The Legend of Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson is regarded as the most 'definitive' blues legend. Details of his life are twirled with rumour, lies, tall tales and sinful mystery. From myths of dancing and dealing with the devil, to stories of adulterous and amoral relationships with women, Johnson had it all, he was the caricature on which any serious blues icon had to base himself.
Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. This fact is fairly well established however his birthdate is of debate. He was born on the 8th of May in either 1911 or 1912. Through school he was noted as being an already gifted harmonica player.
In February 1929 Johnson married the 16 year old Virginia Travis. However the marriage did not last long as she passed during childbirth. After this, tales of Johnson begin to delve darker. He began to pursue the blues musician Son House and Willie Brown, trying, but failing to imitate the music he heard on guitar. He was booed from different stages and could not stand near the shadow of the great early blues musicians.
After struggling with audiences and his music, according to the tale of Son House, Johnson disappeared for several months (some reports state weeks, some even years). This journey Johnson made has become the foundation of legend which as become the backbone of the blues mythology.
Near midnight Johnson took his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation, Mississippi. He was met by a large, frightening, black man (interpreted as the Devil) who picked up Johnson’s guitar and tuned it to perfect pitch. After this he played a few songs through a cackled and powered throat, then returned it back to Johnson. After this Johnson aquired the mastery of guitar which he most idolised. He suddenly became able not only to play the songs he had so longed for, but he could surpass them in his own unique style. However, as price for this ‘gift’ the devil took away Johnson’s soul and owning his afterlife.
The tale has been told in many differing forms. Placing the area of the meeting, the time of the meeting and the events that occurred in a hazy light. However the fact remains that Johnson suddenly, near miraculously became a master of the guitar. Another version of the tale states that Johnson supposedly met the Devil in a graveyard rather than the Crossroads. However this can be partially backed up by blues scholar Bruce Conforth, who writes that Johnson did in fact spend nights playing the blues in a graveyard, for the simple reason that it was quiet and empty.
However this still not shed light on the fact that Johnson became such a master in such a short period. Although repetitively playing in a graveyard, would surely act to inspire a musician and surely push them to learn quickly, they would not develop so “sinfully” quickly as Johnson appeared to. One perhaps more scientific suggestion could be that Robert Johnson was gifted with the ability of perfect pitch.
With such recordings as "Cross Roads Blues," "Hellhound on my Trail," and "Me and the Devil Blues," Johnson perpetuated this tale, without ever confirming it.
What is fact, is that Johnson gave music a legend; a tale which will entice budding young musicians for generations. He is a mythological figure, and like the magic which he produced, it is perhaps so much more beautiful when it is a mystery.