“I’ve Got Stones in my Passway
And my road seems dark as night (2x)
I have pains in my heart, they have taken my appetite”
–“Stones in my Passway,” Robert Johnson
I first heard the Mississippi Delta Bluesman, Robert Johnson, when I was 15 years old. His voice struck me as if the radio was haunted by a ghost. For the first time, since my Father died when I was eight, there was a mirrored audio reflection of the pain that I felt.
It was actually quite liberating to find a music that made me feel better. That was the thrust I got from Johnson’s music specifically and from the Blues in general; It always made me feel better. Never got sad listening to the Blues. I felt a dignity that did not necessarily always get communicated to me by other forms of music. Blues was my beginning training ground for an acceptance of the vagaries of this existence.
I heard Robert on an Underground Radio Station, called WOWI-FM in Norfolk, Virginia. The Disc Jockeys at WOWI had marvelous taste and young aspiring musicians, like myself, benefited. On a Wednesday evening, DJ Rollie Bristol played Robert Johnson for me and other local listeners.
It was shortly after my 15th birthday, in May 1972, where I heard the two selections by Robert Johnson as shared by Rollie. They were “Sweet Home Chicago and ( I Believe) I’ll Dust My Broom.” His music immediately captivated my fifteen year old soul. Robert Johnson’s music, forever haunted, trapped both in the desperation and exaltation of youth.
He had an exceptional voice backed by his own great guitar technique. His guitar playing ability is still beyond that of many great guitarists.
May 8, 2022: Robert Johnson was born 111 years ago on this date. It has been over 50 years since I first heard that ghostly voice from the Crossroads. His influence is still one that will continue to cross centuries. These days, I don’t listen to Robert Johnson like I once did, on a weekly basis, as I do with such musicians like The Band, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Bob Marley, Howlin’ Wolf, among others. Robert Johnson’s music is not necessarily part of my everyday listening palette. For the most part, his music is not for light listening. His voice, guitar and his well written songs, reach into a deep place within my consciousness.
Sometimes his intensity can be overwhelming. But at various times, during the year, Robert Johnson is all I listen to. Many times those listening moments are framed by his birth date and the date of his death. Yet, the inspiration to listen to him can come about at anytime, sometimes for unexplained reasons. When I least expect him, he makes an appearance. Occasionally this Ghostly Man of the American Crossroads demands his own listening time.
In my teenage years, I listened to and learned Robert’s songs, as well as I could. I remain a passionate and dedicated student of Robert Johnson’s music. He was the first touchstone for my continuing path as a Journeyman Bluesman. As stated, what first gripped me about Robert Johnson’s music was his voice. Because Johnson was murdered at the age of 27, (The true founder of the 27 Club), that voice is framed in both haunted tones and the sound of eternal youth. Ultimately, what captivated me about Johnson was his total dedication to his art.
As a guitarist, Robert Johnson could play several guitar parts at once. Keith Richards has succinctly described Robert, as a guitarist, as sounding like he had “two brains.” Similarly, Richards’ contemporary, Eric Clapton, described on hearing Johnson for the first time, “I realized that, on some level, I found the Master.” In 2004, Clapton released an album composed entirely of his interpretations of Johnson’s songs titled, “Me and Mr. Johnson.” Well worth checking out on its own merits.
Robert Johnson’s ability to play more than one guitar part at once was an early influence on the multi-dimensional guitar playing of Musical Innovator, Jimi Hendrix. Musicians as diverse as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Larkin Poe, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Dion, Eric Clapton, Johnny Shines, Elmore James, among many, site Johnson as an influence.
So who was Robert Johnson? What was the America of his time that helped to create his art? Robert Johnson was born on May 8th, 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. His parents were Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson. Julia was still married to a Landowner & Furniture Maker, Charles Dodd.
Charles had been forced away by a lynch mob due to a dispute with some local white landowners. This was the Jim Crow South, after all. That was when Noah Johnson came into the picture and Robert was born. Noah Johnson was never a full part of Julia’s household.
Julia left Hazlehurst with toddler Robert and went to Memphis where she rejoined Dodds, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer. Julia discovered that Dodds had married again while he was still married to her. An interesting juxtaposition of households and relationships. Despite the possible awkwardness, Julia was welcomed into the Spencer household, Julia quickly realized that she had to earn a living and left Robert, in Memphis, with the established and stable Charles Spencer household.
Despite this odd convergence of households, Robert fit in well with the Spencer family. He called himself, at this time, Robert Spencer. Charles Spencer, a man of many talents, was apparently also a talented musician and was an early mentor to Robert. At the age of 5, Robert had the opportunity to start attending school. He went to the Carnes Avenue Colored School.
Robert Johnson spent his time at Carnes studying math, arithmetic, language, reading. Among his contemporaries, Robert’s education set him apart. ( A few years back, I saw a copy of a marriage certificate for Robert’s first marriage to Virginia Travis. His signature was clear and concise. Better than most folks, including my own.) Robert became and remained a voracious reader all of his remaining life.
