Archive for the ‘Robert Johnson’ Category

Top 10 Untrue Facts About Robert Johnson

July 30, 2013
Top 10 Untrue Facts About Robert Johnson by Greil Marcus

1. Bob Dylan writes in Chronicles, Volume One that John Hammond, who tried to recruit Johnson for his 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert in New York before learning of Johnson’s murder, and who played two of Johnson’s 78s from the stage in his place, believed that Johnson had read Whitman. He had.

2. He based “Come on in My Kitchen” on “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

3. Traveling with Johnny Shines, Johnson passed through New York in 1937 or 1938—where he appeared in blackface as a spear-carrier in a revue at the relocated Cotton Club at Broadway and 48th Street.

4. Zora Neale Hurston saw him playing on the street in Harlem; she introduced him to Langston Hughes. The three read and sang back and forth until Hughes wrote in his journal, “We all wanted to be each other.”

5. Through Hurston, Johnson met Nancy Cunard, just then getting over her breakup with the jazz bandleader Henry Crowder. They had a brief affair. Stories that Johnson wrote “From Four Until Late” for her are considered dubious.

6. Through Cunard, Johnson met Big Bill Broonzy, and collaborated with him on “Just a Dream (On My Mind),” adding the verse about the president to Broonzy’s structure—

I dreamed I was in the White House, sittin’ in the president’s chair
I dreamed he’s shaking my hand, and he said “Bob, I’m so glad you’re here”
But that was just a dream, Lord, what a dream I had on my mind
Now, and when I woke up, baby, not a chair there could I find.

7. Broonzy would not record the song until 1939, when he changed the president’s address from “Bob” to “Bill.” Memphis Slim used to say Broonzy had arranged Johnson’s murder—or even committed it himself—in order to avoid sharing credit for what he knew would become his signature song, but no one believed him.

8. In recent years, various scholars and researchers, determined to remove the veil of mystification thrown over Johnson by the story of his supposedly selling his soul to the devil in order to gain a proficiency on the guitar that would take him beyond his fellows, have sought to restore balance to country-blues studies by both, or alternatively, denying that as a school, style, or aesthetically meaningful form there was any such thing as country blues, and denigrating Johnson’s originality, expressiveness, musical dexterity, or even the authenticity of his putative voice, with one writer arguing that Johnson’s natural voice was deep, but his producer sped up the master tapes of his recordings in order to make him sound younger and more vulnerable, thus purposefully or inadvertently adding to the myth of the doomed blues singer.

A book arguing that Johnson, like Shakespeare, was either a front (for Son House, who, the author suggests, thought he could make more money as a younger, more handsome, more plaintive-sounding version of himself), or never existed at all—the thesis being that the real Robert Johnson who made the recordings attributed to Johnson was, as some have argued about Homer, and as E.L. Doctorow essentially argues about the Rosenbergs at the end of The Book of Daniel, someone else with the same name—will be published next year by Sentinel.

9. Rumored but so-far-unfound Johnson recordings include “Country Blues” (a reworking of the Dock Boggs version), “Little Maggie,” “Adieu False Heart,” and “John Henry.”

10. Like Huey Newton and Bobby Seale listening to Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” as they drew up the charter for the Black Panthers, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen were listening to “Hell Hound on My Trail” when in 1941 they wrote “Blues in the Night.” “I want him on the session,” Bing Crosby, a fan of “Terraplane Blues,” said just before he recorded the song in 1942. But what he got was perfect anyway.

Up Jumped the Devil

July 15, 2013

edited from Adriana C. Rissetto (

In Robert Johnson’s song, Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil) the speaker personifies the blues as “walkin’ like a man.” Even though the blues are an intimate product of the speaker’s creativity as a musician, this line reveals that he still feels alienated from them, as if they are an external force acting on him.

