PRINT November 2012


Robert Johnson

“Robert Johnson at 100” tribute concert, Apollo Theater, New York, March 6, 2012. Photo: Chang W. Lee/New York Times/Redux.

ON FEBRUARY 21, 2012, at the end of a White House blues night, President Obama sang a chorus of Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago.” Two weeks later, on March 6, to mark Johnson’s centennial, the Apollo Theater in New York staged the tribute concert “Robert Johnson at 100,” featuring, among many others, the Roots, offering “Milkcow’s Calf Blues,” Living Colour with “Preachin’ Blues,” Elvis Costello with “From Four Until Late,” both James Blood Ulmer and Taj Mahal taking on “Hellhound on My Trail,” Bettye LaVette with “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man” and “When You Got a Good Friend,” Shemekia Copeland and Living Colour with “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues,” and Sam Moore with “Sweet Home Chicago.”

It is hard to imagine that had Robert Johnson lived any longer than he actually did, or lived a different life, he would have ever gained greater renown or respect, or that his music would have traveled any farther than it has and continues to do. Legends, like snakes, began to wrap themselves around Johnson almost immediately after his death: Tall tales, hints of the supernatural, of someone who could be in two places at once, of disguises and false names and impersonations, spring up straight from the kind of blues Johnson sang, the tradition in which he staked his claim. But I’m thinking of a different kind of story, a different history. What if Johnson didn’t die when, in fact, he did, on the same day that Elvis Presley died some thirty-nine years later?

If Robert Johnson hadn’t died on August 16, 1938, at twenty-seven, near Greenwood, Mississippi, after supposedly being poisoned during a performance at a juke joint, he very well might have been part of the producer John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” show at Carnegie Hall on December 23, 1938, along with the Count Basie Orchestra, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Joe Turner, Mitchell’s Christian Singers, Sonny Terry, Jimmy Rushing, and the Golden Gate Quartet. Hammond, who was stunned by the recordings Johnson had made in 1936 and 1937 in San Antonio and Dallas, had scouts searching for him; when he learned that he was already dead, Hammond replaced the advertised Johnson with the blues singer Big Bill Broonzy, but still played his 78 of Johnson’s “Walking Blues” from the stage. “Lord,” the crowd heard, “I feel like blowin’ my old lonesome home.” People could have heard “blowin’ my horn,” because that’s what the lyrics sound like.

If Johnson had been there in the flesh, he might have gone back to Mississippi; if so, there is no reason to think he would not have disappeared from public life as completely as Tommy Johnson, Skip James, Son House, and many more—artists who lived on in obscurity for decades after they had made their mark on American music and the American story, unseen and unheard. If Johnson hadn’t been killed, he might have settled in Chicago ahead of Muddy Waters. But there are other places to look.

ON DECEMBER 20, 1938, Robert Johnson took the train from Jackson, Mississippi, to New York City and performed “Terraplane Blues” and “Me and the Devil Blues” at Carnegie Hall that week. Later, he recorded with John Hammond for Columbia; the sessions, led by Louis Armstrong and featuring piano and saxophone, were soon abandoned.

It wasn’t Johnson’s first time in Manhattan—as a traveling blues singer he’d been through Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, and played on the streets in Harlem. But in the audience at Carnegie Hall were the novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, the poet Langston Hughes, the future novelist Ralph Ellison, the heiress and ultrabohemian Nancy Cunard, the comic-strip artist George Herriman, and PaPa LaBas, a hoodoo adept at the very center of the deep Harlem intelligentsia, who would turn up in 1972 as the hero of Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo. LaBas immediately recognized Johnson as a loa—a god that had to be fed, in this case with offerings of books, women, alcohol, and most of all good company. After the performance, LaBas brought Hurston and the rest backstage to meet Johnson; they left together and were soon inseparable.

In 1961, Hammond would tell Bob Dylan he was sure Johnson had read Whitman, and he was right—Johnson had based “Come on in My Kitchen” on both the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sitting on Top of the World” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” But in Harlem, in what amounted to a salon, Johnson read much more—Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children and in 1940 Native Son (people got tired of Johnson getting drunk and announcing, at every party, after midnight, “I am Bigger Thomas!”), Hurston’s Hoodoo in America and Their Eyes Were Watching God (no one got tired of him reciting, really half-singing, “The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God”), Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and his favorite, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (unlike the drunks in Greenwich Village bars, he never raised his voice for the famous last lines of that one, but at any moment, apropos of apparently nothing, he would simply announce, with endless delight, “Her voice is full of money!”).

He performed at the salons, sometimes in clubs. He moved in with Cunard, just then getting over her breakup with the jazz bandleader Henry Crowder. Falling in with Bill Broonzy, he wrote part of what would become Broonzy’s signature song, “Just a Dream”—the White House verse, which Broonzy at first didn’t want to use. It was too much, he thought. It would break the realism that underpinned everything else in the song:

I dreamed I was in the White House, sittin’ in the president’s chair
I dreamed he’s shakin’ my hand, and he said “Bob, I’m so glad you here”
But that was just a dream, Lord, now, what a dream I had on my mind
Now, when I woke up, baby, not a chair there could I find.