He became interested in the Blues music that surrounded him on Beale Street and the Handy Park area. In 1920, after leaving Charles Spencer, Robert’s Mother Julia married an illiterate Sharecropper, Will “Dusty” Willis. Julia reunited with Robert and moved away from Memphis to a plantation in Arkansas. Robert was forced to sharecrop with Dusty and Julia. Robert Johnson hated farming and that became a great source of dispute between him and Dusty.
They decided to move across the river to the Abbay and Leatherman plantation, at Commerce Mississippi, near Tunica and Robinsonville. Robert continued his education for a few more years between the years of 1924 through 1927 at the Tunica Indian Creek School. Though Robert preferred the education that he had experienced in Memphis.
He left formal education when he was about 16. By this time, Robert was already playing guitar with a surprising amount of skill. He had already taken up the playing of harmonica and Jews-Harp. He displayed a natural aptitude for both instruments. However, his passion for playing guitar and singing had really taken hold. Robert wanted to play guitar with the intensity of local musicians like Charley Patton, Son House and Willie Brown.
An early myth, allegedly spread by Bluesman Son House, was that Robert couldn’t play guitar at all at this time. Then the story goes that he disappeared for about six months and came back playing with a stunning brilliance. Rumors abounded that he gone to the Crossroads, around the intersection of Highways 49 and 61 and sold his soul to the devil for his skills as a musician.
Absolute malarkey! Robert Johnson became a great guitarist because he practiced, constantly. Bluesman Johnny Shines, a contemporary to Robert Johnson and mentor to this author once said; “Show me your soul, now sell it to me!”
Some of the Faustian legend about Robert came from the tutelage that he received from the older Bluesman, Ike Zimmerman. By all accounts, Ike was an accomplished guitarist who liked to practice in graveyards. Robert would join him in these Midnight tombstone sessions. Regrettably, Ike never recorded. But Ike, Patton, House and Brown were direct influences on Robert’s guitar playing. His voice was distinctly his, but demonstrated the influence of House and other popular Blues singers of the time
Robert’s reputation grew greatly because of his natural talents. Farming was a distant memory and he did not reconcile with his Stepfather Dusty until later. Part of the problem was Robert was making more money playing music than his Stepfather was by farming. By this time, Robert’s Mother had told Robert about his real Father, Noah Johnson. From that point on he referred to himself as Robert Johnson.
Yet, 17 year old Robert Johnson met 14 year-old Virginia Travis in late 1928. Robert and Virginia fell deeply in love. Lying about their ages, they were married on February 17, 1929, at the Clack Grocery Store. This was near the farming communities of Clack and Penton, two hamlets in Desoto County, Mississippi, near Highway 61.
During his marriage to Virginia, Robert put music aside. Local residents, that had seen Robert play in the streets and in local juke joints, were surprised to see Robert plowing the fields behind a mule. He did not give up music entirely, but to provide for Virginia and himself he took up farming for needed income. Virginia became pregnant and their existence proved to be quite idyllic.
It was not to last. On April 9, 1930, Virginia went into labor. Robert was out of town, playing music for extra money. Virginia and the baby died in childbirth on April 10, 1930. Robert faced the recrimination of Virginia’s family and the surrounding community when he returned. They yelled hateful insults at Robert for going out to play the Blues. A music that the superstitious community called the “Devil’s music.”
Between Johnson’s disjointed early life and this very real trauma; His art was now forged by real heartbreak. More than any mythological Faustian bargain, Robert now had a real reason and a passion to play the Blues. He never farmed again.
Now Robert lived the life of a traveling musician, full time. After Virginia’s death, there was a lasting impermanence in his interactions with people. Musicians would play with Robert for weeks, occasionally months, at a time. Then one day Robert would just disappear leaving his fellow musicians to guess which way he had gone. Women were subject to his whims and wanderlust. One of those liaisons, with a woman named Virgie Williams, produced a son, Claud. Claud Johnson figures prominently in Robert’s story, but not until after Robert’s death, decades later.
Robert married one more time, briefly, to a Caletta Craft on May 4, 1931. Just as abruptly, he disappeared one day, never to return, leaving her broken-hearted. Interestingly enough, he would return to the Spencer household in Memphis, even helping them to move at one point. Makes sense, as they gave Robert the most extended period of consistency in his short life.
He played consistently on the Southern “Juke Joint” circuit. Juke Joints were, more often than not, store fronts and lone standing shacks where the patrons would listen to traveling musicians, dancing and drinking, eating southern cooking.
Johnson’s reputation as an excellent and exciting performer proceeded him. Robert burned with a passion to become a recording artist. He auditioned for H.C Speir in Jackson, Mississippi. Record companies in the 20’s and 30’s that recorded Black artists produced what was called, somewhat obnoxiously, “Race Records.” Nonetheless, Speir was a talent scout for such labels as Vocalion and Okeh, among others.
