Eighty years since his best-known song was recorded Johnson's music still haunts the ear—while his bizarre life story continues to mystifyby Alex Dean / August 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
“Oh, baby don’t you want to go? Oh, baby don’t you want to go? Back to the land of California To my sweet home Chicago”
These lines open Sweet Home Chicago by Robert Johnson, one of the most important songwriters in the history of blues music. His prowess as a guitarist is legendary, the story of how he attained it sends shivers down the spine. 80 years on from the release of Chicago, Johnson’s music still haunts the ear, and reminds us of the limitless power of just one man with a guitar.
Johnson was born in the right place at the right time: Mississippi, 1911. The blues wasn’t new then; it had been around in one form or another for years, with roots in the gospels sung by slaves as they worked the plantations. By the early 20th century, however, its development was accelerating. During childhood Johnson would occasionally rub shoulders with blues legends: Son House, a pioneer of the genre, once said that he remembered meeting Johnson as a little boy. The youngster knew his way round a harmonica, House explained, but was quite dreadful on the guitar.
Now comes the peculiar bit, for Johnson’s poor guitar playing as a very young man is well-documented. Yet in his late teens, he left Robinsonville, the tiny village where he spent much of his youth, and travelled to Martinsville in Virginia. When he returned, Johnson was a guitar maestro, able to write and play music with quite remarkable emotional power, not to mention exceptionally difficult technical requirements.
“The youngster knew his way round a harmonica—but was quite dreadful on the guitar”
It didn’t take long for the rumours to start. Johnson had, some said, experimented with sinister forces: only through some kind of black magic could he have improved so much, so fast. One account in particular stuck. Johnson, desperate to become a successful musician, had taken his guitar to a crossroads near Dockery planation, on Mississippi’s Sunflower river, at midnight. There he had met the devil and passed over his guitar. The devil played a few songs and handed it back to Johnson, who discovered he had been given full mastery of the instrument—in exchange for his soul.
This obviously didn’t happen—and some speculate that the myth didn’t originate in black communities but was conjured up by white record executives looking to generate buzz around Johnson. This would introduce rather sinister racial overtones: was the notion of an artistically gifted black man so improbable that meddling from a supernatural being was the most marketable explanation?
Still, one thing was indisputable: Johnson had, almost overnight, turned into a musical genius. And the story, wherever it came from, had some on the blues scene convinced: interviewed years later, House was asked whether he attributed Johnson’s talent to the Faustian pact. He would not flatly deny it.
Now gifted with supreme skill, Johnson travelled across the Depression-era South—and then the US as a whole, playing at first on street corners. In 1936 he sought out a producer and they begun to record music, including the masterpieces we can listen to today: not just Sweet Home Chicago—though this song, modelled on an earlier blues number called Kokomo Blues, is probably his best known—but also Rambling On My Mind and Dust My Broom, as well as the mischievously titled Crossroad Blues and Me and the Devil Blues (references to soul-selling are oblique, if even there at all).
“Son House was asked whether he attributed Johnson’s talent to the Faustian pact. He would not flatly deny it”
The impact of these recordings has been incalculable. In the video Session for Robert Johnson Eric Clapton, himself considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time, explains that he initially assumed Johnson was playing with accompaniment, so complicated were his songs. After a few listens he “realised that, on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man’s example would be my life’s work.”
It isn’t just Clapton; Keith Richards remembers hearing Johnson for the first time: “it was like a comet or a meteor that came along and, BOOM, suddenly he raised the ante, suddenly you just had to aim that much higher.” The Stones released a cover of Johnson’s Love in Vain in 1969.
Sadly, there is far less music by Johnson than there might have been: in 1938, aged 27, he passed away—and in rather odd circumstances. In an account by fellow musician Sonny Boy Williamson, having flirted with a woman, Johnson was slipped a poisoned whisky by her jealous husband. Death by poison is the consensus—with one well-known Johnson biographer even claiming to have extracted a confession from the killer—but the debate over the exact circumstances surrounding his death rumbles on.
In one sense, Johnson’s story is immensely complicated—not to mention shrouded in mystery. (Many of his lyrics are similarly confusing: did he actually think Chicago was in California, or was there some elaborate metaphor going on?) But in another it is very simple: it is the story of a young man from Mississippi picking up a guitar, practicing hard and learning to play beautiful songs—songs which, despite some scratchiness on the recordings, can still take the breath away 80 years on.
Watch The Blues Brothers perform Sweet Home Chicago