Just as a disease is often perceived as something which has attacked patients’ immune systems instead of a bodily process instigated by certain conditions, so for the speaker the blues is an unsettling process which he cannot curb or control. Moreover, the disease imagery is made all the more poignant by the paradoxical synthesis of the “shakin’ chill,” referring to the dangerous immediacy of a fever, combined with the surreptitious fatality of heart disease and excruciating longevity of consumption.

The metaphor of the blues like “consumption/killing [the speaker] by degrees” is the most chilling of all the disease imagery that Robert Johnson employs in “Preaching Blues.”  At first, it seems superfluous to include this image, as the shakin’ chill and heart disease create a nice binary opposition.

However, consumption differs from both of these by combining the intense pain of the shakin’ chill with the longevity of the heart disease. When one had consumption in 1930’s America, one was cognizant of a mortality slowly creeping closer with each hacking cough. Here the speaker is intensely aware of what the blues is doing to him in minute detail, and how it forces his lifestyle that ends in abrupt and brutal fatality.

The speaker acknowledges the potency of the disease imagery in the song’s last stanza, in which he states that he can “study rain/oh, oh, drive, oh, oh, drive my blues” in the same way that a scientist would scrutinize a bacteria culture in order to ascertain a cure to the disease.

Here the rain resembles a vaccination in which a small amount of the virus is introduced into the patient’s blood in order to build up an immunity; the speaker studies the rain, a symbol of depression, to build up “an immunity” to the effect of the blues on him. However, eventually he rejects this in favor of the distillery, a quick and easy pain killer which offers immediate, albeit temporary, relief.

Forensic Photography

March 17, 2013


If you’ve been following the controversy about the recently unearthed 3rd Robert Johnson photo, check out, which is the source for the following (edited):

The areas marked in red – the ticket pocket, the fly opening and the buttons on his jacket, trousers (pants) and shirt – are all on the wrong side for men’s clothing.   (Check your own clothes – for at least a century, US and European men’s clothes have had the buttons on the right hand side while women’s buttons have been on the left.

So – did Johnny Shines wear a suit and shirt tailored for a woman, or (far more likely) has the photograph been reversed?

The evidence of the clothing clearly points to a reversed photo.

But suddenly, “Robert Johnson” has become a left-handed guitarist, and – according to the two confirmed photos of him and the recollections of those who knew him – he was definitely right-handed.

The Robert Johnson Estate commissioned Lois Gibson (a police forensic artist) to authenticate the photo, which she duly did (see Vanity Fair, October 2008). Her research compared the features of the face in the new photo with those on the two other authenticated photos of Robert Johnson.

She was able to superimpose one on top of another and declared the result “an almost perfect fit”. Ms Gibson obviously didn’t notice that the photo had been reversed and since none of the faces in the three photos under analysis is symmetrical, surely her conclusions and her “authentication” of the photo must now be in serious doubt, to put it mildly.

There has been a lot of discussion and argument about this photo and the disputed identification of the subjects.   While stories about a “third Robert Johnson photo” have appeared in many mainstream magazines and newspapers, these have been based on a press release by Getty Images, who control the licensing rights.

However, it seems impossible to find anyone with knowledge/experience in the blues world (like fellow musicians Robert Jr Lockwood and David “Honeyboy” Edwards who actually knew Johnson and Shines or authors, researchers and journalists) to agree with Ms Gibson’s conclusions.

I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom

November 17, 2012

 Jerry Weber, left, of Jerry Records in Squirrel Hill, and his son, Willie, hold a rare copy of Robert Johnson’s “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” on the Vocalion label. The “holy grail of 78s” is estimated to be worth $6,000 to $12,000. (photo by Nate Guidry)

By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (11/16/12)

You never know what you’ll find in a stack of old records, which is part of what has driven Jerry Weber for four decades.

Last week, the owner of the world-famous Jerry’s Records in Squirrel Hill gave a man he didn’t know $50 for several boxes of old albums found while cleaning out an attic. They sat in a hallway at Jerry’s for a couple days before anyone looked at them. Among a collection of mostly junky, water-damaged, stuck-together discs, he found what he calls “the holy grail of 78s.”  It’s a 78 rpm copy of “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” (on Vocalion), the second song ever recorded by late Mississippi blues legend Robert Johnson, in 1936.

