THE undignified reemergence of Richard III from beneath the tarmacadam of a Leicester car park has rightly generated a bevy of press interest over the past week, sparking a spirited debate over the legacy of a king who continues to divide opinion centuries after his death. There has, however, been significantly less interest in a story which shed new light upon another age-old myth capable of quickening the pulse of musicologists the world over – that of a newly authenticated photograph (below, on the left) of Robert Johnson, the spindly, skittish phantom bluesman whose influence upon 20th century music is arguably greater than any other figure.
Like many before and since, I first encountered the recordings of the twentysomething from Hazlehurst, Mississippi during my teenage years, when the excitable, inimitable process of musical exploration is so fleeting as to take in obscure gospel compilations one day, followed by an ill-advised foray into the netherworld of black metal the next. My fledgling reconnaissance of the blues shelves of Greenock’s Rhythmic Records would unearth other gems which I cherish to this day, but never has a record spoken to be like King of the Delta Blues Singers, originally released by Columbia in 1961.
Time and innumerable expensive purchases would later afford me a greater appreciation of Johnson’s magic, but even now, I recall the attraction of the compilation to my teenage self, its tracks teeming with eloquence and aggression, the bottleneck guitar complemented by a voice which, for all its muffled diction, could soar lithely, and with a ferocious intensity. Those songs were among a mere 29 Johnson would commit to acetate during two sessions between November of 1936 and the following June. During those two dates, as he crouched in front of a microphone in a San Antonio hotel room, he would have been unaware that he was singing for posterity.
Yet barely twelve months later, he would be dead at just 27, making him the first member of that so-called club of the same age which continues to hold a macabre attraction for so many. Some say bluntly that he succumbed to syphilis; others that he was poisoned by a house manager who had hired him to play, only for Johnson to flirt with his wife. The story goes that Sonny Boy Williamson, who was also playing, grabbed an unsealed whisky bottle from Johnson’s grip, warning him: “Man, don’t ever drink from an open bottle. You never know what’s in it.” Johnson is said to have retorted: “Man, don’t you ever knock a bottle of whisky outta my hand!” before draining a second open bottle and sealing his fate.
Over a century on from Johnson’s birth, it is anecdotes such as these which thrive. As with all greats who meet a premature end, it is his mythology which has proved to be his most pervasive and ever-present bequeathal, perpetuated by wave after wave of samplers, anthologists, and curators. Mack McCormack, one of his many biographers, acted as perhaps the most eloquent cheerleader of them all, describing a man who represented “a chilling confrontation with aspects of the American consciousness … a visionary artist with a terrible kind of information about his time and place and personal experience.”
Musicians, above all, have taken delight in those 29 eerie, existential poems of Delta primitivism, each a tale of estrangement in which the echoes of the human condition can be forever heard. Those who have tended Johnson’s flame range from the denizens of stadium rock (Clapton is a self-confessed Johnson obsessive) through to those who have let inspiration speak to them away from the public eye, such as Thomas Fraser, a fisherman from the Shetland Islands whose plaintive home recordings were greatly influenced by the man raised on the fertile plains where the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers meet. Arguably the most famous guardian of Johnson’s work is Keith Richards, who offered up an effusive tribute to him in his recent autobiography. “Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself, some of his best stuff is almost Bach-like in construction,” enthused the Stone, before adding an inimitable epitaph: “Unfortunately, he screwed up with the chicks and had a short life.”
It was, of course, the generation of Richards and Clapton which was the first to take notice of Johnson, either gleefully channelling his spirit on stage, or canonising him through a dry, almost academic appreciation of the blues genre which sprung up around the stables of Alexis Korner and John Mayall, where young, middle class men seemingly destined for an uneventful career in the civil service suddenly became transfixed with replicating every note of Johnson, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jimmy Reed. In unison, however, both schools helped spread the message, and the doctrine of Johnson has prospered.
To what extent, though, has the deity of Johnson been created by Clapton, Richards, and the great many other musicians who have come to idolise him ever since? Nearly two decades after my impulse purchase, I find it almost impossible to separate my love for his music from the allure of the lore which surrounds him, and what is more, I have no desire to. A few years back, I learned that the fabled crossroads where Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his gift is now buffeted by a McDonald’s restaurant on side, adjacent to a gaggle of streetside chancers hawking tawdry T-shirts and miniature, memento guitars. It was, of course, a dispiriting discovery, but it did nothing to truly dampen my enthusiasm. Equally, some blues aficionados are already voicing displeasure at the new image of Johnson, claiming that to demystify the opaque genius is to devalue him, especially when the discovery – made by an eagle eyed eBay buyer – had no grand, romantic backstory. But to me, the picture signifies nothing. It is the portrait of a ghost. The image of Johnson has long been set in my mind’s eye, forged by his sweet, sorrowful music, and maybe a pinch or two of good ol’ blues folklore.