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PCR # 98 (Vol. 3, No. 6) This edition is for the week of February 4--10, 2002.

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The Enlightenment by Terence Nuzum

Part 3:
Life of Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson

Sometime in the early 30's blues legends Son House and partner Willie Brown play at a juke house in Robinsonville, Mississippi. After a while a lanky young man comes up to listen. Son House knows the boy as a local by the name of Robert Johnson. Johnson asks if he can join in and House obliges handing Robert his guitar. But what followed according to Son House was that Johnson had not yet mastered his guitar abilities, "Such another racket you never heard! It'd make people go mad, you know!" Son House scolded him: "Don't do that. You can't play nothing". But in the next few months Johnson returned and Son House could do nothing but stand aside in amazement."He sold his soul to play like that" Son House would later claim. That, of course, is but one of many myths surrounding Robert Johnson.

Johnson was a quiet individual who usually kept to himself and didn't stick around any town for long. More often than not, he left friends and lovers without so much as a word. His vices were whiskey and women. His love was the blues.

Robert Johnson was born on May 8, 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, to Noah Johnson and Julia Dodds. Julia got into trouble at her plantation when Robert was three years old and in desperation ran off in the middle of the night. She then hopped a train with Robert and his siblings and traveled to Robinsonville. Julia, later for financial security, married Dusty Willis, a farm owner. Willis hated his stepson Robert due to Robert's refusal to do farm work. Robert spent his time constructing a makeshift guitar on the side of his house and, hiding, he played it all day. Robert suffered from cataracts in one eye since he was born, possibly a birthmark. His lazy eye and refusal to wear glasses gave him an excuse to quit school. This also gave him more time to focus on his music.

The first instruments he learned was a Jew's Harp and Harmonica. From then on he would religiously hang out around plantations and juke houses listening to the bluesmen. Robert tried to pick up on techniques from greats like Son House and Charlie Patton. Luckily for Robert, Robinsonville was a center for blues players due to the hoards of whiskey brewers in the area. Bluesmen would often play for drinks.

Robert's stepfather, Dusty Willis, despised the blues, frequently called Robert lazy, and even beat him for his disobedient behavior. Around 1930, Robert, unable to take it anymore, left home in the night and hopped rides on freights, living off nickels and dimes.

Johnson eventually got himself a guitar and learned to play it better than his idols in less than a few months, or, as the legend claims, overnight at the crossroads due to a meeting with the devil. Somewhere in his travels around this time he met and married Virginia Travis. Travis and Johnson were expecting a child, but Virginia died in childbirth, changing Robert forever.

Robert eventually made his way to Austin, Mississippi. From this point on his family never saw him again and heard from him only through a few sparse letters he sent. In Austin he met Willie May Powell. He lived with her for about 6 or 7 months and planned to leave her like the rest. Powell was very much in love with Robert, but not wanting to get to close to people anymore perhaps, he knew he had to leave. He told her he was leaving to go make music. Johnson wrote the song "Love in Vain" for her which contains the line "Aaah wooh, Willie May. Aaah wooh,hee vee oh woe. All my loves in vain."

Many of Johnson's songs were written with individual women in mind. Johnson used these songs to seduce women in the crowd, regardless of her escort. In the end, he usually went home with these women. This sort of lifestyle is what led to his unfortunate demise.

Johnson met with Willie May's cousin Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards and they became partners for a short time. But Robert never stayed long, soon he had to ramble on. Later, he met Johnny Shines, whom he traveled with off and on whenever he met him in a city they both were playing at. But he left Shines eventually too. Shines memories of Robert Johnson are that he kept his personal life and thoughts to himself. But his fondest memory was of Robert's ability to be in a room where a radio was playing a song and would be able to come back the next day and play the exact tune perfectly, note for note.

Robert JohnsonJohnson was physically a small man who was very tall and skinny. His hands were slender and his fingers long and spider-like. He was also a sharp dresser. Not exactly your typical ruff-and-tumble delta bluesman image. Regardless of his unimposing appearance, Johnson's skill could not be denied, all could see it from the oldest bluesmen in the crowd to the youngest up-and-coming guitarist, they all knew he was special. When Robert played with the greats they influenced him and he left his stamp on them too. Just as their music shaped his, his was know shaping theirs. His style was unique it drew from all shades of the form and made them fresh again. In fact it was Johnson's music that would change the direction of the blues and music for the following decades to come.

Johnson shacked up with yet another woman and took a liking to her young son Robert Lockwood jr. Lockwood wanted to be a piano player but upon hearing Johnson he quickly changed his mind. Lockwood was the only person Johnson ever taught his techniques to. Johnson was always very careful of watchful eyes and made sure know one figured out his style. He would often leave the room after a song and then return a few minutes later. Historians now think this was due to him not wanting others to see how he tuned his guitar.

