Director Martin Scorsese was quoted as saying “The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend.” There are many myths about Johnson and this is due to the fact that little is known about his history yet the music remains.
There is debate about when he was born. There are legends about his death. If he didn’t sell his soul to the devil how did he became a master of the slide guitar so quickly? Did he sell his soul to the devil? Where was he buried?
As is often the case when people possess great talent, jealousy will rear its ugly head and rumours and fabrications will appear. And of course Johnson did little to dispel these myths. He had a few peculiaritites. He suffered from a small cataract. This led to all kinds of speculation about his “evil eye.” He was also known to turn away from the audience while playing. He would often leave suddenly from a performance, sometimes even during breaks in his set. Was he trying to hide something?
Some of these ‘odd’ activities seem quite normal now as we have seen performers like Elvis leave before the end of his shows. “Elvis has left the Building.” Maybe Johnson was just shy. Don Law the man who recorded Johnson intimated just that in the sleeve notes to the album “King of the Delta Blues Singers”, saying that Robert was very young and extraordinarily shy. There have been numerous musicians over the years that have turned their backs on an audience during a show due to either shyness or potentially to hide some new technique. Johnson may have turned his back for both reasons.
Whatever the reasons he did these things it only served to further shroud the man in mystery. As time has gone by, with so little known about him the stories were embellished and often second and third hand reminiscences. It has been up to researchers and historians to do a lot of musical detective work. Some of these mysteries have been answered.
Let’s start with his birth date. I don’t know that this one has been answered adequately and the fact that they didn’t keep very accurate records back then plus the fact that he was born to his mother and a man that was not her husband may have added to the confusion.
Robert was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, probably on May 8, 1911 or 1912. Robert’s mother was Julia Major Dodds who was married to Charles Dodds. Charles Dodds was a landowner and furniture maker. They had ten children. Robert was not one of them. He was born to Julia and Noah Johnson. Julia had taken up with Noah after Dodds was forced to flee after narrowly avoiding the noose in Hazelhurst for injuring a prominent white man in a fight. Charles changed his last name from Dodds to Spencer and ran to Memphis. Eventually, Julia sent 3 year old Robert to live in Memphis with Dodds. So even though he was Noah Johnson’s son he was raised by Dodds.
The real legend about Robert Johnson surrounded his musical prowess. How did he get so good so quickly? Johnson’s first instrument was the harmonica. In his teens he began to play the guitar. For someone like Johnson the blues was an opportunity to escape a probable life as a field hand. A life he wasn’t interested in. His only chance really to avoid a very hard life with little reward. Dodds was often annoyed at him because he could very seldom find Robert at work in the fields. Music was the path out of this life. Music offered opportunity, excitement, travel and freedom.
His early influences were Son House and Willie Brown. He would always show up at the local juke to watch these two bluesmen. Studying them and their every move. Son House recalled that during their breaks, Robert would pick up one of their guitars and try to play:
“And such a racket you never heard! It’d make the people mad, you know. They’d come out and say, ‘Why don’t y’all go in and get that guitar away from that boy! He’s running people crazy with it!’ I’d come back in, and I’d scold him about it, ‘ Don’t do that Robert. You drive the people nuts. You can’t play nothing. Why don’t you play that harmonica for’em.’ But he didn’t want to blow that. Still, he didn’t care how I’d get after him about it. He’d do it anyway.”
Soon Robert was following House and Brown around trying to get them to let him play with them but he was really bad and they wouldn’t allow it. After trying for awhile and failing Johnson gave up and left. In 1931, he moved back to Hazlehurst looking for his father. He met a guitar player named Ike Zimmerman there. He ended up moving in with Ike and his family and stayed for about a year. Ike became Robert’s instructor and Robert practiced religiously. Late at night they would go to a local cemetery and play while sitting atop tombstones in the graveyard so that they didn’t disturb anyone else while playing in the middle of the night. This did little to dispel any rumours or stories about him.
When he finally reappeared he was vastly improved. The questions started soon after. “How could a kid who was so awful disappear for a year and return and be as good as he was now? It was intense practice and learning from Zimmerman, who must have been one heckuva guitar player himself, and time. As we have seen with confusion over whether Johnson was born in 1911 or 1912 there is now reason to believe he was gone for two years. Two years is a substantial time to become proficient at most things.
There may have been some confusion added to this debate by his namesake, Tommy Johnson. According to his brother LeDell, Tommy claimed to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his mastery of the guitar.
“If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there be sure to get there just a little ‘fore 12 that night so you know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself…A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.”
Robert and Tommy weren’t related but having the same last name may have made it easy to confuse the two of them and the story may have been attributed to Robert in some areas. Tommy made the claim while there is no real evidence to support the fact that Robert said anything of the sort although he probably didn’t deny it either.
His death was also a mystery until about twenty years ago. The way he died in 1938 at age 26 was as mysterious as his life. There were many tales about the way he died. One tale suggested that Robert’s deal with the devil came due. Combine this with the stories about some seeing him on all fours, howling at the moon the night he died and you could see how the devil story grew and was embellished even more. Some said he was shot by a jealous husband or stabbed by a woman. The truth is that Robert was poisoned. Probably by the barkeeper of the juke he played that night, who was sure that Robert was messing around with his wife. One version of this rumour says that the wife of the juke joint owner gave the bottle of whiskey to Johnson herself, unaware it had been poisoned by her husband. It was on a Saturday night in August, at a juke joint named Three Forks, Johnson played his last gig. His death certificate was found in 1968, verifying his death in Greenwood, Mississippi.
Finally, the location of where Robert Johnson is buried is also the source of controversy and mystery. There are three burial sites with monuments of different sorts, at all of the sites just outside of Greenwood. The three sites are Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City, Payne Chapel near Quito and Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Greenwood. It was thought for the longest time that Johnson was buried in the graveyard of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, in an unmarked grave. They placed a one-ton memorial in the shape of an obelisk, listing all of Johnson’s song titles, at this location in 1990. Also in 1990 a small marker with the epitaph “Resting in the Blues” was placed in the cemetery of Payne Chapel near Quito, Mississippi. Recent research seems to indicate that the actual grave site is in the cemetery of the Little Zion Church north of Greenwood along Money Road. Sony Music has placed a marker at this site.
It is funny that in the face of overwhelming odds and not much factual detail the legends persist. But hey, it’s a helluva lot better than talking about Britney Spear’s last melt down. These folks had great stories and lived interesting lives. Even if maybe they were just stories.