In Me And The Devil Blues, Robert Johnson gave the instructions for his own funeral. The song begins with Satan knocking at the singer’s door, and ends in a mood of fatalistic defiance, as Johnson’s explains that he doesn’t care where his body is buried.
“You may bury my body, ooh, down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit, can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.”
Seventy years ago, on 16 August, 1938, Johnson got his wish, and if his evil spirit didn’t catch a Greyhound, its influence echoed down the generations, forming a cornerstone of the rebellious myth of rock’n’roll, and shaping the music of Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and just about every rock band whose music was coloured by the blues. The latest devotee is Bob Dylan, whose forthcoming album Tell Tale Signs includes a version of Johnson’s 32-20 Blues.
Johnson died on the same date as Elvis Presley, but while Graceland becomes a place of pilgrimage in mid-August, blues fans have a tougher job. Johnson might as well have been buried by the roadside, because there is no certainty about his final resting place. He has three gravestones outside Greenwood, Mississippi, where he died, allegedly after being poisoned by a jealous husband. The first, a modest marker erected in 1991 by the rock group The Tombstones, is located out through the cotton fields at the Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. The second, an ugly obelisk at the Little Zion MB Church in Morgan City, was paid for by Sony/Columbia, after the success of their Grammy-winning compilation of Johnson’s music in 1990. The third, and currently most reputable grave site, is located out on Money Road at the Little Zion MB church, after blues historian Steven LaVere location coaxed a testimony from an eyewitness, Rose Estridge, who claimed her husband, “Peter Rabbit” dug Johnson’s grave by an old pecan tree in the graveyard.
The veracity of this site was underlined in May 2007, when the Mississippi Blues Commission erected a “blues marker” at the site, celebrating it as a place of cultural importance. The sign was promptly shot at, then stolen.
Johnson’s reputation thrives on the absence of detail about his life, and the posthumous myth that he learned to play the guitar after doing a deal with the devil at a crossroads. This is an irresistible story, but it obscured Johnson’s musical versatility. He may, as the myth suggests, have been a genius, but he was never a primitive, and the stuff about the devil – if he ever said it – was most likely a joke.
“Anyone who sold their soul to the devil, died after drinking poisoned whisky, and has three grave sites is going to attract attention,” says Luther Brown, director of the Delta Centre for Culture and Learning. “And the fact that he wrote music that has been covered in basically every genre from rock to jazz to mountain dulcimer just adds to the story.
“As far as I can tell, Johnson never actually said he’d sold his soul to the devil, although he apparently didn’t deny it either, and the story was part of his persona even during his own lifetime.”
The crossroads, says Brown, is a common folk tale in the Delta. “There is no ‘true crossroads’, despite the desire of tourists to see the place where ‘it really happened’. But crossroads are places of decision, and often of danger, and are associated with choice and risk in many cultures.
“Historians have made a big deal about it, sometimes claiming that the devil isn’t the Christian one, but the Yoruba trickster god Eshu, re-placed in American Voodoo as Papa Legba, the keeper of the ‘crossroads’ between the physical and spirit worlds. Others think the whole story is a metaphor for Johnson’s decision to follow ‘the devil’s music’ instead of the church, and I’m sure there was tension between the preacher and the bluesman since they both relied on their own congregations for support. Crossroads Blues has lyrics that sound simply like someone going to the crossroads to flag a ride, not sell their soul, but it’s clear from Johnson’s songs that he was committed to the devil’s music and the lifestyle that required.”
A proper appreciation of Johnson has been hampered by the habit of comparing him to the musicians he influenced. Even sympathetic listeners hear him as the “real” version of the music which informed the Rolling Stones. “One of the big appeals of black music has been this dangerous primitive ‘other’,” says Elijah Wald, author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. “But one of the most striking things is that, compared to the performers in his world, his voice and enunciation are very clear. He sounds less removed from white people and the modern world than someone like Charley Patton, who’s virtually incomprehensible. Or even Leadbelly. There is a clear knowledge of what was happening in the urban blues world: his diction is good and he has a lot of the smoothness of the more commercial urban singers. So it’s funny that he’s been saddled with this myth of the delta primitive.”
Wald is a blues revisionist, arguing both that Johnson’s contribution to the culture is overrated – “It’s as if Eric Clapton were the only musician of British rock in the 1960s, and everything that had been done in that period was thought of as essentially Eric Clapton” – and misunderstood, because his music is considered in relation to its gift to rock.
“The jazz people had been putting him forward as an example of the roots of jazz as early as John Hammond’s Carnegie Hall Spirituals to Swing concert in 1938. Johnson was not even dead six months and they were playing his records on the stage of Carnegie Hall! But he was being played as ‘that deep sound from before jazz’, when in fact it was barely a year old.”
Steven LaVere, who runs the Blues Heritage Museum in Greenwood – and who discovered the two known photographs of Johnson – takes a more traditional view, saying Johnson was a “watershed artist”: who absorbed what had gone before, notably Charley Patton, Leroy Carr, Son House and Skip James, and defined what came after.
“Nobody knew who those people were. Then in the 1950s, many of Johnson’s songs were reborn as Chicago blues classics. Kind Hearted Woman, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Walking Blues, Sweet Home Chicago, and Dust My Broom; my God, Elmore James made a career out of that guitar lick. And it all came from Robert Johnson. The post-war blues Diaspora was dotted with his music.”
Wald, whose next book is called How The Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll concedes that Johnson was a great talent, while stressing that he wasn’t alone.
“If you had to pick one artist from that period, he’s a good choice. But you don’t. Every single pre-war blues record is available on CD. It’s the best-documented period on the planet. The whole style would be better served if Robert Johnson was seen as a way into this world, rather than as the one person people listen to.”
On a Greyhound bus somewhere in the Mississippi Delta, Robert Johnson is laughing.