Before W. C. Handy wrote down those notes on a piece of paper in a train station in 1903, blue did exist. But there was no name, no face, no voice to record and recognize as an authentic bluesman.
America was given its first blues name, face and voice with the arrival of Charlie Patton, a delta blues guitar player who would play his instrument behind his back and over his head. By 1929 Charlie (sometimes spelled Charley) Patton had recorded several singles, paving the way for Son House and Tommy Johnson, two other delta bluesmen, to find their way into the studio by the early ‘30s. Patton, House and Johnson were typical bluesmen—hard-drinking, womanizing, passionate players of the blues.
Robert Johnson – “Father of the Delta Blues”
But no early artist personified the icon of the delta bluesman like Robert Johnson. While in his late teens, Johnson worked with Son House and other blues artists in the delta, but was considered merely a common guitarist and singer. The story goes that after he disappeared for a few days, he returned with an unusual virtuosity on the guitar and a passionate vocal delivery. The skill, he told his brother and others, came from the deal that he made with the devil at the crossroads a few miles from town.
Although the story was conveniently manufactured, Johnson was immediately recognized by other bluesmen for his skill and songwriting ability, shown in songs like “Terraplane Blues” and “Crossroads Blues.” Like many great legends, it most likely started with some truths and then, like a good blues solo, was embellished.
While in his late teens, he was heavily influenced by a mysterious blues artist named Ike Zinneman. Zinneman had a habit of wandering into the local graveyard late at night to practice. Johnson would follow him, find a comfortable spot on a nearby gravestone and copy Zinneman’s guitar licks. The image of Johnson getting guitar lessons in a graveyard was most likely the starting point for the more popular (and definitely more salacious) legend.
At the age of 25 he recorded the first of 45 singles which were done in two sessions, neither in a studio. The first set was recorded in a hotel room in San Antonio, Texas, with the second captured a year later in the backroom of a Dallas office building. Only 11 of the songs were released during his lifetime.
While playing a roadhouse in Three Forks, Mississippi in 1938, Robert Johnson was poisoned by a jealous husband. His modest popularity had only lasted the final five years of his life, but his legend lives on in the music of three generations of blues and rock ‘n roll guitarists. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, Cream, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones all covered Johnson classics including “Crossroads Blues” and “Stop Breakin’ Down”.
Four months after Johnson’s death, a concert promoter from New York City attempted to contact him to perform as part of a concert celebrating African-American music in America. Upon learning of his death, he arranged for a recording of Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” to be played at the end of the concert. The audience heard the singer deliver that chilling, devil’s line from beyond the grave: “Give me your right hand.”
The renaissance of Robert Johnson began with the English blues-rock bands in the ‘60s, and was recognized with an album entitled King of the Delta Blues Singers. Along with a select group which included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Robert Johnson into membership in 1986, the first year of its existence.
In 1990, Columbia Records released The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson. They had hoped for sales of 10,000, but were shocked when the box set of 41 songs sold over a half-million and won a Grammy award.
No less a figure than Eric Clapton, who released a tribute CD, Me and Mr. Johnson in 2004, said of his blues idol:
“Up until I heard his music, everything I had ever heard seemed as if it was dressed up for a shop window somewhere, so that when I heard him for the first time, it was like he was singing only for himself, and now and then, maybe God…At first it scared me in its intensity, and I could only take it in small doses. Then I would build up strength and take a little more, but I could never really get away from it, and in the end, it spoiled me for everything else…”
No figure more accurately embodied the rich and dark heritage of delta blues like Robert Johnson. While some of his life was fictional, the recordings remain as the most important body of work from the authentic delta blues genre. In the end, it has been the primitive, intense recordings of his voice and guitar, not the stories, which have earned him the title of “King of the Delta Blues.”