Hellhound on my Trail
Robert L. Johnson (1911 – 1938) was a Delta blues guitarist and singer, and among the most famous and influential of them. He is “the blues man” to many, from the top of his musty old hat to the toes of those slick, black shoes.
His life and his untimely death are cloaked in fog—he is never as real as in the grooves of a record, and can’t be pinned down otherwise. As filmmaker Martin Scorsese put it: “The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only really existed on record. He was pure legend.” This is one of only two known images of the man. We know that he made some records in Texas in 1936 and 1937, and there are a few details of his life that have been inferred from secondhand accounts and such. That’s about all we know for sure.
There are three tombstones.
Most say he was born in Mississippi in May 1911 and raised by his mother, an itinerant laborer. He spent time in Memphis as a boy, where he began to play the guitar. In 1929 he married, but his wife died in childbirth the next year; he remarried in 1931, and it was at about this time that he first regularly traveled the country to play publicly. He wrote many songs, but played by request and strictly for tips in most cases. Johnson became well-known on the blues circuit.
In 1936 and 1937 he did sessions in San Antonio and Dallas, and it is through a 1961 Columbia compilation of these cuts that Robert Johnson is so widely appreciated. It would be easy to overestimate, retrospectively, his impact on the scene that was contemporary to him—but he was quite significant to later blues artists and to early rock & roll. Eric Clapton calls him “the most important blues musician that ever lived,” and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin has said that, in some measure, all rock artists owe their existence to him.
There is a Gothic complexity to his songwriting and to his guitar playing that is unmistakable, his signature sound. The whine in his voice is immediate and sincere, giving him a weathered tone far beyond his twenty-something years.
Here is “Love in Vain,” ca. 2 1/2 min.:
From Youtube, here is an interesting presentation of stills accompanied by Johnson’s “Crossroads.” There is some beautiful photography from the Mississippi Delta region, but I don’t know how Angelina Jolie got in there just in time for the “sweet woman” line of the song:
As the most prevalent story goes, Johnson died at a little crossroads in Mississippi in 1938 after drinking poisoned whiskey. A man offered him the bottle, and it is said that Sonny Boy Williamson himself knocked it to the floor, cautioning his friend not to accept an open bottle. Later, the man repeated his offer, Johnson accepted again, and shortly afterwards died from strychnine poisoning. Some say Johnson had been seeing his killer’s wife.
Johnson himself may have encouraged the legend of the bluesman meeting the Devil at a crossroads to trade his soul for phenomenal musical ability. The symbolism is harrowing—the trade of a peaceful (if toilsome) life at home for a hard-drinkin’, soul-sapping existence on the lonely backroads and in the dives.