It’s a little like paleontology, this business of piecing together the probable shape of Robert Johnson’s life. What we know or can speculate about him is based on a few fragments of fossilized information unearthed long after his death, and the eyewitness accounts of those who claim to have known him.
Naturally, as befits a figure as shrouded in myth and urban legend as Robert Johnson, much of the record is buried in contradiction and the treacherous muck of suspect memory.
Here’s what we have in the way of (mostly) established fact:
He was born May 8 1911, in Hazelhurst, MS. He lived and attended school in Memphis for a time. He was married twice, once in 1929 to a girl named Virginia Travis who died in childbirth, and once in 1931 to a woman named Callie Craft, who died in 1933. Johnson spent nearly all of his adulthood as an itinerant musician, traveling from place to place.
We know he was at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX at the end of November 1936, recording music for producer (and future Columbia Records country music luminary) Don LawThe year after Johnson’s last sessions, Law would produce Bob Wills’ signature song, ‘San Antonio Rose’, and later in his career would produce Johnny Horton’s … Continue reading in a trio of sessions. ‘Cross Road Blues’ was recorded in the last of these sessions, on November 27 1936. He was in Dallas, TX in June 1937 for a pair of follow-up sessions with Law.
Robert Johnson died in Greenwood, MS on August 16 1938, age 27, of unknown causes,There are no fewer than three separate locations that lay claim to being the final resting place of Robert Johnson — because of course there are — and it’s entirely possible he … Continue reading leaving behind innumerable tall tales of dubious veracity, three confirmed photographs (all of which only came to light decades after his death), and the entirety of his recorded body of work: 29 songs and 13 surviving outtakes.
Beyond and between these (mostly) verifiable facts, we have the recollections of those who knew him — Son House, Robert Lockwood, Robert Shines, etc. — pointing to a personality who was intelligent, charismatic, and mercurial. His step-sister Annye Anderson remembered ‘Brother Robert’ as well-read and a sharp dresser; a long way from the illiterate country loner of myth. As blues scholar Elijah Wald put it, “Robert Johnson was as much the guy from Memphis, who went out into the country and was the hip city guy, as he ever was the guy from the dark Delta who went up to the cities.”
What’s not in dispute is the eclectic virtuosity displayed on Johnson’s twenty-nine recordings and their heavy influence on later generations of musicians. Robert Johnson was, to put it bluntly, an absolutely fucking killer guitar player, and few indeed were the guitarists dedicated to their craft who heard his work and remained unmoved by it.
Eric Clapton called Johnson the most important blues singer who ever lived. It’s hard to imagine Elmore James without Robert Johnson, and impossible to imagine the Rolling Stones (or ZZ Top or Stevie Ray Vaughan) without Elmore James. The first time Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ever laid eyes on Brian Jones was while Jones was playing ‘Dust My Broom’…a cover of Elmore James doing a cover of Robert Johnson.
Johnson’s songs, including ‘Cross Road Blues’, were collected and re-released by Columbia in 1961…just in time for any number of future British Invaders to hear it and then develop an itch to emulate it, cross-breeding its sounds and preoccupations with what they were hearing from Sun Records and Chess Records. Bands and artists like Cream — who did their own highly stylized cover of ‘Cross Road Blues’ — the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and Led Zeppelin, just to name a few, would mine the resulting style for years to come.
Michael Strum: “Where to start? At the beginning (1911 in Hazlehurst, MS) How about with the numbers? 481?! Too low. We have to agree on certain things, certain basic stipulations, in order to have any kind of meaningful dialogue. The sun emits light. Objects fall to the earth if unsupported. All people are equal in the eyes of the law. Rape is wrong. If we don’t agree on these fundamental things, then we don’t share enough to have meaningful social contracts and society collapses. If we don’t agree that ‘Cross Road Blues’ is —at worst — a top-50 track, if we don’t agree that every Robert Johnson song is better than every Britney Spears or every Madonna song, then we are nowhere and careening towards oblivion. Everyone needs to listen to more Robert Johnson, and ‘Cross Road Blues’ is a wonderful place to start.”
Rolling Stone: The primal terror in the Mississippi bluesman’s voice, and his mystifying slide guitar playing, transfixed the Sixties generation of British rockers: “I could take the music only in very small measures because it was so intense,” said Eric Clapton. Recorded during a session at a San Antonio hotel room in 1936, two years before Johnson was murdered at 27, “Cross Road Blues” is a mythmaking statement of spiritual desolation and scorched-earth betrayal — even if the legend that it’s about Johnson selling his soul to the devil in exchange for his monster guitar chops is, as far as we know, apocryphal.
|↑1||The year after Johnson’s last sessions, Law would produce Bob Wills’ signature song, ‘San Antonio Rose’, and later in his career would produce Johnny Horton’s ‘Battle of New Orleans’, Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso’, and Jimmy Dean’s ‘Big Bad John’.|
|↑2||There are no fewer than three separate locations that lay claim to being the final resting place of Robert Johnson — because of course there are — and it’s entirely possible he isn’t in any of them.|