The reverberations of Robert Johnson.
On December 13th, 1938, Carnegie Hall was filled with a listening silence. At a program of appreciation for Black music in America called From Spirituals to Swing, thousands of audience members heard first static, then an insistent voice, issue from the cone of an amplified phonograph. The audience probably listened hard—they were hearing the voice of a dead man.
John Hammond, the Columbia Records talent scout who organized the concert, had sent word down to Mississippi to invite Robert Johnson, the voice’s owner, to play his blues music on the program, only to hear back that he had died mere weeks before. Hammond was told that the singer’s whiskey had been poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his mistresses. But having heard one of his records, Hammond included Johnson’s music in the concert anyway, maybe because he still needed a representative of backwoods blues music and didn’t have time enough to find a replacement, or maybe because he didn’t want anyone but Johnson.
It was in all likelihood the first time someone played a record in Carnegie Hall to a packed house. The song was “Preachin’ Blues.” In it Johnson sang, as he often did, about traveling and dying and playing music, over a shuffling guitar riff.
Woke up this mornin’, blues walkin
like a man
Woke up this mornin’, blues walkin
like a man
Worried blues, give me your right hand
I say he sang, and I mean that the needle traced the grooves in the record, and that the vibrations carried through the phonograph and over the PA system, and all of these small motions delivered the living breathing voice—like a lie, like an echo—into the ears of the concertgoers.
The blues is a low-down shakin’chill
Is a low-down shakin’ chill
You ain’t never had em, I hope you
The crowd heard plenty of live music that night, but they heard the absent Johnson too, heard him alive and twice-reflected, his clear voice carrying out above the seats, filling up all the space they could see.
The First Origin Story of Robert Johnson, based on Peter Guralnick’s account in his book Searching for Robert Johnson
Born May 8th, 1911, Robert Leroy Dodds Spencer passed his early years in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and then Memphis, Tennessee, under the care of his mother Julia Major Dodds and stepfather Charles Dodds. Robert’s biological father was Noah Johnson, a plantation worker whom he never met. At age seven or eight, Robert returned to the Delta, near Robinsonville, MS, where his mother and her new husband, Dusty Willis, raised him into adolescence. Going by either Robert Johnson or Little Robert Dusty then, he may or may not have gone to school in Commerce, outside Robinsonville. He had beautiful handwriting but was “anti-education.” His wife died in childbirth at age 16. Robert Johnson’s musical mentor, Son House, recalls “little boy” Johnson (at age 19 or so) being distinctly unskilled at playing guitar. “A racket,” House called his playing, but when Johnson returned two years later, remarried and fresh from rambling travels around the Mississippi River Delta, his sudden proficiency—even mastery—made House’s jaw drop.
This part of the story has grown to the status of legend. Even if you don’t recognize the name Robert Johnson, you have undoubtedly heard a story about a person selling their soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent. Like most myths, this one has an untraceable genesis, but most attribute it to Robert Johnson because of the frequent appearance of the devil figure in his songs, and because of his unexplained and apparently drastic improvement as a musician. Johnson’s story has been made into movies, books, songs, even a federal postage stamp collection, and his music itself was one of the single greatest influences on the development of rock ‘n roll. As influential as his music has been—and it is influential, with artists like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones covering his songs and citing him as an inspiration—the devil myth has transcended him to become an idiom unto itself. He haunts our imaginations because he died so young, but the devil story is the one that snags in our souls.
Describing the mythic origin story of another famous bluesman named Tommy Johnson (no relation to Robert), his brother LeDell Johnson said,
… the reason he knowed so much, said he sold hisself to the devil. I asked him how. He said, “If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ‘fore 12:00 [AM] that night … You have your guitar and be playing a piece sittin 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.
Son House was convinced that the same thing had happened with Robert Johnson: It was the only explanation for his sudden abilities. Growing a reputation, Johnson traveled all around, riding by train, or being pulled behind a tractor in a corn wagon. At his stops he established connections, a woman in every town to take care of him. Shy but direct, he would ask for their company, and for the most part they accepted his advances. The relationships would end either when the woman’s husband or boyfriend came back or Johnson left town. In spite of these relationships, he remained something of a loner—guarded, cryptic. He could play anything, picking a tune up after listening to it once on the radio.
On the devil, lightheartedness, and sin
Several of Johnson’s songs casually mention walking with the devil, talking to the devil, living with the devil closeby no matter where he goes: “Me and the Devil Blues” starts with the two of them walking side by side and ends with Johnson asking to bury my body down by the highway side / so my old evil spirit / can get a greyhound bus and ride. How seriously can we take his references to the devil? Hearing the music now, it’s easy to take him very seriously, imagining that he is speaking grave truths about his sins, about the cosmic consequences of his lifestyle. But the figure of the devil, with its multivalent and prolific representations, can be hellish or corny, divine, tragic, or—funny. Humorous or fiendish interpretations of the devil—the trickster figure, the rebel son—are nearly as common as the more classical imagery of an evil soul-keeper in the underworld.
