There is much that is mysterious and evocative and just plain odd about the life of blues legend Robert Johnson who died in 1938 at the age of 27, probably murdered with poison.
One of the oddest is the idea of him playing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” the 1930s country-western song recorded by Gene Autry and later by Bing Crosby and, most memorably, by The Sons of the Pioneers.
In Searching for Robert Johnson, published in 1989, music historian Peter Guralnick writes of Johnson’s life as a musician:
You had to be prepared to play what your audience wanted you to play, since you were being paid not by salary but by tips. You might be engaged to play all night at a juke joint for a dollar and a half, but you were liable to make your real money by filling a request for Leroy Carr’s latest release or a Duke Ellington number. By Johnny Shines’s account Robert Johnson was as likely to perform “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” or the latest Bing Crosby hit as one of his own compositions.
In fact, the bluesman seems to have been a Bing Crosby fan, and, at times, in the 41 recordings that make up all that remain of his work, he exhibits a broad range of musical interpretation, borrowing from many sources, including that mainstream crooner.
The records, Guralnick writes, “demonstrate a grasp of dynamics, a range of vocal effects that eludes attempts at electronic duplication.
At times he seems virtually to be impersonating another, rougher singer, as he interjects a rough growl or aside; at other times he croons like the Bing Crosby records that he evidently admired, but with a sexual intensity that makes it seem as if he is crooning obscenities. What makes his work so unrepeatable is the way in which he intermixes all his approaches.
Johnson’s uniqueness and importance to music in the United States and throughout much of the world is unquestioned. He has been a key influence to such rock stars as the Rolling Stones, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and Eric Clapton. In 2004, Bob Dylan wrote:
If I hadn’t heard the Robert Johnson record when I did, there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down — that I wouldn’t have felt free enough or upraised enough to write.
Johnson is like Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch painter who is known for his unique treatment of light and who left only 34 works.
He is like John Keats, the 19th century English Romantic poet who is known for the intensity of his emotional expression and who died at the age of 25.
If Johnson had lived past 27 and produced more than 41 recordings, what would they have been like? How would our musical and cultural lives have been enriched? Or would his genius have been short-circuited into hack work to make money to stay alive?
Who was Robert Johnson?…Like Shakespeare, though, the man remains the mystery. How was one individual, unschooled and seemingly undifferentiated from his fellows by background or preparation, able to create an oeuvre so original, of such sweeping scope and power, however slender the actual body of work may have been in Johnson’s case?
He is like Shakespeare in this way. And like Elvis Presley. And like Babe Ruth. Genius doesn’t fit our preconceptions. Genius is, by definition, beyond our preconceptions.
Those who knew him have memories that contradict. The facts about his life are, for the most part, squishy and uncertain. And then there’s the legend that Johnson sold his soul to the devil in order to be able to play music so well.
That’s as good an explanation of genius as any. And just as inadequate.
“Where the music came from”
Searching for Robert Johnson is a very short book, totaling 83 pages, of which only 68 are Guralnick’s text. The rest is made up of acknowledgements, bibliography, discography and descriptions of other bluesmen.
And maybe the less written, the better. You can listen to all of Johnson’s recordings on YouTube, comprising just under two hours of music. That’s probably best.
Guralnick writes of Johnson’s many networks of relationships of friendship, affection and love: “Throughout all of them he moved as a solitary figure, cryptic, guarded, somewhat secretive, in [Mack] McCormick’s words a little bit of a cipher.”
Actually, it seems to me, he was very much a cipher.
Guralnick notes that other blues singers left a definite impression on people, the imprint of a personality.
With Robert Johnson the words are all abstract. He was “polite.” He was “shy.” He was “the nicest guy in the world,” an “awful friendly guy,” “a little moody,” “childish,” “kind of reckless.” He was always neat. He didn’t like to play with anyone else much, and no one who traveled with him ever considered himself a partner. He was well-mannered, he was soft-spoken, he was indecipherable.
No one seems to have any idea where the music came from.
Perhaps that says it all.
Patrick T. Reardon