The blues queens of the 1920s toured far and wide and sold millions of records. Their ‘empress’, Bessie Smith, appeared on Broadway and in movies. After her death in 1937, a memorial concert was held at Carnegie Hall. But Smith’s country cousins – ‘walking musicians’ – were lucky if they got recorded at all. ‘They were the offside,’ the Mississippi talent scout H.C. Speir said. ‘They never was known … to anybody.’
By the time record companies got round to transferring their scratchy 78 rpm discs to LP, those old musicians had all but vanished. It wasn’t until folk music aficionados started touring the country in search of old records that a handful of them – Skip James, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt – were ‘rediscovered’. They became draws on the coffee-house and festival circuit, while recordings by John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, who had made their names playing house-rocking, amplified blues in Detroit and Chicago, were repackaged and resold in the 1960s as the ‘Real Folk Blues’.
When Columbia Records released King of the Delta Blues Singers – a collection of tracks by Robert Johnson – in 1961, it was the first time in decades that more than a handful of people had access to more than a handful of songs by any country bluesman. Bob Dylan got an acetate from his producer, John Hammond, and played it for his mentor, Dave Van Ronk. (‘He didn’t think Johnson was very original,’ Dylan reported. ‘I knew what he meant, but I thought just the opposite.’) Brian Jones played the album for Keith Richards, who thought he was listening to two guitarists. (‘It took me a long time to realise he was actually doing it all by himself,’ Richards said.) The Rolling Stones used Johnson’s songs to convey melancholy and stasis (‘Love in Vain’ on Let It Bleed) as well as virility (‘Stop Breaking Down’ on Exile on Main Street). Led Zeppelin borrowed from Johnson several times before releasing their euphoric version of ‘Travelling Riverside Blues’. With Cream, Eric Clapton transformed ‘Cross Road Blues’ into a portentous rocker, then turned the song into his calling card, giving his box set the title Crossroads and starting the Crossroads Centre – a rehab centre on Antigua.
It didn’t matter that next to nothing was known about Johnson. If anything, it was convenient; his songs were thought to be in the public domain. There seemed to be no photos of him, no heirs. He had died in 1938, but no one knew where his body was buried. Legends were spun: at a crossroads somewhere in the Delta, Johnson had made a deal with the devil. How else to explain the extraordinary speed and precision of his guitar playing? Somewhere in Texas, perhaps, he’d been poisoned, dying on his hands and his knees ‘like a dog’. Musicians he had travelled with recalled a gregarious, easygoing companion, or a mean-spirited, suspicious type; it depended on who was being asked, how they were being asked, and when. In 1941, Muddy Waters told Alan Lomax he’d never met Johnson. By the 1970s, Waters was saying: ‘I did get to see Robert play a few times.’ Two of the better books written about him, Robert Johnson: Lost and Found by Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch (2003), and Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald (2004), attempt to untangle the tall tales and lies.
Johnson used to be seen as a ‘primitive’, his raw experience unmediated by study or refinement. ‘The sight of this primitive blues singer gazing up at the lights of Times Square is not only banal, it is bizarre,’ Greil Marcus wrote in 1975. Gradually, the image morphed into something more modern: ‘Robert Johnson may be the first ever rock star,’ the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame said when it inducted him in 1986, the year it opened. Wald was especially good at articulating Johnson’s appeal without resorting to superstition or stereotypes:
For his original fans, he was a bridge out of the Delta, a young local player who had managed to assimilate all the latest styles from the radio and jukeboxes, and to perform them as well as the big stars in St Louis and Chicago. For the small group of urban white blues fans that grew into a huge audience that remains largely urban and white, he was a bridge in the other direction, taking us from our world into the ‘deep blues’ of the older Delta players. In both cases he served as a screen on which each group of fans projected its own dream movie of the blues life.
As smart and as necessary as these adjustments were, they ran the risk of going too far in the other direction. ‘As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure,’ Wald argued, ‘and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note.’ His book came close to suggesting Johnson wasn’t much more than a master technician, which didn’t fit with the recordings, or even with Wald’s own gloss on them. ‘Hellhound on My Trail’, Wald wrote,
is his poetic masterpiece, a nightmare of hellhounds and magic powders, illuminated by lightning bolts of sharp, natural imagery: ‘I’ve got to keep moving, blues falling down like hail’; ‘I can tell the wind is rising, the leaves trembling on the tree.’ It is the cry of an ancient mariner, cursed by his fates and doomed to range eternally through the world without hope of port or saviour.