What music historian Tom Graves calls “devil talk” in Robert Johnson’s time and place was familiar to his audiences, a dialogue that invoked the devil not to inspire fear or awe but to tap into heavily saturated religious imagery for humor’s sake. Of his listeners, Graves writes, “They probably didn’t give a second thought to Johnson’s depictive musings on the subject, certainly not enough to seriously believe he was actually in league with the devil.” Like telling an inside joke, Johnson mentions the devil because it is already a part of how people made sense of the sorrows in their lives—to take it too seriously is to fall into the all-too-common tendency to romanticize and rhapsodize on the theme of Johnson past the point of meaning.
This “devil talk” likely came from the relationship between Puritan Christianity and West African religious traditions, which commingled in Black religious practice in the South as a result of slavery. The syncretism between these two traditions also blurred distinctions between the Christian devil and the West African deity Legba, a spirit or guardian of the crossroads who is recognized by various names in different parts of Africa and the diaspora (Eshu in Benin, Elegua in Cuba, Papa Legba in Haiti). Because both figures are associated with souls and the gateway between the human world and the divine, many historians think that the folklore image of the devil at the crossroads comes directly from Legba’s mythology. Legba is also the deity of trickery, music, and language, known to take delight in chaos and act unpredictably, though he has nothing to do with sin or punishment. More than one devil appears in blues folklore then—the punisher of sins from Southern Christianity and the trickster guardian of the crossroads from West African religions—and Johnson’s devil is either, neither, or both.
So yes, maybe Johnson uses the devil as a joke, or a specific intimacy with his audience and the complex religious confluences they shared. Or maybe he talks about the devil so much because he knows how real it is, more even than the preachers do. Greil Marcus writes in his rock ‘n roll history classic, Mystery Train, that “the blues singers, in a twisted way, were the real Puritans. These men, who had to renounce the blues to be sanctified, who often sneered at the preachers in their songs, were the ones who really believed in the devil; they feared the devil most because they knew him best.” To live the life of a blues singer, especially a traveling one like Johnson, meant to drink, to womanize, to be uprooted, and most of all, to do so on the dime of the devil’s music: a life path through the very Puritan American South that might have produced all kinds of guilt. But the self-awareness of blues singers as sinners and their resulting fixation on the devil feels like a matter-of-fact confession, a wrestling with quotidian devilishness that is neither tragic nor romantic. It’s small, feels ordinary, to open the door to Satan’s knock and tell him, like Johnson does in “Me and the Devil Blues,” that you believe, it’s time to go.
Mechanics of Recording I
At the turn of the 20th century, acoustic recording was the best way anyone knew to capture sound and translate it into a physical form. To record a sound, an acoustic gramophone’s diamond-tipped stylus would move with the vibrations and carve grooves into the wax coating of a record. The grooves would either be vertical, “hill-and-dale,” or lateral, side-to-side—physical mirrors of the sound itself. When the record was played back, a needle would manually, acoustically retrace the paths that had been engraved in the record’s surface, and send the resulting vibrations to the diaphragm, where they echoed out through a cone-shaped amplifier. The sounds that came from a gramophone were therefore reproductions of the original sound waves, a sort of twice-removed reflection. A conduit for the presence of the artist.
The Second Origin Story of Robert Johnson, based on Tom Graves’s account in his book Crossroads
Born May 8th, 1911 in Hazlehurst, MS, Robert Leroy Johnson also went by the name Robert Spencer. He was “an outside child,” something of a misfit, partly but not only because he was born out of wedlock and never knew his biological father. He was his mother’s 11th child, and learned to play music from an older brother named Charles Leroy, who later became a pianist. His first instruments were the diddley bow—a one-string folk instrument made of a length of broom wire stretched between two nails—and the Jew’s harp, an ancient sort of precursor to the harmonica. He then learned the harmonica, a sound which, together with the diddley bow, would come to shape his unique style on guitar.
Music was Robert’s escape from his difficult home life and the oppressive atmosphere of the cotton plantations in Mississippi. As a young man, he lived with his stepfather Dusty Willis in Robinsonville, Mississippi, who tried and failed to teach him a work ethic by making him pick cotton. Robert went briefly to school at the Indian Creek School in Tunica, but a lazy eye probably prevented him from continuing for long. Unhappy and in search of a different life, he ran away from home. He was known to go to juke joints on Saturday nights and drink corn whiskey while listening to the bluesmen play. This musician’s life attracted him and pulled him away from home, and he spent some time traveling and playing in the Delta. But at 18, he fell in love and got married to a local girl, Virginia Travis, who soon afterward died during childbirth in April of 1930. This moment was a crossroads for Robert; a black curtain fell across his life, not only because of his grief in losing his wife and child, but also due to her family’s accusations that he had neglected her at her hour of greatest need. From that point on, Robert would never again stay in one place, but wandered between towns and women, accompanied only by his music and his drinking habit.
