By Jonah Krueger, Staff Writer
[Photo via NPR]
It was a clear night in the delta. The air was crisp, the subtle wind only noticeable because of the stillness of the surroundings. A young black man approaches an empty crossroads accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, which hides in a beat-up, hardcover case. He opens the case, falls to his knees and wails.
Overwhelmed with musical ambition, but stifled by Jim Crow, systemic economic instability and strict venue owners, he has come to these roads driven by desperation and determination. Before he lifts his head, he can feel the warmth of sudden light, but this warmth comes with no comfort—only fear. He looks up and nods in acceptance. All at once, his guitar strings start to tune and he feels a rush of power—power undercut by a growing sense of emptiness and dread. Just as quickly as it came, the light was gone. Satisfied but scared, the man stands, brushes himself off and starts making his way back into town.
Thus, the myth of the delta blues king, Robert Johnson. Created to explain his tragically short, mysterious life and his incredible ability to play the blues, it is undeniably compelling but has almost certainly taken its shape through a cycle of hyperbole akin to the oral tradition of fables or a blues-inspired game of telephone.
Read more: ACRN Celebrates: Sylvester, Queen of Disco
That being said, one must only listen to the 29 songs he left us with or read the cliff notes of his foggy biography to understand why the legend has grown to be what it is today.
The awe-inspiring guitar playing, the broken, profoundly compelling stories and his incredibly emotional and expressive vocal performance comes across as almost inhuman. Add to that a lack of historical records during his lifetime and a still-contested cause of death, and you have a figure ripe for mythology.
Regardless, the music speaks for itself. Songs like “Hellhound on My Trail”, “Cross Road Blues”, “Love in Vain” and “Sweet Home Chicago” have become mainstays in the blues canon, and everyone from Eric Clapton to The Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan cites Johnson as a primary influence.
Today, the tracks in Johnson’s short catalog have become some of the most common to cover, with modern acts like The White Stripes even dipping their toes into the waters of Robert Johnson.
The image of Johnson sitting in a chair facing the corner of the room and recording alone with his guitar (a technique he used to produce his signature sound) has been firmly established in the cultural zeitgeist. As the official Robert Johnson website states, “If … a person knows of only one country blues artist, odds are it is Robert Johnson.”
All of this prestige and influence, however, is unfortunately linked to tragedy. Johnson, one of the first to join the infamous “27 Club,” never got a chance to witness even a fraction of the importance and universality of his art. Nor would he earn more than a maybe a couple hundred dollars in his lifetime for the totality of his recordings.
Born into a segregated America and living too short to see even the beginnings of the civil rights movement, Robert Johnson, like so many foundational blues and rock and roll artists of color, was completely and utterly exploited.
White talent scouts would bring in prominent artists for labels run by executives (who were, guess what, also white) to record “race records,” paying the artists little compensation for their work and offering absolutely no royalties. Even in a world where he would have lived long enough to see his music grow to the height of its popularity, Robert Johnson would have seen none of the profits.
Now, almost a century after his death, efforts are being made to redirect the fruits of Johnson’s music.
The Robert Johnson Blues Foundation, in addition to promoting the artist’s legacy, uses Johnson’s music to increase the economic welfare of Copiah County, Mississippi through supporting arts programs and offering scholarships—a small, but meaningful step toward reclaiming the legacy of foundational African American artists.
Whether Robert Johnson played Faust or not, his music and legacy have evolved to do unquestionable good.
Innovating in the rigid space that was the delta blues, directly inspiring the biggest pioneers in rock music and now posthumously making contributions to help the communities he came from, Johnson’s iconography is as important as it is mythologized.
The man sang the hell out of the blues and, even though he will never know it, has rightfully become one of the most legendary figures in musical and African American history.
If you would like to contribute to the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation, you can do so here.