With just forty-one recordings to his credit, Robert Johnson (1911-38) is a giant in the history of blues music. Johnson’s vast influence on twentieth-century American music, combined with his mysterious death at the age of twenty-seven, has allowed speculation and myths to obscure the facts of his life. The most famous of these legends depicts a young Johnson meeting the Devil at a dusty Mississippi crossroads at midnight and selling his soul in exchange for prodigious guitar skills.
In Robert Johnson: Lost and Found, Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch examine the full range of writings about Johnson and sift fact from fiction. They compare conflicting accounts of Johnson’s life, weighing them against interviews with blues musicians and others who knew the man. Through their extensive research Pearson and McCulloch uncover a life every bit as compelling as the fabrications and exaggerations that have sprung up around it. In examining Johnson’s life and music, and the ways in which both have been reinvented and interpreted by other artists, critics, and fans, Robert Johnson: Lost and Found charts the broader cultural forces that have mediated the expression of African American artistic traditions.*
Pearson, a noted blues scholar and professor of English and American studies at the University of Maryland at College Park, discusses the myths surrounding the life and career of Robert Johnson in a November, 2003 interview hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.
Painting by Arthur Davis Broughton
“The point that must be made is this: Robert Johnson’s life was tragic, but only because it ended so early. There is no morality play here. Johnson lived the life he did — singing songs, drinking, and begging favors from every woman he met — not because he was haunted by apocalyptic or supernatural images but because it was the life he chose to live.”
– Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch
Listen to Robert Johnson sing Me And The Devil Blues
JJM Early jazz critics thought Robert Johnson’s music echoed the origins of jazz. Others characterize him as the King of the Delta Blues singers. How would you characterize his music?
BLP I characterize him being a traditional artist whose music was very imaginative. Some people think it is a dichotomy to mention traditional and innovation in the same sentence, but I am a folklorist, and I certainly don’t think that way. Robert Johnson took what was around him, and with great skill and facility, fashioned it into something that was tied to the past but felt brand new and contemporary. I believe jazz musicians tended to see him as part of a generation that was dying out, but I see him more as an innovator who helped the blues tradition move on to the next level. That is certain.
JJM What were his personal characteristics?
BLP Since I never knew him, it is hard for me to have a complete understanding about who Robert Johnson was. One thing that we can easily conclude, however, is that people who actually did know him painted a very different picture of him than those who understood him only through analyzing his songs. People who knew him, especially when he was younger, referred to him as a very nice, friendly guy, and as someone you could talk to. He was also very popular with the ladies, which may have contributed to his demise. He had a tendency to “come on” to whatever woman he was attracted to.
JJM What sort of a live performer was he?
BLP There is a really great film called Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? by Peter Meyer that includes interviews with a number of Johnson’s childhood friends from the Robinsville, Mississippi area where he grew up. They describe him in much the same way that John Shines did later in life, as being a very dynamic live performer. He would dance and play at the same time, had a very keen voice, and possessed a full guitar style that people admired. It is a picture of an energetic man — quite the opposite of the demented, withdrawn character latter day critics have portrayed him to be.
JJM Other musicians of the era recall Johnson playing a wide repertoire of songs.
BLP Yes, he played whatever people wanted. He supposedly had a “phonographic” memory — whatever he heard he could recreate. And he did so to good effect, because as a walking musician he was dependent for much of his income on being able to play music that people wanted to hear. He could play ethnic music, hillbilly music, popular songs, and he probably played a number of songs that he wrote but did not record. People point out a song of his called “Mr. Downchild,” for example, and at least a half dozen other titles that he never recorded, and they remember him having ballads like “Casey Jones” in his repertoire. Fortunately, after he had a couple of hits, people wanted to hear those songs.
JJM Why is he regarded so differently from other blues artists of that era?
BLP That is a real mystery. We titled our book, Robert Johnson: Lost and Found, as a way to counteract the mystery surrounding him. For some reason, people were impressed by his music, but early on didn’t know much about him. He has been portrayed as a mystery in publications with titles like Searching for Robert Johnson. What people did discover about Johnson was essentially off-track and anecdotal. His recordings affected his non-traditional audience in an unusual way. I believe that if many of the earlier critics had listened to more blues songs, and if they heard similar artists, he might not have been portrayed as such a mysterious figure.