Mechanics of Recording II
After 1925, electrical recording replaced acoustic recording, a development that meant sounds could be reproduced in higher quality more easily. In acoustic recording, the sound waves’ ability to carve wax with precision and to reflect the actual range of frequencies in a sound was limited—what was recorded ended up being the softly defined middle of the sound, without the overtones and undertones you can hear in a real voice. Electrical recording adapted some of the technology used in telephones to turn sound waves into electrical signals that were more accurate, giving clarity to the lowest and highest frequencies. Recordings now retained the sound of the room where they were made, microphones being more sensitive to subtle reverberations and echoes than the horns of the acoustic recording days. Once recording was electrified, the clear range of audible expression expanded, but the playback system worked much the same as it had before—a needle retracing the grooves, following, echoing. As overlapping harmonics bring the voice into focus, slowly the absences diminish, the gaps fill in.
The Third Origin Story of Robert Johnson, based on Elijah Wald’s book Escaping the Delta
Born May 8th, 1911, Robert Johnson lived first with his mother, and then a man named Charles Dodds, who was also known as Charles Spencer. Johnson was introduced to music during his childhood, and it eventually drew him away from home; he became a regular juke joint performer either in Arkansas or south of the Delta, and while he was away married a woman named Callie Craft. He had one “bad” eye and a lot of confidence, and would always look sharp regardless of how many days he had spent riding in railcars wearing the same suit. He went traveling with Johnny Shines, another blues player, from Memphis to New York to Indiana to Kentucky in the early ’30s. Shines once witnessed him bring a whole room of adults to tears with the slide guitar on his song “Come On in My Kitchen.”
You better come on in my kitchen
It’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors
Ah the woman I love, took from my best
Some joker got lucky, stole her back again
You better come on in my kitchen
It’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors
Johnson recorded 16 songs in San Antonio, TX, for the American Record Corporation (ARC) in November of 1936, and another 13 in Dallas in June of 1937. Then he spent some time in Arkansas, and might have put together a band with a drummer and a pianist, playing what was later called “jump blues.” By 1938 he was back in the Delta, specifically in Greenwood, MS. He played frequently at a club just outside ofGreenwood, and the owner eventually suspected Johnson of getting involved with his wife. He decided to poison Johnson’s whiskey to get rid of him. Johnson died on August 16th, 1938 at about age 27, either from this poisoning, syphilis, or pneumonia, depending on the account you believe. Some people who claim to have witnessed it remember Johnson losing his wits in his final hours and howling like a dog.
The death certificate, which says that Johnson played banjo instead of guitar and misspells his father’s name, also cites a Greenwood plantation owner’s opinion that Johnson died of syphilis, noting by way of explanation that he was a musician. These inaccuracies in the official record are a final violence to Johnson, on top of the already numerous violences inherent in life for Black people in the early 20th-century Delta. It’s reasonable even to question if this death certificate belongs to the right Johnson, or to another banjo-playing one we know nothing else about.
The devil is a stand-in
There are some blues songs, usually ballads, that have many different versions—the same characters act differently depending on if you hear the version sung by a chain gang in Georgia or an old bluesman in Tennessee. Singers add and take away stanzas and rhymes, start and end the action at different points, collectively weaving together the deeds of an outlaw like Staggerlee or the story of the mean sheriff and Poor Lazarus, figures who billow into myth. The origin stories of Robert Johnson work much in the same way, with overlapping and conflicting details that congregate and disperse, making way for empty spaces and simultaneous truths.
So it is not so much the image of Robert Johnson shaking hands with the devil over his newly tuned guitar that seems to have taken hold in our national imaginary, but the lack of an image, the blankness that stands in its place. The devil story is one we like to tell because it is literally unimaginable. Our inability to visualize the physical materiality of that scene is what allows us to take the Robert Johnson story—the two known photographs of him, his recordings, and the wildly various and conflicting impressions he left on those who met him—and run.
We run in so many directions with that idea—of selling your soul to the devil for musical talent—that we have left Robert Johnson standing at the mythical crossroads, howling out his blues to the wilderness, in either the clearest and most proximate act of selfhood possible, or the loneliest and least traceable.
