It’s midnight in Mississippi, on a sultry, moonless night. The air pluses thick with the vibrato hum of night-song, the slippery whispers of cornstalks in the breeze, and the rustling of small, dark things underfoot. Two shadowy figures approach from opposite directions; swirling eddies of dust hang in the humid air behind them as each makes their way towards the point where their paths will cross. The boy moves quickly, tripping forward, glancing back; the other makes his way with assured inevitability, silence swallowing up the night behind him like a vacuum. They meet. The boy lithely slips the shape of a guitar from his back and holds it between them, and his companion takes hold, massive hands wrapping tightly around the neck as he deliberately turns each key before handing the instrument back. The boy blinks, and the man is gone. The air rushes back into the crossroads, the night-sounds of Mississippi summer once again fill the darkness, and the boy, breathless, begins to play.
Perhaps more than any other genre, the blues is a music built on its mythology. More story than style, more feeling than reason, it’s filled with tales of quick affairs in darkened rooms, of the deceptive pull of heat-shimmer on blacktop, of high stakes, low odds, and deals made in blood. The narrative of blues legend Robert Johnson is no exception. Though little is known about his life, an impressive body of lore has risen from the dark to fill in the gaps, melding with facts and speculation until the man and the myth are nearly indistinguishable.
Though legend credits Johnson’s preeminence in the blues to a Faustian bargain, claiming that he traded his soul to the devil for his otherworldly skill on the guitar, the truth is that Johnson earned his right to play the blues long before his midnight trip to the crossroads. The product of an affair between a married woman and a plantation hand, Robert Johnson was born black and a bastard in the rural South on the cusp of the Great Depression, spent his youth shuffling between the blues Meccas of the Mississippi Delta and Memphis, Tennessee, and had both married and lost a wife and child by the age of nineteen. His twentieth year found him poor, alone, and heavy with grief –there was nothing left to do but to play the blues.
Johnson’s early days on the blues circuit showed little evidence of the master he would one day become. He began his career as a worse-than-average guitar player, and his tendency to hang around juke joints—snatching other musicians’ guitars and strumming them out of tune during intermissions—earned him more a reputation as a nuisance than a luminary. It wasn’t until he met Ike Zimmerman—a man of purported unearthly talent himself—that he underwent a transformation that planted the seed for his suspected Faustian dealings and future fame. Under Zimmerman’s tutelage, Johnson suddenly went from an irksome neophyte to the star of the show, able to alternate effortlessly between popular standards ranging from Bing Crosby to polka, and absolutely mastering the blues.
Like many blues musicians, Johnson made his home on the open road, traveling the country from New York to Tupelo, “cutting heads” on street corners to earn his keep and pausing in each town only long enough to slake his thirst and close his eyes. In 1936, he dipped into a Texas studio where—though he couldn’t have known it at the time—he laid down the twenty-nine tracks that would come to make up the entire canon of his recorded music, since less than a year after walking into the studio, Robert Johnson was dead.
An itinerant musician with a devilish eye, long fingers, and a preternatural penchant for the blues, Johnson was notorious ladies’ man, and legend has it that it was his weakness for women and whiskey that brought him to his end. Though his death certificate lists no cause, rumors spread that he was poisoned, served tainted whiskey by a jealous bar owner whose wife the bluesman had wooed. Johnson lay writhing in pain for three days before death arrived, beating renowned talent scout John Hammond—who had allegedly spent weeks scouring the Mississippi backwoods for Johnson—by only a matter of hours.
In a twist of fate, what could be perceived as the greatest tragedy of Johnson’s life laid the groundwork for his greatest success. Though Hammond had not beaten death to Johnson’s door, he was so moved by the bluesman’s talent that he played two of Johnson’s recorded songs during a live show at Carnegie Hall. The haunting poetry of Johnson’s music—the bone-ache chill of his voice, the finely articulated web of his guitar-work, and hollow wail of his bottle slide—coming from across the grave to hang over the assembled upper-crust of New York Society lent his music an air of otherworldly gravitas that might have otherwise been missed. Though Johnson died at twenty-seven, leaving behind a relatively minimal body of work and an even more minimal history, he has grown in both popularity and repute, lauded as one of the greatest blues musicians of all time and as an inspiration for generations to come.