Johnson seemed destined to remain a cipher. But, incredibly, it turns out there’s a person who still recalls him quite clearly, his stepsister, Annye C. Anderson, now 96. ‘First time I remember Brother Robert,’ she says in her memoir,
he helped us move to Memphis from the country in 1929. My little legs couldn’t make it up the big staircase leading to our new house. I felt someone scoop me up and carry me. On his long, lanky legs, he took those steps two at a time. From then on, he was around sometimes for the rest of his life.
Anderson was eleven when Johnson died in Mississippi (by poisoning, after all), and he was on the road most of the time. But he had lived with her family, on and off, for several years. ‘I knew him when he supposedly agreed to his deal with the devil,’ Anderson says, ‘while he made his records, right up to when the telegram came to our sister’s house with the news that he had died.’
Johnson was born on or around 8 May 1911, in a two-room shack outside Hazelhurst, Mississippi, forty miles south-east of the Delta. (The Mississippi Delta is not the delta of the Mississippi River, but part of a gigantic alluvial plain created by the Mississippi’s annual flooding.) His biological father, Noah, worked in a sawmill on the Mangold plantation. His mother, Julia, already had several children with Annye Anderson’s father, Charles Dodds, a barber and furniture-maker who had been forced off the acres he owned by a lynch mob, probably in 1909. Anderson mentions a knife fight with a white neighbour, apparently over a woman, though it was standard practice to run Black landowners off their land out of sheer spite or avarice. ‘My father knew the white man would be coming to do him further harm,’ she recalls. ‘He hurried home. He prepared a place to hide. He cut a tunnel into the thicket of a blackberry patch behind the house. If you could see those brambles, you’d know nobody could get in there. He crawled through those briars. My father said he could feel the ground shake with all the horses coming.’ It took the mob two weeks to give up its search, at which point Dodds, disguised as a woman, sneaked onto a train heading out of the state. ‘A few years after the fight, Robert was born in the house my father built,’ Anderson says. ‘By then my father had been gone.’
In Tennessee, Dodds changed his name to Charles Spencer and had two children with a woman named Willie. (One of them was beaten to death by the Memphis police at the age of fifteen ‘for allegedly stealing a bicycle’, Anderson says.) After Willie’s death he married a woman called Mollie and they had two children; Annye was the younger.
In Mississippi, Julia had long since broken with Noah Johnson. She drifted from one plantation to another, and sent a few of her older children up to Memphis to live with Charles Spencer. Finally, sometime in 1913 or 1914 according to most sources (1918, according to Anderson), she sent Robert, the youngest. Here and elsewhere the chronology is jumbled and disorienting – as the dislocations Robert endured must have been. At some point he was shipped back to his mother, who had married a sharecropper called Will ‘Dusty’ Willis. This was in the Delta proper, and Robert didn’t take to it. He’d lived in the city. He’d gone to a decent school. His new stepfather was illiterate, but Robert was an avid reader. In Memphis, his oldest half-brother, Charles Leroy ‘Son’ Spencer, sang and played the piano and guitar – quite well, Anderson says. Son loved ragtime, jazz and country music – some of this must have rubbed off on Robert – but on the Abbay and Leatherman plantation in Tunica County there was only field work and drudgery. Robert bounced between Memphis and Mississippi. ‘He was restless,’ Anderson says, ‘and didn’t stay long. Sweet as he was, I’ve come to think that maybe bitterness drove him. You have to understand that about Brother Robert.’
In Tennessee, Robert’s half-sister Carrie bought him his first guitar, ordered from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. ‘For a while he wore his patched overalls,’ Anderson says. ‘Then he had the khakis, starched and creased. Son would do that for him. Son could press. I’ve never seen Brother Robert iron, everything was done for him. He played the guitar – he was the star of the show. I’ve never seen him cook, everything was cooked for him.’ Anderson recalls her stepbrother’s favourite dishes: candied yams, chitterlings, hog maws, fried pumpkin. She remembers him dancing: ‘Brother Robert could move, he didn’t just sit and play. He could do the shimmy. He could snake hip. His foot would move, he had rhythm.’ Johnson sang church songs, she says (‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’), along with folk songs (‘Loch Lomond’, ‘Auld Lang Syne’) and pop songs (‘Did You Ever See a Dream Walking’, ‘Pennies From Heaven’). He performed for the neighbourhood children:
He played nursery rhymes, ‘Little Sally Walker’, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, ‘Humpty Dumpty’, ‘Jack and Jill’ and ‘She’ll Be Coming around the Mountain’. He told the story of Chicken Little, about how the sky is falling … He kept us entertained making sounds of the train whistle blowing, freight trains chugging, the rooster crowing, crickets, locusts, and frogs you hear at night down South. I’d practised my reading with him, I recall, back in the first grade reading my primer, Peter Rabbit.