Johnson had become a rambling man, he could not resist hopping from town to town whenever it suited him,regardless of any business or friends he might have had there. He would flee unexpectedly almost as if he was running from somebody or something. Or like the legends say running from the hounds of hell that were on his heels. He had also developed a taste for booze, but never got sloppy drunk. Sober, he was a secretive and moody man, but drunk, he was the life of the party.

Johnson who had been playing now for several years, contacted H.C. Spiers. Spiers had become embittered by the record company's deals, and instead of recording Robert, sent him to someone else, Ernie Oertle, American Record Company's informal talent scout.

Vocalion record labelJohnson recorded his first session in San Antonio, Texas in November 1936. This session produced his most recognized song "Terraplane Blues", which quickly became a hit for Vocalion records. He was called back in June and producer Don Law got his best material from him including "Crossroad Blues" and "Hellhound on my Trail" but none sold as well as "Terraplane". It should also be noted that in those days a producer didnt really do much in the way of producing he normally would just make sure the equipment was working and decided what was usuable. Credit for Johnsons unique recorded must go to the man himself. He would sit facing the wall so that he would get an echo effect. Some back then thought that he had an accompanying guitarist playing with him because it sounded as if two guitars were playing at once but in fact it was Robert whose long spidery hands could play rhythm on several strings while plucking others.

With "Terraplanes" fame on his shoulders Johnson was always able to find a crowd. Johnson hooked up again with off and on partner Johnny Shines and traveled as far as Chicago and even Ontario, Canada. During these travels Shines recalls that a change had come over Robert, he had become more distant and would try to slip away from Shines leaving Shines to guess what city Robert would be in next.

Johnson's music was changing too. He started playing with a band, a pianist and drummer. The drummer would usually have Robert Johnson painted in white letters on his drum kit. Johnson was also veering away from the blues. In the early part of August in 1938 Johnson received notice that John Hammond, Columbia records A&R man, was organizing a Negro music festival to gain the white publics interest called From Spirituals to Swing and Hammond wanted the best of the best, with Robert Johnson representing the Delta blues.

But as some might say the Hellhounds had finally caught up with him. On Saturday night August 13,1938, Johnson went to play at a roadhouse in Greenwood called the Three Forks. He met up with "Honeyboy" Edwards, who was also performing that night. Robert had begun to flirt with a married woman in the area, a fatal mistake. After awhile someone brought Johnson an open bottle of whiskey. He took it despite warnings of taking open bottles from strangers and drank it up. He returned to play but could hardly sing and had to struggle to get the words out. After a while he couldn't even play guitar and had to stop playing.

Johnson complained that he was sick and was showing definite signs of poisoning. He was babbling on, out of his mind, it was obvious that someone laced his whiskey with something like strychnine. The culprit was none other than the husband of the woman Robert was flirting with that night. Though never proven he later admitted this to a biographer of Johnson's saying that he didn't mean any harm, he has stayed anonymous.Johnson lasted a couple more nights,before catching phnuemonia and dying on Tuesday August 16, 1938. "Honeyboy" Edwards last memory of Johnson in those last few days was that he would babble strange things and was asking God for forgiveness before crying in pain and crawling around on the floor on his knees howling like a dog. For Robert Johnson the Hellhounds of his song finally caught up with him, or his vices rather. His death certificate, under cause of death simply says: No doctor.

Robert Johnson's grave?John Hammond obviously never got Johnson for the concert and when notified of his death was saddened. At the concert Hammond brought out a phonograph on stage and played two of Johnson's records. Robert was not there psychically but his presence was felt all throughout the concert. His music revolutionized the stagnating blues scene of Mississippi. It would go on to influence countless rock bands, in turn shaping music for the rest of the 20th century.

It was never really clear as to where Johnson was buried. He has two graves: one by the Mount Zion church just north of Greenwood, and the other at Payne Chapel in Quitto, Mississippi. But most likely his final resting place is in an unmarked graveyard for the poor by a highway in Greenwood. So in the end, his songs, the stories of his life, were finally becoming part of the legend he had become.......

You may bury my body
      down by the highway side
spoken:"Baby, I don't care where
      you bury my body when I'm dead and gone".

You may bury my body, ooh
      down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
      can get a Greyhound bus and ride.

         -Me and the Devil

Robert Johnson's grave?

Thanks, Robert, for your great music, you will not be forgotten.

--Terence Nuzum

NEXT: Women and the blues


Terence Nuzum
Viddywell Productions


"The Enlightenment" is ©2002 by Terence Nuzum.  Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  Contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review is ©2002 by Nolan B. Canova.