JJM Along those lines, you wrote, “We argue that the key to Johnson’s music, especially for anyone who plans to write authoritatively about it, is not just the feeling it evokes in the solitary listener. One also needs to know something about the time and place in which Johnson performed and the mainly rural, mainly African American people with whom he commiserated over the wayward nature of men and women, the hardships of day-to-day life, and the fragility of relationships.” It seems as though writers were reluctant to consider Johnson in such a context.
BLP That’s right. From the earliest description of his music — which would have been John Hammond’s in 1937 — he writes that Johnson is more authentic than anybody else. Why he had that effect on listeners at that time is a bit of a mystery, because I don’t believe his regular audience thought of him as being greater than any other musicians of that era.
People have argued this question forever; was Robert Johnson a great musician or was he just an average musician? I certainly think he was an excellent musician, but some argue that Lonnie Johnson was a better guitar player, or that someone else may have been a better singer. But he had some qualities in his music that continue to endure. It has worked for generation after generation, and probably would even without the benefit of all the hype that is associated with it. But I do think that the history of the hype and the legendary version of Johnson cause people to initially hear his music in a slanted way.
The reason I have never felt very comfortable with they hype is because, as a musician, I knew him by his songs like “Sweet Home Chicago,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” and “Kind Hearted Woman Blues.” These were songs that Chicago blues musicians played when I was growing up. There is nothing mysterious about these songs — they talk essentially about movement, travel, women, and having a good time. These songs are all quite danceable. I have always felt that songs like “Hellhound On My Trail” were the least characteristic of those Robert Johnson wrote.
JJM Yet that is the song that critics most often use to characterize Johnson.
BLP Exactly. If you go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, their exhibit on Johnson is titled, “Robert Johnson, Hellhound On the Trail.” Almost every chapter within the exhibit is titled “Hellhound On His Trail,” “Robert Johnson and the Devil,” or something to that effect.
JJM So, “Hellhound On My Trail” was the song that was probably least in character, yet the critical establishment grabbed hold of it. Why? Was it about marketing?
BLP Initially, I think it had to do with Rudi Blesh, a jazz critic who in 1946 wrote a book called Shining Trumpets, which was a compilation of writings that discussed different types of music and gave examples of what he had in his record collection. He had “Hellhound On My Trail” in his collection and, for some reason, chose that song to represent Johnson. He wrote about it in language that was almost unbelievably florid, and speculated about what type of person Robert Johnson must have been to write a song like that.
JJM He described the song as being “ full of evil, surcharged with the terror of one alone among the moving, unseen shapes of the night.”
BLP Yes, and who knows where he got that? The whole story of how the mythology of Robert Johnson evolved is quite interesting because it is consistently wrong from the beginning, but it does change over time. Rudi Blesh deserves credit for being the person who initially links Robert Johnson to that one single song, “Hellhound On My Trail,” a song that was so unlike others that Johnson was doing — except for the songs written by others that Johnson covered. What I mean by that is that he could incorporate something into his own style, or he could pick up on other people’s style. In “Hellhound,” it seems clear there are a half dozen other songs — going all the way back to Skip James’ “I Would Rather be the Devil Than Be My Woman’s Man” — that Robert Johnson used in putting that song together.
I also suspect that there was some input from his producer Don Law, because J.T. Smith — who Law also produced — recorded a song, “Howling Wolf Blues No. 3,” that talked about hellhounds getting on his trail. This was a big hit for Don Law when he was still a jobber for the Brunswick label, so it was a chance for him to reprise one of his biggest successes. It is funny, hellhound comes in a little bit later, in a sort of comic prisoner’s song by Lightnin’ Hopkins called “Long Gone Like A Turkey Through Corn,” or “Long Gone, Lost John.” I had been playing this song for a long time and just recently noticed that he references the hellhound too. “What can I see? It is the hellhounds coming after me.” It was produced by Mack McCormick, the man who wrote the most about Robert Johnson and the aura of evil that surrounded him.
JJM During that era many performers sang songs referring to the devil. As an example, Bessie Smith sang a number of songs with the word “Devil” in them. Weren’t references to the devil within the blues genre common in Johnson’s day?