Anderson doesn’t pretend to know more than she knows. ‘I didn’t have him in my pocket,’ she says. But what she does know brings us almost into the room with him:
Brother Robert kept his hair neat, using Dixie Peach pomade. He greased Vaseline on his arms and legs to keep his skin from getting cruddy or scaly. Looking up at him, I noticed that his skin had a beautiful reddish undertone.
Brother Robert could really yodel. He identified with Jimmie Rodgers through the ‘TB Blues’ – we had two older half-siblings die of TB in Memphis around the time Jimmie Rodgers passed from it.
Brother Robert had his things out on the table – fingerpicks, slides. Some of them looked like thimbles. We’d save beef bones for him, and he’d pick and slide with that some … He used to carry them in an empty Bull Durham tobacco sack.
When Son, Carrie and Robert went to the movies, Annye tagged along: ‘They liked to see Mae West and Bette Davis, and I was a nuisance, always running to the bathroom and wanting popcorn.’ She remembers Robert singing cowboy songs, like Gene Autry’s ‘That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine’, and cracking jokes ‘about Ol’ Massa’. ‘He wasn’t ignorant,’ Anderson says:
he knew some history and had consciousness … Brother Robert spoke at times of Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia. He knew about the NAACP and kept up with the Scottsboro Boys case – the people involved had been hoboing to Memphis, just like Brother Robert often did. He followed Paul Robeson’s activism and enjoyed Robeson’s movie Show Boat. He was no dummy, he read the paper. You can hear his awareness of racism in his music. He doesn’t want sundown to catch him where he isn’t supposed to be. He’s telling you something. He knows if you get wrong in the white folks’ neighbourhood, they’ll harm you. White folks are afraid. We were riding out to pick cotton and went up in the wrong yard. We looked up and saw a man with his shotgun pointed right at us, and we backed right out.
Annye saw Johnson for the last time on 22 June 1938, the day of Joe Louis’s second fight with Max Schmeling. A boyfriend of Carrie’s drove up from Mississippi for the occasion, with Julia, Dusty and Robert in tow. Johnson had already made several records. He’d had a regional hit with ‘Terraplane Blues’. ‘You should have seen him in his white sharkskin suit, Panama hat and patent leather shoes,’ Anderson says. ‘Everybody on the street had the radio on. Everyone’s lights were on, they were barbecuing. It really was a heyday. That night, Brother Robert performed “Terraplane”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Kind-Hearted Woman”, he and Son did “44 Blues”. My father took me home, because Robert was going to play all night.’
Two months later, a telegram came with news of his death, followed by Johnson’s guitar – which Son pawned – and a piece of paper on which he had written: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem, I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He Will call me from the Grave.’ ‘I believe that came true,’ Anderson says. ‘He’s had a life after death longer than his life on earth. He’s been gone so long, over eighty years … I still think of how it felt to hug him. He put his skinny arms around me. His clothes felt starched and pressed. His face smelled smooth. He smelled like cigarettes and Dixie Peach.’
Bessie Smith ’s memorial took place at the tail end of 1938, more than a year after her death. Sponsored by the Popular Front’s New Masses magazine and organised by John Hammond, the concert was billed as a history of Black music ‘from Spirituals to Swing’. It was supposed to have included Johnson. Instead Hammond wheeled a phonograph onto the stage, played two of Johnson’s records and introduced Big Bill Broonzy to perform in his place. Broonzy, who had been living in Chicago for close to two decades, was at least as snazzy a dresser as Johnson had been; Hammond had him dress in overalls and introduced him as a ‘farm hand’. In the programme notes he played fast and loose with Johnson’s biography too. Among other things, he claimed Johnson had dropped dead ‘at the precise moment’ scouts reached him to tell him that he’d been invited to play. This was ridiculous, if not as bad as Eric Clapton’s belief that Johnson’s ‘Cross Roads’ was about drug addiction (it was about lynching). But even at its worst, the post hoc mythologising didn’t do as much damage to Anderson’s family as the graft that accompanied it.
‘A man named Mack McCormick had been to see Sister Carrie,’ Anderson writes, ‘and she’d given McCormick a photograph of Brother Robert with her son, Lewis. Later we learned that Sister Bessie had given McCormick other family photographs that were never returned. That was the last any of us ever saw of McCormick.’ For decades, McCormick told people he was at work on a book about Johnson, ‘Biography of a Phantom’. He never completed it, dying in 2015 at the age of 85. (The photographs Anderson accuses him of taking have never resurfaced, although a book with that title is finally being published next year and is said to include forty ‘unseen’ photographs.) Mack also held up the release of new collections of Johnson’s recordings for years. Even so, Anderson devotes more space to McCormick’s nemesis, Steve LaVere, who eventually produced Johnson’s million-selling, Grammy-award-winning Complete Recordings box set. He also helped himself not only to family photos but copyrights and royalties. ‘People talk about Brother Robert selling his soul,’ Anderson writes. ‘This was the real Robert Johnson deal with the devil.’