“I saw one 30 years ago that was broke,” says Mr. Weber, “and I saw one that a friend of mine found and let me hold before he sold it. It’s the most expensive record I’ve ever found, and it’s in real nice shape.”

He grades it VG, as in very good, as opposed to mint condition, and says the book value is between $6,000 and $12,000.  According to John Tefteller, an Oregon-based collector who specializes in rare blues and jazz records, “There are probably about 15 to 30 copies of that record in that condition floating around the country in various collections.”

He adds, “There’s not a huge market for something like that. Yes, it’s rare, but you could count on your hands and toes the number of people who would buy it for a few thousand dollars.”  The only Robert Johnson 78 on eBay is a rough-looking copy of “Kind Woman Blues/Terraplane Blues,” up for $1,150.

Johnson, born in 1911, was an itinerant street-corner musician who never achieved fame during his lifetime. In November 1936, he recorded 16 songs, including “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” at a temporary studio set up at a hotel in San Antonio, Texas. It was one of only two sessions he ever did, but his influence was substantial, thanks to such British blues players as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, who revered his work and covered his songs in the ’60s.

The mythology of Robert Johnson is that he gained his ability to play the blues by selling his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in rural Mississippi. His death in 1938, at age 27, is mysterious, but it is believed that he was poisoned by a woman’s jealous husband.

Mr. Weber plans to hold on to this rare “Broom” for a while, and his son, Willie, will play it for customers every Saturday at 2 p.m. until the end of the year at Whistlin’ Willie’s 78s, which is adjacent to Jerry’s at 2136 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, PA

Love in Vain

November 5, 2012

Please excuse the mandatory advertisement at the beginning of this video.  It’s worth the wait.

edited from

As Joseph Campbell described the tale of the mythic hero: 1) “The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there’s something lacking in the normal experiences available or permitted to members of his society. 2) This person takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. 3)  It’s usually a cycle, a going and a returning.”

We can follow Robert Johnson’s life through this cycle in almost perfect coherence.

1)  Johnson almost certainly must have begun his life feeling something was lacking, or that something had been taken away from him. Born an illegitimate child who did not know his father he was, as an infant, ushered from one plantation to another by his mother before finally being deposited with his mother’s ex-husband and his new wife in Memphis. He spent several years living in the big city, adopting his mother’s ex-husband’s last name Spencer. At about age 9 he was taken back by his mother to live with a hostile step-father on a plantation first in Arkansas and then in Mississippi.

It was around this same time that Son House moved to Robinsonville and began playing there with Willie Brown and others. Robert had already been familiar with Robinsonville, sneaking away from the family home at night to go and listen to Charley Patton and others play at jukes and house parties in and around that small town. Robert seemed to have a particular liking for House’s music and had already been trying to play guitar on his own by the time House got there.

2)  Speculation is that Robert went in search of his biological father, but we do know that he wound up in his birthplace of Hazlehurst, MS. Robert may indeed have been searching for “what has been lost” – his father, but he was also in search of the “life-giving elixir” of music. Plantation work was just not in Robert’s plan for the future… he would not become a sharecropper. He wanted to be a musician. And why not? As a young man the idea of spending the rest of his life doing back-breaking work, especially after having experienced city life as a child, must have seemed untenable. Music would be his way out. And so Robert found a way to become a master guitarist.

3)  Robert returned to the Delta and amazed everyone who knew him with his new-found skills. Whether or not Son House actually ever believed the crossroads myth he still was astonished by Robert’s newly-found talent. He couldn’t believe how fast Robert seemed to have learned. A legend was born. Not necessarily the legend of the crossroads, but the legend of a young man who went away a rank amateur and who returned a polished professional.

The cycle of myth was created. The crossroads myth would have its own genesis for its own reasons, but even without placing the idea of the crossroads into Johnson’s life we can see how the few facts we know about him fit into the structure of myth.