King of the Delta Blues, with a hell hound on his trail, a lemon that needs squeezing, and ramblin’ on his mind.
Almost a century ago, Robert Johnson was a 19 year old, so-so guitar player living in Robinsonville, Mississippi. Around 1930, he disappeared from town for a short while and, upon his return, played the blues with a skill and technique heretofore unknown. A supernatural skill, one might say.
Whispers quickly spread that Johnson had waited at a particular crossroads, at midnight under a full moon, and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for becoming a master bluesman. He only fanned the flames by writing songs with titles such as “Cross Road Blues” and “Me and The Devil Blues,” and the fire grew higher when he died a few years later, at the age of 27, under mysterious circumstances.
What’s the truth? Who cares? A great story beats the truth every time.
During his short stay on this earth, Johnson mostly made a living as a wandering musician, playing at juke joints and parties, moving from town to town, wherever he could pick up a buck in those lean Depression years. Despite his obvious talent, he was only recorded at two sessions — once in a hotel room in San Antonio, TX in 1936, and again in Dallas in 1937.
29 songs. Music that changed the course of history. Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones and countless others found themselves transfixed and transformed by his songs.
Johnson would die before he could record again, reputedly poisoned by a jealous husband who didn’t like Robert flirting with his wife. Or maybe the devil came to collect on their deal. Both possibilities burnish the legend of a haunted man, possessed by the blues.
So you can run, you can run — tell my friend Willie Brown. Here’s the least you need to know:
Those 29 songs.
You can get them however you want, but do, indeed, get them. In the 1960’s, people would have heard Johnson on a record titled King Of The Delta Blues Singers (released in 1961, it’s basically how everyone discovered Robert Johnson over the ensuing years — you can see a copy of it in the studio while The Beatles are working on the Get Back sessions), but nowadays you could also go with The Centennial Collection, which contains all of his songs, plus alternate takes of about half the tracks, plus the best sound as of this writing.
I had no idea that he was the origin of that song, and what an intriguing backstory.
The mystery makes for a great story!