The story is confused; maybe hopelessly so. Eventually, an heir appeared out of the woodwork: a ‘son’ Anderson had never heard of. The facts didn’t seem to add up, but a court case ensued and, again, royalties were reassigned. She doesn’t dwell on the details. But – as in so much of what’s written about Johnson – there’s a lingering sense of competing agendas and wrongs that were never made right. Things snap into focus in an interview that’s been appended to the text. Anderson is speaking with Elijah Wald, Peter Guralnick, who wrote the first proper biography of Johnson (based largely on McCormick’s notes), and her ghostwriter, Preston Lauterbach. Guralnick asks her about Johnson’s ‘Hellhound’.
‘You’ll find many people who talk about the hellhound,’ Anderson says. ‘The connection is the white overseer. I’ve heard my sister Bessie say she went in the field and saw a hound. The hound is always white. He heard it and put it in his music.’
‘So, hellhound could refer to the Bible,’ Guralnick says, ‘but it could also go back to slavery times.’
‘Right, I know when people talk about the hellhound, they see it in the field.’
There’s no reason to look to the supernatural to explain Johnson’s career. He learned to play so quickly and so well because unlike the first generation of walking musicians he had a wealth of recordings to learn from. If he sounds haunted (sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t), it’s not because he had made friends with the devil; it may just be that the Deep South, in the 1920s and 1930s, was a sort of hell.
Technology plays a role, too. Ancient recordings tend to sound haunted, to our ears, just because they are old. But in Johnson’s case, technology cuts both ways. One reason that guitarists of Clapton’s generation found Johnson so useful was that he’d absorbed and synthesised nearly the whole range of Delta blues styles; because he’d arrived near the end of something, good musicians could hear enough of Scrapper Blackwell, Blind Blake, Leroy Carr, Son House, Skip James, Memphis Minnie, Peetie Wheatstraw and others in his playing to emulate those bluesmen and women, too. For guitarists, Johnson’s records have been a supermarket, not a country store. And the late date of Johnson’s recordings – most classic country blues records were made a lot earlier, between 1927 and 1932 – also means that the technology had got better. If Skip James’s 1931 recordings sound especially scratchy, especially far away, it’s in part because the Paramount company mixed clay from the Milwaukee River in with the shellac. At the time, no one needed or expected those 78s to last; that they have at all is a bit of a miracle. But Johnson’s recordings, made in 1936 and 1937, are clearer and cleaner, more so with every remastered reissue. They’re old enough to sound mysterious, but new enough to sound immediate, intimate, ‘real’. (They’re like the world Johnson knew: a world with electricity, automobiles, phonographs and pop songs, but where peonage, illiteracy and frontier justice were the norm.)
But if Johnson was derivative – he swiped lyrics, melodies, styles – he was also highly inventive. He rearranged old couplets in new, striking ways. He created new tunings: ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’, which introduces the riff Elmore James based his entire career on, is written in an open-A tuning apparently original to Johnson. The song also has a shuffling, boogie-woogie bass figure no one seems to have used before. Even Wald, who contends that Johnson did little to influence the trajectory of modern music, admits this is a big deal: ‘Johnson was the first guitarist to make the boogie shuffle standard accompaniment patter and use it for multiple songs, and he inspired other players to pick up the style.’ What this means, in layman’s terms, is that the sound of Chuck Berry’s guitar playing – which is also the sound of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and, more generally, the sound of rock and roll – is something Johnson invented.
Like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse after him, Johnson died at the age of 27, just fourteen months after his first recording session. Skip James, who was older than him by nine years, outlived him by more than thirty. Howlin’ Wolf – older by a year – outlived him by 39. Would Johnson have made the same jump they did? At the second Spirituals to Swing Concert, in 1939, Charlie Christian performed using an archtop electric guitar plugged into an amplifier. In Chicago, Bill Broonzy’s group had started to experiment with electrics, too. The world outside the Delta was faster now, louder. Combos were coming in; solo performers were being ushered offstage; and in 1943 International Harvester introduced the mechanical cotton picker, hastening the collapse of the economic system Johnson had lived and died under. Maybe he would have ended up in Chicago, recording for Chess. If so, we’d probably know where he was buried.
Anderson went to Washington DC, where she trained to be a teacher, and, finally, Amherst, Massachusetts. Though ‘it must be known,’ she says, ‘that there is only one region in the United States, you’re either up South or down South.’ For years, she and her family fought, and mostly failed, to regain control of Johnson’s story. ‘I know now, at my age, once I go,’ she writes, ‘the real Brother Robert goes, for ever.’
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