BLP Yes. Johnson mentioned the devil in two songs in his repertoire, “Me and the Devil” and “Hellhound On My Trail.” As you said, Bessie Smith sang about six songs, and another half dozen about hoodoo magic. If you look in the discography from the thirties era, there are a huge number of songs that had to do with the devil. That is somewhat mysterious to me. My assumption is that it had to do with revising the image of the devil, and making him into a more comic character. But, all of Johnson’s songs usually talk about the devil as something associated with a woman’s unwillingness to behave properly. For example, “It must have been the devil to cause my baby to do what she did.”
JJM Well, that one word, “devil,” communicates a lot.
BLP Indeed. I found a song by Bo Carter from 1938 called “Old Devil,” in which he sings, “Go back, old devil, look up on your shelf/Get some soap and water and bathe your dirty self.” He was telling the devil to wash! And then he goes into a verse depicting violence: “I am going to beat my baby with a rope and a line/I beat my baby until she went stone blind.” So, that reminds us a little bit about Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues.”
JJM How did the myth of his selling his soul to the devil begin?
BLP That is a very popular traditional legend, as it is in European folk tradition with the Faust motif. It is also found in African tradition, where a person becomes involved with a spirit helper, and makes a pact with it. In almost every version, the person gets scared and runs away. They are more cautionary tales than anything else, but Robert Johnson supposedly had it attached to him in a 1960 article by Pete Welding in which he quotes Son House suggesting that Johnson, in his months away from home, “Sold his soul to the devil in exchange for learning to play (the guitar) like that.” We found no one who could corroborate that — no one who worked with Son House ever heard him say anything similar to that. And we were also suspicious because the statement is not in quotation marks, nor is it quoted directly from any interview format. It really doesn’t sound like Son House’s language, although I suppose one could argue about that. So Welding’s article was the first time a person put that accusation into print, and it was based, essentially, on the idea that Robert Johnson learned to play the guitar in a hurry.
JJM Right, because the story is that he wasn’t a particularly good guitarist. But he went away for a few months and came back a virtual virtuoso.
BLP Yes, but in fact he was probably gone longer than a few months. We found out later that he had someone teach him play, and that he possessed a lot of great, unrefined ideas prior to taking lessons. People would say the same thing about Charlie Parker. He was just as bad as he could be until he went away and became great.
JJM Sure, but we don’t say Charlie Parker sold his soul to the devil.
BLP True, although one could probably do so and generate as much evidence or more for him as they do for Johnson. As I said, there are a lot of artists who sang about the devil, but for some reason during that time, it was an interesting kind of marketing hype.
JJM Twenty years after Johnson’s death, record producer and writer Samuel Charters wrote, “Johnson’s singing becomes so disturbed it is almost impossible to understand the words. The voice and the guitar rush in an incessant rhythm. As he sings he seems to cry out in a high falsetto voice. Johnson seems emotionally disturbed by the image of the devil. The figure seems to be his torment.” How did Charters come to the conclusion that Johnson was tormented by the devil?
BLP We have a lot of problems with that. Welding himself, when that was re-published, talked about that being vintage rococo Welding writing. That is another thing we noticed about the myth building of Robert Johnson — that one writer would try to outdo the previous one in terms of how wild their theories could get. My favorite Welding passage was in the liner notes to the second Johnson LP, which tried to present him as a rock and roll innovator, but he still used the same language and some of the same material, in fact, from that earlier “Hellhound On His Trail” essay. He refers to him as an Orpheus on his journey along the Labyrinthian path of the human psyche, and he says, “In his songs one hears the impassioned, unheeded cries of man, ruthless and purposeless, the acrid stench of evil turns ever in his mind.” I mean, really! What did Howlin’ Wolf say about him? He said Robert had a nice personality, and was a nice looking guy that women went for. Willie Mae Powell says he was the “cutest little brown thing you ever saw.”
JJM The musicians clearly heard his music differently than the literary critics did.
BLP Yes. Martin Scorsese says he was pure legend. While our book may not change people’s reaction to the legend or the mythology — because that is firmly in place — it is reasonable to think it will cause us to take another look at what Robert Johnson was like as a person, and what his initial audience thought of his music. It may also cause people to think about who benefited from the creation of these reconfigurations of Robert Johnson. How did things get so out of hand with Robert Johnson? Nobody knows.