Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Robert Johnson

Robert "RL" "Little Robert" "Robert Dusty" (and several more, I'm sure) Johnson would have been 98 years old this Friday, had he lived. But he didn't, of course. He famously died back in 1938, allegedly by poison, allegedly after a gig near Greenwood, allegedly in the company of Rice "Sonny Boy Williamson II" Miller. Allegedly, allegedly, allegedly.

A quick word about the pictures above: these are the alleged RJ pics, as opposed to the two confirmed pictures. The bottom one, with a young (alleged) Johnny Shines has been subjected to forensic analysis (I'm not kidding) and a worldwide blues- nerd debate. There is supposedly another, of Johnson with his nephew, that a collector named Mack McCormack may have, but I've never seen it, and probably never will.

The Robert Johnson story: the ultimate romantic blues fantasy. His mystery remains intact even though we know:
a) what he looked like
b) when he recorded
c) what kind of guitar he played at least at some point
d) who he hung out with
e) when he died
f) where he died
g) where he was born and
h) when he was born.

We know more about him than we know about many other famous country blues players, like Blind Blake, for instance. That guy's a complete mystery.

I'm not going to go deep into the RJ bio (although I could- I know a lot of stuff about him) because if you google him you get 33,100,000 hits. I'm sure some of these pertain to the founder of BET who shares the same name, but you get the picture. Therefore it's easy to find out everything I know, and more. You might not find out right away about his friendship with Houston Stackhouse, or the name of the woman, Rosie Eskridge, who, as a young girl, may have witnessed his burial in Greenwood MS. But you will find out that there are three disputed gravesites in MS, and that, according to his death certificate, he lived for several days after being (allegedly) poisoned.

The Death Certificate, front and back:

People are still speculating. They love to speculate. It's a very human trait.

Here's what I do know for certain: his recordings are among the most beautiful, haunting and virtuosic in the history of American music. They are, as my friend Pete Kanaras likes to say, "THE shit." I never tire of listening to them, and some, like "Terraplane Blues" and "Walking Blues" are engraved in my brain pan forever. If there is a more spine- tingling moment in all of recording than "Can't you hear the wind howl?" from "Come in My Kitchen", then I've never heard it. And amazingly, it's only on one of the two takes! It's an improv!

If you drive down the Money Road outside of Greenwood after the sun goes down, there really is a darkness like no other I've experienced, including time I spent living in the Egyptian desert. That's when you want to catch that Greyhound Bus and ride, or walk side by side with the Devil. That's when you hear the echo of Charley Patton from a distant juke somewhere down the road, and you think you can maybe, just maybe, see the outline of a lone hitchhiker wearing a snap brim hat and a guitar slung over his back. He's just up ahead- but by the time you get there, well... of course he's gone. He's been gone, brother, you just missed him.

I do know that when my way is dark with thorns, I have a wise voice to guide me.

Happy Birthday, Robert. Thanks for EVERYTHING.


SueWho said...

Even though I don't know anything about Robert Johnson, and probably never will, your post was very compelling and beautifully written!

EmLit said...

I agree with Mom, that your not-quite-penultimate (is there a word for the one before penultimate? Third-to-last?) paragraph was very compelling! And I enjoyed reading about such a mysterious individual!

jazzlunatique said...

And if you keep going down Money Road past the antique fire truck, you'll see the abandoned store outside which Emmett Till might have whistled at a white woman, and that's where the civil rights movement started.

Fitting that RJ's grave and the store in Money are only a couple miles apart.