By Gillian G. Gaar
On December 23, 1938, guitarist Robert Johnson was scheduled to make what would’ve been the most prestigious appearance in his career thus far on the hallowed stage of Carnegie Hall in New York City. Producer John Hammond had organized a show, “From Spirituals To Swing” subtitled “An Evening Of American Negro Music,” with acts like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, and Robert Johnson among those on the bill. But news traveled slower in those days, a time when most American homes didn’t even have telephones, and people were more likely to learn what was happening in the world from the newsreels playing at the local movie house. Thus it was that Johnson was announced as a performer, his name appearing in the show’s ads, before Hammond learned that he would be unable to attend; that Robert Johnson had died the previous August, in mysterious circumstances. Hammond was nonetheless determined to showcase Johnson’s music, and opened the show by having a record player brought on stage, then playing two of Johnson’s songs, “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil),” and “Walkin’ Blues.” Two months later, Johnson’s last single “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)”/“Love In Vain Blues,” was released, offering a final glimpse of his work, and a tantalizing look at what might have been.
It wouldn’t have been a surprise if Robert Johnson, and the 12 records that carried his name, had then slipped into obscurity. But in 1961, at Hammond’s instigation, Columbia released the album “King Of The Delta Blues Singers,” which featured 16 of Johnson’s songs, three of them previously unreleased. Coming smack dab in the middle of the folk revival, the album caught the attention of many younger musicians, especially from England; Hammond also passed on a copy to an artist he’d recently signed to Columbia, Bob Dylan. “King of the Delta Blues Singers: Vol. II” followed in 1970, and the 1990 release “Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings,” went platinum and received a Grammy for Best Historical Album. Johnson’s music has been regularly covered as well; over the past 50 years, his songs have been recorded by dozens of artists, most notably Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones, but also Etta James, Jimi Hendrix, Patti Smith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bonnie Raitt, and to name a few.
And 2011 will see new releases and events in celebration of the 100th year of Johnson’s (presumed) birth. “Robert Johnson: The Centennial Collection,” has all 42 of Johnson’s known recordings (29 different songs and 13 alternate takes), featuring enhanced sound. “Robert Johnson: The Complete Original Masters — Centennial Edition” is a lavish box set that has Johnson’s recordings on both CD and replica 78 rpm discs, along with a DVD of the 1997 documentary “Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl: The Life and Music of Robert Johnson.” The Robert Johnson Blues Foundation has announced that a number of events will be held throughout the year, including a Robert Johnson Festival, scheduled to be held November 11 in Biloxi, Mississippi (check www.robertjohnsonbluesfoundation.org for info, as well as details on other events). You can even drink the commemorative Robert Johnson beer — “Hell Hound On My Ale,” from Dogfish Head Craft Brewer (www.dogfish.com). Clearly, interest in Johnson’s life and his work has yet to wane.
Most researchers feel Johnson was born on May 8, 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi (though no birth certificate has ever been found, his birth date is listed on his death certificate); while growing up, he also spent time in Memphis, Tennessee, and Robinsonville, Mississippi. He took up music at a young age, teaching himself mouth harp, harmonica, and diddley bow (a primitive one stringed instrument), before eventually moving on to guitar. Since his proficiency on guitar seemed to be acquired at an unusually rapid speed, a myth was born that he’d sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for gaining skill on the instrument; it was a story often told about other blues musicians, such as Howlin’ Wolf and Tommy Johnson (no relation to Robert) rooted in the belief that the blues was itself “the Devil’s music.” Johnson is said to have made this claim himself, talking about a deal made at “the crossroads” (where, the story goes, if you show up at midnight with your guitar, the Devil will appear, tune your instrument, play a song on it, and pass it back to you, passing on great skill as well) though how serious he was in relating this story has been much debated. There’s even a debate over the actual location of crossroads in question: was it in Clarksdale, Mississippi or in Memphis?
Throughout the 1930s, until his death in 1938, Johnson traveled and performed extensively, primarily in the south, though he also ventured to Chicago, Detroit, New York, and even Canada. In 1936, he approached H.C. Speir, who ran a music store in Jackson, Mississippi and was known to be a talent scout, about making a record. After hearing a few of Johnson’s songs, Speir was sufficiently impressed to refer him to Ernie Oertle, a salesman for the American Record Corporation (ARC) who also did some talent scouting. Oertle liked what he heard, and made arrangements for Johnson to record in a “studio” set up in the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, with Don Law producing.
Over the course of three days, Johnson recorded 16 different songs, all originals. November 23: “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” “When You Got A Good Friend,” “Come On In My Kitchen,” and “Terraplane Blues.” November 26: “32-20 Blues.” November 27: “They’re Red Hot,” “Dead Shrimp Blues,” “Cross Road Blues,” “Walkin’ Blues,” “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil),” and “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” The songs are deceptively simple, just featuring acoustic guitar and voice. But Johnson’s guitar work is exacting and delicate, and his keening, plaintive vocals add a highly emotive edge, giving the songs a surprising complexity, a hint of deeper currents swirling beneath the surface. But there are light-hearted moments as well, as in the bouncy “They’re Red Hot.”
