Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Robert Johnson - King of the Delta Blues

Robert Johnson was a Mississippi blues singer and guitar player who lived a mere 27 years (1911-1938), and recorded only 42 songs. Not much has ever been established with certainty about his life. Only two photographs exist which supposedly are pictures of Johnson, yet the authenticity of at least one of those has been questioned.

People have spent years of their professional lives trying to find out the "truth" about Robert Johnson, his life, his work. There is a Robert Johnson Blues Foundation that tries to honor his work. Yet the questions remain, the search continues, the disputes unresolved. Popular belief in the Mississippi Delta area was that Johnson met the devil at a crossroads (or at a graveyard), and received his unearthly talent (his blues singing and guitar-playing) in exchange for his soul. Maybe so. Rolling Stone ranks him #5 in the 100 top guitarists.

Years after his death, his songs had a major influence on many of the top musicians in the world, although the facts and circumstances of his life remain shrouded. It appears likely that despite his remarkable talent, he simply was an itinerant musician, relatively unknown during his life, who traveled around the Mississippi area trying to earn a living playing music. It was only in the last years of his very short life that he recorded anything, and his records were released with the designation "Race Records," to make clear to the public that this was recorded by a black person to be sold to other black people.

How he died is also the subject of disagreement. The popular version is that this mystery man, the wandering musician, blues singer, got into a fight in a bar with another man over a woman, and the other man snuck poison into Johnson's bottle of booze. Others claim it could not possibly have happened that way. Where Johnson is buried is also disputed, with several different sites having headstones claiming to mark the place of burial of the "real" Robert Johnson.

James Lee Burke is an author who writes a popular series of mysteries with a protagonist named David Robicheaux ("Dave"). Dave lives in New Iberia Parish near New Orleans, an ex-cop and ex-drunk with some pretty crazy friends. I love the books. One of the books was named "Last Car To Elysian Fields." There were several stories playing out at the same time in that book. One of the stories kept going back to the 1930s, retracing the last days of an astonishingly talented itinerant blues musician who had "disappeared" after coming into contact with some ignorant cracker. The story made me think of Robert Johnson. Another version of "what might have happened" to this legendary bluesman.

Despite his brief life and limited recordings, and despite the fact that he died in 1938, "The Complete Recordings" of Robert Johnson won a Grammy in 1990.

Here's another song written by Robert Johnson, called "Love in Vain," recorded by him in 1937. Later recorded by the Rolling Stones and released as part of their "Let It Bleed" album in 1969.

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