Music » Music Feature

The Robert Johnson Variations

Three generations of musicians play the songs and ponder the legend of the archetypal Delta bluesman.



A few facts about the life of legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson are more or less universally accepted. He was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, on May 8, 1911. With the help of Don Law of the American Record Company, he recorded for ARC subsidiary Vocalion in San Antonio and Dallas in 1936 and '37, respectively, cutting 29 songs in total—his entire studio output. He died on August 16, 1938, at age 27, and decades later he would become one of the most influential artists in the history of American popular music.

Since Johnson's death, though, fellow musicians, historians, and fans have fleshed out the framework of his biography with myths and riffs on those myths, which have mutated over time and often contradict one another. Blues scholars tend to agree that the most famous Robert Johnson story—that he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for his talent—didn't arise from any claim Johnson made. It may have ended up attached to him because a Delta bluesman named Tommy Johnson, who preceded Robert but wasn't related to him, liked to tell a similar story about himself; Tommy's tale entered the folklore of the blues revival after his brother LeDell repeated it in the 1960s. Wherever it got started, the crossroads legend definitely gained currency from an interview Son House gave in 1965, where he suggested—possibly as a joke—that Robert Johnson had transformed himself in a year or so from a painfully inept guitarist into a stunning virtuoso with the help of a deal with the devil.

The story of Johnson's death is only slightly easier to pin down—it's clear, at the very least, that he actually did die. One version says that the owner of a general store and juke joint near Greenwood, Mississippi, suspected Johnson of having a tryst with his wife and gave him whiskey laced with strychnine. But it's possible the poison merely weakened Johnson, allowing pneumonia to finish him—he took three days to die, and strychnine usually kills quicker. Some researchers believe he may have had syphilis as well. Johnson's death certificate lists the cause of his demise simply as "no doctor."

In this centennial year of Johnson's birth, the album 100 Years of Robert Johnson (Ryko/Big), due out March 1, celebrates his myth, music, and legacy. It consists of ten re-creations of Johnson's songs by Colorado rock band Big Head Todd & the Monsters—guitarist and vocalist Todd Park Mohr, bassist Rob Squires, drummer Brian Nevin, and keyboardist Jeremy Lawton—with crucial help from three generations of blues artists. Joined on the album by B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Charlie Musselwhite, Ruthie Foster, Cedric Burnside, and Lightnin' Malcolm, Mohr's band became the Big Head Blues Club.

King, Musselwhite, and Foster aren't traveling with the Big Head Blues Club on its 21-city tour, which stops at Symphony Center on Friday. But the lineup is impressive even without them. Burnside and Lightnin' Malcolm, both in their 30s, bring a modern blues sensibility to the project; Sumlin, 79, is best known for playing guitar in Howlin' Wolf's band for more than 20 years; and Honeyboy, a 95-year-old Delta blues icon and a Chicagoan since the 1950s, knew Johnson personally. Mohr and the four bluesmen shared stories they'd heard about Johnson—and, in Honeyboy's case, memories of him—and unsurprisingly came to little consensus on the details of his life. Everyone seemed sure, though, that the legends are true when it comes to what Honeyboy names as Johnson's twin obsessions: "whiskey and women."

Honeyboy: I first met Mr. Robert Johnson when I was 20 years of age, in 1935. I had been playing in Memphis with the Memphis Jug Band, and I got to Lake Cormorant, and at that time Robert was living down there. He weighed about 145 pounds, small, kinda skinny, long fingers. Real nice guy. He would talk to people, but he wasn't a big talker and raise a lot of hell, just a normal conversation person.

Sumlin: Look here, let me tell you: Howlin' Wolf knows Robert Johnson. Wolf told me about the guy, he knowed him, but he never recorded none of Robert Johnson's stuff. Wolf told me one time he got a chance to see him. He said, "Robert Johnson, that guy really got the blues." But Muddy Waters didn't [talk about Johnson] when I was with him. If he did, I didn't pay no attention to him. I wasn't interested, man—I was interested in what I was doing. Sure, I like to hear people, but my music—I got my own stuff, I tell you.

Burnside: My granddad [R.L. Burnside] had told me the legend that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads when I was seven years old. It was scary, especially me being a kid, but it was hard to believe. In real life, no one has seen the devil—I just know what's on television, just horns and stuff—so it's kinda hard to believe a guy can sell his soul to the devil. But he do got great music out of it.

Mohr: It's pretty fantastical, him meeting with the devil and doing a deal to achieve his virtuosity, but I'm not a believer. But I think it does point to something significant, which is the conflict and the connectedness between the religious traditions and blues traditions.

Lightnin' Malcolm: I kinda believed it when I first heard it. When you talk about the crossroads, I always tell people you're at the crossroads every day of your life. You can do right or do evil. Even in my life growing up—I grew up in the culture of the church in the 90s, and they still believe the blues to be the devil's music. So a guy like Robert Johnson, he loved the blues but he wanted to do what the church expects you to do, so I think he took on that persona—"I'm working for the devil, then." That was hype at the time: Somebody say they saw him playing the blues and really pulling the spirit out of himself, and they couldn't understand that power if they didn't see it in church. If they saw that power in a juke joint where people are drinking, they thought he had to sell himself to the devil to tap into that imagery.