“Terraplane Blues” was the first single released from the session on Vocalion Records, and would become Johnson’s biggest seller during his lifetime, selling around 5000 copies. A second recording session was held in a Dallas warehouse in June 1937, with Johnson laying down another 13 songs. June 19: “Stones In My Passway,” “I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man,” and “From Four Until Late.” June 20: “Hell Hound On My Trail,” “Little Queen Of Spades,” “Malted Milk,” “Drunken Hearted Man,” “Me And The Devil Blues,” “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” “Honeymoon Blues,” “Love In Vain Blues,” and “Milkcow’s Calf Blues.” It’s again a nice mix of work, from the haunting “Hell Hound On My Trail” to the regretful “Love In Vain Blues” and “Drunken Hearted Man” to the more upbeat “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues.” A total of 42 recordings survive, though historian Steve LaVere (who wrote the liner notes for 1990 Johnson set, and the new Johnson releases) says that a total of 59 masters were shipped to New York to be made into records. The remaining 17 masters are not known to have survived.
Johnson’s records — 11 were released during his lifetime — were not big sellers, but Law nonetheless intended to record him again. But he made no moves to set up a session and Johnson continued his travels. Then his short career came to an abrupt end. In July or August of 1938, Johnson was playing at the Three Forks Store & Jook House outside Greenwood, Mississippi (at the crossroads of Highways 82 and 49E), when he became ill during a performance. He lay bed ridden until his death on August 16, at 27 years of age. As with much of his life, there was a mystery surrounding his death. Legend attributes it to Johnson’s drinking whiskey that had been laced with strychnine by a jealous husband. On the back of his death certificate, it’s noted that the owner of the plantation where Johnson died was of the opinion “that the negro died of syphilis.” Other theories are that the poisoned whiskey merely weakened Johnson, and while he was ill he contracted the pneumonia that ultimately killed him, or that the whiskey was not poisoned but was simply a bad batch of moonshine. But for those who believe the crossroads story, the reason for Johnson’s death is no mystery at all: the Devil simply came to collect on his debt.
Nor was there any consensus on where Johnson was buried: by the Payne Chapel in Quito, Mississippi, the Mount Zion Church near Morgan City, Mississippi, or the Little Zion M.B. Church north of Greenwood, Mississippi? There are markers at all three sites. The only other records Johnson left behind are “marriage application signatures, two photos, a death certificate, a disputed death note, a few scattered school documents and conflicting oral histories,” wrote Tom Graves in “Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Robert Johnson.”
The new releases now carry Johnson’s legacy into the 21st century. After the 1990 release of “The Complete Recordings,” an alternate take of “Traveling Riverside Blues” was discovered. It was first released on 1998 edition of “King Of The Delta Blues Singers,” and is now featured on both “The Centennial Collection” and “The Complete Original Masters.” Those who have pored over every note of the 42 songs will be pleased to know two other snippets have been added, when the microphones pick up a brief bit of guitar prior to Johnson’s recording of “Traveling Riverside Blues,” and an equally short comment from him before “Love In Vain Blues”: “I wanna go on with our next one, myself.” There are also new liner notes in both sets.
Most importantly, the sound has been improved. New digital transfers of all the songs were made from best available copies of the original records and test pressings, with further work then done to reduce noise such as clicks and pops; though as the liner notes point out, some surface hiss remains, for if all of it is eliminated, the upper range of the music is also affected. The difference is apparent even on an average stereo; there’s a clarity, and greater richness, than on the 1990 set.
For those who want to spring for something extra, “The Complete Original Masters” offers nice some nice items. In addition to “The Centennial Collection” CDs, the set also has replicas of the original 12 78s released of Johnson’s work, though the records are made to play at 45 rpm, not 78 rpm. Johnson’s original records were issued on a variety of labels: Vocalion and Perfect, and budget labels Conqueror, Oriole, and Romeo (all owned by ARC), and the replicas feature all of these labels. The records are packaged in a hardbound book that also features a booklet with essays and photos.
To put Johnson’s recordings in more context, there are two CDs with the work of other artists. The “Also Playing” CD features 10 tracks recorded in San Antonio and Dallas at the same time as the Robert Johnson sessions. On the same day Johnson recorded “32-20 Blues,” The Chuck Wagon Gang recorded “The Engineer’s Child”; the same day that saw him work through “Hell Hound On My Trail,” The Light Crust Doughboys recorded “The Eyes of Texas” and “Stay Out of the South,” all of them Western swing, music that made more money for ARC than Johnson’s country blues.
Another CD, “Blues From The Victor Vault,” is a fascinating collection of 24 songs from the Victor archives recorded between 1928 and 1932. Most of the artists were “discovered” by the same man who helped launch Johnson’s career, H.C. Speir. The sound quality on such tracks as “Cannonball Blues” (Furry Lewis), “I Never Told A Lie” (McCoy & Johnson, aka Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe), and the teasing “She’s Got Jordan River In Her Hips” (R.T. Hanen) is excellent.
Rounding out the set, the “Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl” documentary further helps brings Johnson’s story to life. It’s something of a docudrama, with Keb’ Mo’ standing in for Johnson, as no film footage of Johnson exists. Danny Glover serves as narrator, and the film has a more romantic spin than the 1992 documentary, “The Search for Robert Johnson” (the latter film, which has John Hammond’s son as narrator, offers a more comprehensive look at Johnson’s life and work as well). And while “The Centennial Collection” will be available in stores and at online retailers, “The Complete Original Masters” set is only available at www.thecompleterobertjohnson.com.
“You could listen to Johnson’s entire oeuvre in less than two hours…and then devote a lifetime to probing its depths,” Ted Gioia writes in one of his essays for the new releases. “This small body of work ranks among the most vital contributions to modern American arts and culture, and has incontestably shaped the later course of popular music.” Johnson’s legacy rests on the 42 songs he’s left behind. And though at times the weight of his legend seems as if it will overshadow his accomplishments, in the end it’s his music that intrigues, fascinates, and keeps pulling you back to listen once again.