Robert JohnsonThe Robert Johnson 100 Centennial Celebration concert at the Apollo Theater on March 6 will feature Taj Mahal, Chuck D, Keb Mo, and Elvis Costello with more acts to be announced soon. The Rev. Steven Johnson, the grandson of Robert Johnson, will also be in attendance. Steve Jordan will lead the band and proceeds will go to the The Blues Foundation and the Robert Johnson Foundation to provide funding for the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis. spoke to Robert Johnson's biographer Peter Guralnick. Guralnick is the author of acclaimed biographies of Elvis Presley (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love) and Sam Cooke (Dream Boogie) and is currently writing a biography of Sun Records founder, producer and recording engineer Sam Phillips, due in 2013.   

How old were you when you first heard Robert Johnson?

PG: I first heard Robert Johnson, I guess, when Sam Charters' The County Blues first came out on RBF Records. It had "Preachin' Blues" on it. I must have been around 16. I can remember vividly the day I discovered the album – no advance warning, no idea it was coming out – when I walked into Sam Goody's on 49th or 50th in NYC in the fall of '61. I was 17, a freshman at Columbia, and not only was King of the Delta Blues Singers in the blues bin but so was Big Joe Williams' Piney Woods Blues on Delmark (I think it still had the "k”). I bought them both and spent the rest of the day – the rest of the week! – listening to them over and over.

What makes Robert stand out from his contemporaries like Son House, Tommy Johnson or even the great Charlie Patton?

PG: To me, the most extraordinary thing about Robert Johnson is his compositional approach. Music, lyrics, vocals are all of a piece – neither incidental nor coincidental. I think that's why his music continues to have such a cross-everything appeal.

In past biographies, Robert's traveling companions have stated Robert listened to a wide range of music from Jimmie Rodgers to Sons of the Pioneers.

PG: That's what Johnny Shines said. "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds," right? Bing Crosby, too. Knowing Johnny (and Robert Jr. Lockwood, too), I can believe it! There was no such thing as confinement by category. Plus they were all making a living with their music. Polka, anyone?

Producer Don Law commented that Robert was shy in the studio and suspicious of musicians stealing his style. Was he aware he was breaking ground?

PG: I think the shyness has been overemphasized – and I think he was aware of breaking new ground. Once he found his own style, he picked up followers everywhere he went. There was never any question of who was the leader, and when he died, long before the greater world had ever heard of him, long before he was ever discovered by a white audience, they carried his music on.