Robert did a test session at Speir’s music store in Jackson which yielded marvelous results. Speir, excitedly contacted Ernie Oertle, a salesman for the Vocalion label. Oertle worked the Mississippi-Louisiana circuit, looking for artists and he had a good relationship with Speir. As the Memphis Spencer address was Robert’s only “permanent” address, Oertle contacted the Spencer’s offering Robert a contract with Vocalion.
On November 23, 1936, Robert did his first recording session at the Gunther Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. Additional recording sessions occurred there on the 27th and 28th. This was an inexpensive way for Vocalion to conduct their sessions. The recording equipment was in one room and Robert performed in the adjacent Room 414. In those first three sessions, Robert recorded a total of 14 songs, eight recorded on the 23rd alone. Classic recordings.
Robert’s first release was “Terraplane Blues,” released in March 1937. The Terraplane was a car built by the Hudson Motor Company between 1932 and 1938. Robert Johnson used the car’s parts as a metaphor for sex. He started a lyrical tradition that continued from Chuck Berry through today. Johnson, on this song and others, demonstrated his mastery of the bottleneck/slide guitar technique.
These recordings were released on thick records played at 78 RPM. The B side was another Robert Johnson classic, “Kind Hearted Woman.” The two song record sold thousands of copies. Some of the songs out of Robert’s first session were leased to smaller record companies like the Perfect and Conqueror labels.
These initial recordings increased the reputation of Robert throughout the South and beyond. The second set of recordings, done under a similar set of circumstances, in Dallas, in June 1937, helped to cement Robert Johnson in the annals of American song. Those recordings also mended the fences of the disputes he had with his Stepfather, Dusty Willis, as Robert’s success made his music tangible in Willis’ eyes. In his lifetime, Robert Johnson never met his actual Father, Noah Johnson, a fact that haunted him.
The closing songs of the 1936 sessions, such as “Preaching Blues and If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day,” cast a darker element on the themes of Robert Johnson’s songs. The 1937 sessions furthered that theme with songs such as “Hellhound On My Trail and Me and the Devil Blues.” But at the same time Robert demonstrated a poetic sensibility in songs like “Love In Vain.”
I think the supernatural themes of Robert Johnson’s work are outweighed by the more romantic and fun side of his personality. In addition, those supernatural themes were directly influenced by his exposure to the Hoodoo practitioners he saw off of Beale Street as a child.
Ultimately, the 29 songs that Robert Johnson recorded in San Antonio and Dallas encompassed every possible emotion of the human experience. While it is a shame he did not record more; 29 songs were more than enough to create a lasting legacy.
After the second set of sessions, Robert started traveling even more extensively. He was a mentor to future Blues innovator, Robert Jr. Lockwood, because of his relationship with Lockwood’s Mother. He and his friend, Johnny Shines, traveled to places as far ranging as New York, Detroit and Canada. Robert also traveled with, from time to time, with future Chicago Blues players like Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson.
In August 1938, Johnson parted ways with Shines and returned to Mississippi. On the evening of August 13, 1938, playing in tandem with younger Bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Robert was playing at a Juke Joint, at Three Forks, near Greenwood, Mississippi. He had been fraternizing with the Juke owner’s wife. He was given a bottle of poisoned whiskey. The husband gave him a poison known then as “Passeagreen,” now better known as naphthalin.
Normally, this poison is ultimately harmless and just makes the person ingesting it sick. But Robert had been diagnosed with an ulcer about a month prior. The ingestion of this poison caused Robert to bleed internally in his esophagus. It took him almost three days to die. Robert had no medical attention, hastening the effects of the poison. Allegedly, Robert turned his life over to Jesus Christ on his death bed on August 16th. I hope he is resting in peace.
Record Producer, John Hammond, had been putting together the Carnegie Hall Concert, “Spirituals to Swing” in New York. He sent word that he wanted Johnson to appear at this fall of 1938 concert. On hearing of Johnson’s death, he played two Robert Johnson recordings; Walking Blues and Preaching Blues on a phonograph at the concert.
The limited amount of songs, the occasional supernatural themes and Johnson’s early death saddled him with a reputation as a “doomed genius.” That title is quite inaccurate to his full personality.
In 1990, I found out that Robert Johnson was allegedly buried in Copiah County, near Greenwood, Mississippi. The Church, in whose graveyard Robert was buried, was in danger of foreclosure. I wrote about this situation early in my tenure as a Politichicks writer in the October 13, 2015 Politichicks article, “Skip Henderson: Preserving Music History, Unraveling Mystery.” That article detailed the Mount Zion Memorial Committee’s efforts to acknowledge Robert’s final resting place and to save the Mount Zion Church. Of course, there is a controversy that Robert is buried in three different places. Because of the landscape, no one stays in the same place underground in the Mississippi Delta.
In early 2014, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted Robert Johnson’s sole heir, Claud Johnson, full ownership of Robert Johnson’s publishing; Amounting to millions of dollars. More than any other Bluesman, Robert Johnson has innumerable books and films out about his life. Too many to name here. In closing, Robert Johnson’s music still has an impact on me and will also do so on future generations. More in a manner that this furtive Bluesman of the Crossroads could ever imagine.