In the 80 years since Robert Johnson made his last recordings in a Dallas warehouse in the summer of 1937 (he died a year later, probably poisoned), fans and researchers have solved many of the mysteries surrounding the engimatic young African American itinerant musician who was--by all accounts--a legend in his time from the moment he released his first single "Terraplane Blues" on the Vocalion label.
A new biography, Up Jumped the Devil by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, claims to tell the definitive story though there are leads still being followed up as we speak. When it comes to solving the riddle of just who Robert Johnson was and how he came to embody and advance the many rich traditions of Delta blues guitar and performance styles --like all good deeds--no interview, rumor, discovered photograph, vintage phone book, or period map goes unpunished. Even the location of some of Robert's recordings have been called into question by none other than my neighbor in Nashville who served as a secretary to Don Law, the erudite Englishman who recorded both of Johnson's sessions which produced a total of 28 titles.
Audio experts are positive Johnson played a small archtop for those sessions in Dallas. (Perhaps he used an Epiphone Olympic. We, too, can play that game since its unlikely that Johnson would have traveled or even owned the expensive Gibson model seen in his one and only (so far) formal photograph). And thanks to his frequent traveling partner Johnny Shines, we also know that Johnson performed a wide assortment of songs by other artists including Jimmie Rodgers ("He sang the hell out of Jimmie Rodgers," Shines told Peter Guralnick in Feel Like Going Home) and even the Sons of the Pioneers classic "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds." Johnson's virtuosity itself has been credited to a deal made with the devil at midnight under a blood red moon at the crossroads of Highway 61 and U.S. Route 49, not far from the santitarium where Blue Yodeler recuperated from bouts of tuberculosis. Johnson, it seems, connects all strands of American music before and after his death.
Perhaps he didn't make a deal with the devil. But Johnson's musical gifts certainly would have been the envy of any angel--fallen or not. Johnson effortlessly synthesized the best of his contemporaries: the sharp lines of urban bluesman Lonnie Johnson, the fervor of Charley Patton and Bukka White, the directness of Jimmie Rodgers, and the August humidity stillness of Tommy Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Robert Johnson traveled widely and perhaps that is the source of the ineffable world-weary and all-knowing feeling that he brings to "Love In Vain", "Stones In My Passway," and "From Four 'Til Late."
Epiphone.com discussed Johnson's life and career with Peter Guralnick, the acclaimed author of numerous profiles of blues, country, rockabilly, and rhythm & blues artists, including Searching for Robert Johnson. Guralnick is also the author of definitive biographies of Elvis Presley (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love), Sam Cooke (Dream Boogie) and his latest, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll. Guralnick also produced Sam Cooke—The Legend for VH-1, which was awarded a GRAMMY in 2004 for Best Long Form Music Video. Peter has not only weighed-in with his take on Johnson's life but has also observed the clamoring, sometimes brutal back and forth between colleagues as they each take their turn trespassing on a rural Mississippi graveyard at midnight in an attempt to summon the ghost of the King of the Delta Blues.
How old were you when you first heard Robert Johnson?
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 Charley Patton
: 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
: 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.