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…