in the film. I found Steven especially learned and wise on the subject of his grandfather — he even sings like him! There is also some archival footage of Johnson’s son (Steven and Michael’s father) Maurice Johnson, who had only met his rambling father twice as a boy.
The amazing scholar/musician Bruce Conforth is another linchpin in the film, someone whose research has not only unlocked the mystery of Johnson’s life but also the mystery of his sound. He plays a little snatch in the movie, and he gets Johnson’s sound better than anybody I’ve ever heard…except for professional musician Rory Block who has truly nailed it. The pair have contrasting approaches. Conforth seems to have reverse engineered the actual records, which he recreates to sound just like Johnson, which is impressive enough, as I’d never heard anyone do that with any genuine fidelity before. Block uses the opposite approach — she has mastered Johnson’s technique (or something like it), producing new fills and riffs that sound as though Johnson were actually playing. I was also impressed to see the great second-generation musician/scholar/ archivist John Hammond do an impressive stab at it as well, although he would have to be rated in third place in this particular sweepstakes. Hammond’s own research on, and championing of, Johnson over the years (and that of his late father John Hammond Sr) is of course crucial to the story. My brother played with Hammond Jr at a gig once — of course I’m going to be riveted by all this.
Other insights into Johnson’s playing comes from recorded interviews with the great Son House, who testified that Johnson had installed a seventh string on to his guitar. We also learn that Johnson studied for as long as a year with a guy with the unlikely name of Ike Zimmerman (Conforth is currently researching him; we’re sure to do a post on him subsequently). No less an eminence than Keith Richards is also in the film. Richards compares Johnson to Bach (many have commented on how Johnson played the guitar like a piano). Richards confesses that the Rolling Stones didn’t even attempt to sound like Johnson when they covered “Love in Vain”. Other musicians in the film include Taj Mahal, himself a national treasure, as well Keb’ Mo’, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, and Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry.
Scholarly perspective is provided by Karlos K. Hill, Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma; Yvonne Chireau, Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College (who gives us the lowdown on hoodoo); Adam Gussow, professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi (and a blues harmonica player); Elijah Wald, author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues; and Zeke Schein, author of Portrait of a Phantom: Story of Robert Johnson’s Lost Photograph .
And the film has one more star: its setting. The filmmakers show us the very shack where Johnson was likely born, and the spot, known as Three Forks, where he was murdered. They take us to Johnson’s hometown of Hazlehurst, Mississippi and to the Robert Johnson Museum. And plenty of beautiful B roll of Mississippi countryside, bayou, cottonfields, and dusty red clay dirt roads, along with archival footage of the kind of juke joints where Johnson used to play.
I’ve already watched the film twice and will watch it many more times, and not just for the story it tells. The film is a great opportunity to do something Johnson would never allow: watch these musicians fingers when they play.