Only two confirmed photos exist of Robert Johnson, the guitar pioneer who was born by the Mississippi Delta and died young and was said to have sold his soul, rambling somewhere along a Southern road, to the Devil. Johnson recorded about one song for each year he lived (that is, not very many); he died largely unknown. And from his body, over decades, sprouted the myth of a man in the shape of the blues itself — a little mischievous, a little diabolical, a little blasphemous.
Son House, one of Johnson’s Delta influences, “insisted” that the young Robert was a “terrible guitarist” until one day he left for Arkansas. And when he returned, he wasn’t. According to myth – or at least one version of it – Johnson took his guitar in the dead of night to meet the Devil at the intersection of highways, an inverted Jacob-wrestles-an-angel episode. Johnson handed the Devil his guitar and struck a deal: his soul, for the mastery of music. The Devil tuned the guitar and handed it back. So it was done.
The story of Robert Johnson’s soul, like all folklore, was not set on paper in definitive text but told, and retold. Little bits changed; countless tellers added and molded — they two, this down on his luck bluesman and his shadow, bartered at the crossroads of a highway. Or it was in a graveyard, and they shook hands over a tombstone. Its principal characters remain the same: Robert Johnson, and the Devil.
Blues “was a mode, and a mood,” writes John Jeremiah Sullivan in his investigation of the early, early blues. It was, this music that proliferated across America after the emancipation of the slaves, “jarring and hypnotic” to “white American ears.” It was “weird… sad and sexy.” Elijah Wald argues that the Robert Johnson folk legend grew so powerfully, grew to overshadow in many ways the man and his music, because of a certain racialized allure – the “white fantasies” that gave this music its superstition and romance and ‘danger.’
Johnson himself could only be cast as a stock character in this rendition of his own life: Born illegitimate in the Delta, he was a drifter and a womanizer and stumbled through fields and into the annals of music history thanks to his supposedly supernatural fingers. Even the circumstances of his death were subjected to postmortem mythologizing. He was fed poisoned whiskey by the jealous husband of a married lover and died after days in immobilized agony. Or he died of syphilis. According to Wald, Johnson was to help his case for posterity (where so many of his contemporaries are forgotten) by being an astute pop musician — Johnson knew “what a hit record sounded like” and figured out how to record his music so that it sounded quality on the recording, and would always sound sweet to the ears not of street corner passers-by but of record listeners not yet born. It was the release of the seminal 1961 compilation album King of the Delta Blues that cemented him, decades later, as King of the Delta Blues.
Long after his death at the inauspicious age of twenty-seven, Johnson’s reputation and influence expanded, in particular among white musicians, pioneers of rock and roll including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, and Robert Plant, among others. Rolling Stone: “Johnson’s recorded legacy — a mere twenty-nine songs cut in 1936 and ‘37 — is the foundation of all modern blues and rock.”