Honeyboy: I don't know about that, the crossroads. It could have been. I know when I was young, I used to go to the crossroads to play the blues. What we call the crossroads are when you come out your house and the road to your house and the other road to their house meets. I'd sit out there with a half pint of whiskey and play the blues.

Sumlin: They say it was at the crossroads. They told me stuff and he made a deal with the devil, this and that. . . . I tell you, I just don't believe some of this stuff, ever.

Burnside: It's a sad story, but I heard he got a divorce from his first wife, got married a second time, and they had a baby and his second wife died at 16 years old and his son died with her. After that he started really getting into the guitar. That's when people started saying he sold his soul to the devil.

Honeyboy: When I met him he was playing the harmonica and standing around drinking whiskey. Next time was next year. He went off, sort of told me that he left, went to Texas, recorded in Texas, and come back with all those hit numbers and those different styles. He learned all that stuff in eight or nine months since he left. He come back playing in his own style, a good style he picked up.

Lightnin' Malcolm: He was trying to play the guitar and couldn't play it good. Then he went away for a short time and came back and was a whole different guy. That's why they say he sold his soul—'cause he got so good so quick. Guys like [Delta blues guitarist] Willie Brown couldn't believe he got so good and improved like that. I think he was just determined to play music for a living. Rather than selling his soul to the devil, he just dedicated it to music and worked on it.

Burnside: You can tell that pretty much everything he talked about, he lived it or went through it. He made low-down dirty blues. That's my heart.

Mohr: There's this impression that a lot of his music is random and haphazard, but it's very calculated. It's one of the marvelous things about the Delta tradition, the care with which the compositions are pulled off.

Sumlin: They say he's a great guitar player. I believe that, because of the way he sounds and everything. It's old stuff from back then, but he came up with it.

Lightnin' Malcolm: I heard guys talking about how he'd come and go and you wouldn't know. Like you wouldn't see him leaving, you'd just look around and he'd be gone. I liked that, cause I'm kinda that way myself.

Burnside: The poisoned whiskey? I heard a little about that, about the night he died. I know it has happened in the past. I've heard from guys getting a little bit tore up with the liquor, mostly moonshine, you know? It poisons your body pretty good. I also heard he was flirting with one of his coworker's wife and one of his coworkers poisoned him.

Honeyboy: The intersection of the two highways, 49 and 82, that's where the club was. Her husband gives her a pint of whiskey to give to Robert. Robert drinks some of the whiskey. That's about one-thirty, one in the morning. People would stay until four or five in the morning. He was high—thought he just needed another drink. They give him a pint of whiskey, but the whiskey was poison. He was laying around. He died on a Wednesday—got poisoned on a Saturday night, died on the Wednesday around ten or eleven o'clock.

Lightnin' Malcolm: Johnson used to chase women and it wouldn't matter if their man was around or nothing. I used to do the same thing—I could see how it could happen. Sometimes you're playing in a club and women get to liking you, hug up on you, and they don't mean no harm, they're just trying to get you stirred up and you're playing hard. I've had situations where I've been playing and a dude was so mad he almost shot me cause of his woman. Thank God I was able to get myself out of that situation.

Honeyboy: He drank a lot of whiskey. That's the only thing he was crazy about: whiskey and women. I never heard Robert cut up like a lot of guitar players. He was a drinking musician—he loved it, he'd drink a lot. But he wasn't a hell-raiser behind it, you know what I mean?

Sumlin: I heard how he died and everything. I heard they had him barking like a dog and so forth! It's the only time he drank, you know? That's what I heard. Somebody said he was barking like a dog when he died!

Mohr: Yeah, barking, I've heard he was barking. That one, I do believe it.

Honeyboy: Barking? Yeah, well, he was crawling around slobbering.

Mohr: The idea that he was poisoned by a jealous lover seems pretty plausible. It seems like he was a bit of a womanizer and a journeyman. They were just crazy rough times for blues musicians roaming around in that area. A lot of crazy misdeeds seemed to happen, like knife fights, stuff like that.

Lightnin' Malcolm: Right at the same time he died, [producer and talent scout] John Hammond was organizing a big concert at Carnegie Hall. Had [Johnson] been able to live and see that, things would probably be different for him. He wouldn't be playing in rough juke joints—he'd be playing more well-known, protected environments. He got killed cause he was playing in one of those little ol' juke joints. They're great, but from experience they can be a dangerous environment. I've played in them and been the only white guy for miles around, and people loved my music and protected me, but it was a volatile situation. And Johnson was playing in highly volatile situations. If he'd lived a little longer, he'd have been on the road with a manager, having some protection. But he was just out there wandering the roads by himself. That's very dangerous, especially for a black guy in those days. If the police saw you just wandering with a guitar, they would arrest you and put you on the big boss man's farm.

Honeyboy: The last day I saw him was the day he died. . . . Everybody got to go, you know what I mean?

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