Mechanics of Recording III
The move from acoustic to electrical recording in the ’20s expanded the range of sound frequencies that could be produced in high quality—expanded the record’s ability to tell the truth. It also eliminated the need for artists to play directly into the recording horn in order for their sound to be registered by the stylus. Before, the choreography of recording many musicians at once was a complex affair, requiring louder instruments to be placed further away from the horn and quieter ones closer, so that the balance was right in the recording. During solos, an instrumentalist would run up to the horn in order to deliver their phrase before retreating back into the group. The push and pull of sound around the horn was physical, dynamic.
With electrical recording, though, the musician sat somewhere in a room and the recording equipment around them could be adjusted to create what a lead researcher with Bell Labs called “the illusion of the presence of the artist.” The recordist could manipulate the electrical signals’ volume, dimension, and clarity to bend the sound waves into the voice, the guitar, the harmonica, that manifest on the record itself. The power of the recordist, dispersed throughout his electrical equipment, could be felt like a puppeteer tugging strings: pulling a riff a little closer to the audience, letting out the slack on a voice, leaning into the overtones or the undertones, shaping, turning, distorting.
The Fourth Origin Story of Robert Johnson, based on the account given in the Radiolab episode “Crossroads”
The origin of the Robert Johnson myth is more important than the origin of the man himself, although they are tied up together. After a time traveling around the Mississippi Delta, in 1929, Robert was married in at age 19 to a woman named Virginia. They settled down to a happy domestic life on their farm. She became pregnant soon afterward, and when the time came for the baby to be born, she went to stay with her family. Robert was to follow after her, but he went out of town to play a gig just before she went into labor, only discovering when he returned that she had died during childbirth. Virginia’s family ostracized him for this, blaming him for killing her by playing the devil’s songs. The grief of this experience is what turned Robert from a mediocre musician into an exceptional one—grief and guilt are what tore him from his life and then pushed him, haunted, back into it. That grief is what people refer to when they tell the devil story—the devil is just another name for death.
Record-keeping and white authority
The government record of Robert Johnson’s death, his official death certificate, is skewed because it relies on the opinion of a white plantation owner rather than taking the accounts of Black musicians who actually witnessed his death. The certificate is probably the most blatant instance of white authority distorting what we can know about him, but it is just one of many examples. The afterlife of his music commits another contortion, proliferating a legacy based in mythology.
Both the myth of Robert Johnson and his music were revived in the later 20th century, supposedly due to the interest of white rock and roll musicians, who were already making their fame on the theft and reappropriation of Black art forms (the blues being prominent among them). It was artists like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones covering Johnson’s songs that brought him into the national consciousness; their romanticization of his tortured-artist soul and young death was another kind of reaping. It is worth noting that they deeply admired Johnson and meant to pay tribute to him, not only exploit his talents and mythic pull. But it is equally worth mentioning that they were ultimately the ones getting paid.
With the white band covers, the white government records, and moreover the many white ethnomusicologists who have populated the blank spaces of Robert Johnson with speculation, some solid research, and rhapsody on the theme of his sold soul—our attempts to see and hear the truth of Johnson are tied up in the violences of white authority. It only feels possible to see beyond this, to stand facing Johnson, by listening to his records. Through the vibrations, the receivers, the diaphragms, the styluses writing grooves into wax, we can summon his voice and guitar out of a speaker, hear him sing:
I got to keep movin’, I got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’
down like hail
Hmmm-mmm, blues fallin’ down like
hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
And the days keeps on worryin’ me
There’s a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail
The 26 songs that we have from Robert Johnson are the products of two recording sessions: one in San Antonio, TX, in November of 1936 and one in Dallas, TX, in July of 1937. In San Antonio, he was one of several acts scouted out by ARC, including a cowboy swing band and two groups of Mexican musicians.
Here are three accounts of what happened in that room. All are equally true.
Johnson had never played in a studio before. The other musicians’ eyes followed his every move. Suffering a bad case of stage fright, he turned away from the microphone toward the corner of the room. He drew a breath and closed his eyes, and began to play, letting his high clear voice rise straight from his chest.
Johnson sat facing the corner, turned away from the other musicians, to hide his patented picking patterns and slide hand. Dressed slick and sharp in a suit like he always was, he gave one glance over his left shoulder at the recording technician, just long enough to see him nod. He played the first chord, coaxing the whine out of it. His gaze rested on his left hand and followed the chords as they changed.
Robert Johnson mostly played in living rooms and crowded juke joints, and he never had an amplifier. He had learned to make the room do the amplifying for him. When he sat down in the studio, he faced the corner so that the sounds of his guitar and his voice would dissipate into the room. Even though his back was to the receiver, his voice sounded like it came from the walls themselves. He screwed up his face in concentration, sliding his hand and his voice together up the octave and back down, holding a wavering note before letting it fall, stomping the floor on two and four.