In 1941, through Cunard, he met Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, who already knew his “Hellhound on My Trail”; that same year, they composed “Blues in the Night” together. When the sheet music and the film with William Gillespie’s original recording appeared, there was no credit and no money; Johnson complained. The publishing company responded that Arlen and Mercer had never heard of him—and while Bing Crosby, whose songs Johnson had sung on the street in the ’30s, convinced him to play guitar for his recording of the song (“The only version,” Johnson would say, “worth wondering about”), it was a lesson he never forgot.

When the war began, Johnson flew under the radar of the draft. At the salon, he worked with Ellison on what would become Invisible Man—at first, Ellison had only the opening lines, which he carried around like a tune he couldn’t get out of his head. He listened to Johnson’s records over and over; in the beginning, the song his underground man plays in his underground bunker with its 1,369 lightbulbs running on bootleg electricity wasn’t Louis Armstrong’s “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue,” but Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Then Johnson suggested Geeshie Wiley’s “Pick Poor Robin Clean,” pulling the 78 out of a bag, telling Ellison she was the greatest blues singer who ever lived. The song stuck in Ellison’s mind. It was a minstrel number; in 1931, with her partner Elvie Thomas, Wiley had tossed off its ugly lines with precisely the insouciant fuck-you Ellison’s hero would take so many years to grow into:

Get off my money, and don’t get funny
’Cause I’m a nigger, don’t cut no figure
Gamblin’ for Sadie, she is my lady
I’m a hustlin’ coon, that’s just what I am.

“But you need something people know,” Ellison’s editor told him twenty years later. He knew his business; Ellison went for Armstrong. But when Ellison reread the only novel he would finish in his lifetime, he still heard Wiley singing in its opening pages—and in 1962, in his essay “On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz,” Ellison would use the song as a metaphor for the life and especially the afterlife of Charlie Parker.

After Cunard left Johnson for Bill Broonzy—Broonzy was much better looking—Johnson ended up in Los Angeles. He worked in Johnny Otis’s band, learning the music business, learning firsthand that you never let anyone know what you had, who you knew, or who you were: Otis, who ruled the world of race music in Los Angeles, was an olive-skinned Greek American from Berkeley passing for black. He took a piece of every session, part of the composer’s royalties or even writer’s credit on the songs that went through the studios he controlled. Johnson wrote for the band; he began producing records with people he heard in after-hours clubs. Following a year spent making a name for himself and being held up for producer’s fees and publishing rights, he hired Easy Rawlins—the unlicensed private eye who specialized in cases involving blacks passing for white and whites passing for black, and who in 1990 would appear in the first of the series of Walter Mosley detective novels based on his exploits—to unmask Otis. It took a week; Johnson always said it was the best $300 he ever spent. “But I’ve loved you since I heard ‘Terraplane Blues’ on the radio in Berkeley in 1936!” Otis said. “Love or money,” Johnson said. “You can’t have both.”

After that, it was Johnson who held the gun on Otis. With the postwar shift from the likes of Otis’s and Louis Jordan’s big touring show bands to small vocal-harmony groups and solo singers, from race music to rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll, Johnson took over as the producer to see in Los Angeles; the record he was most proud of was Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool.”

Jake’s Place, juke joint between Morgan City and Itta Bena, Mississippi, August 1977. Photo: Alan Greenberg.

In 1961, Hammond asked him to write the liner notes for a reissue of his ’30s recordings. He began with these ineffably poetic lines: “Robert Johnson is little, very little more than a name on aging index cards and a few dusty master records in the files of a phonograph company that no longer exists.” He signed them “R. W. E.”—for Ralph Waldo Ellison. Invisible Man—what could be more perfect than to disappear back into music he’d made so long before, into records he never talked about? “Look in your phone book,” he’d say on those rare occasions when someone asked if that was him. “There’s a lot of Robert Johnsons.” But for the reissue, Johnson demanded copyrights, which in the ’30s nobody bothered with for race artists. Hammond—channeling the voice of his days as the pseudonymous New Masses jazz critic, the John Hammond who, as it happened, wrote under the name Henry Johnson, the John Hammond who wrote that compared with Robert Johnson, Leadbelly sounded “like an accomplished poseur”—said he was sorry, but it was the system: The same system that kept your people in bondage after the end of Reconstruction! But the old record executive was there too. Hammond didn’t mention he would still collect producer’s royalties. By this time, Johnson had long since learned that when you wanted to make something happen that couldn’t, you needed the right lawyer. He went to see Clive Davis, just hired as a young contract attorney for Columbia. Davis agreed to make it happen—for a 25 percent silent-partner share.

Without the legend of meeting the devil at the crossroads attached to Johnson’s songs, a young man selling his soul for prowess he lacked, Johnson’s old music didn’t become a cult phenomenon, merely a musicians’ talisman: “The stabbing sounds from his guitar could almost break a window,” Bob Dylan would write in 2004 of first listening to Johnson in 1961, when he knew nothing about him at all. “I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard.” In 1969, as the blues historian Peter Guralnick once imagined, Johnson watched the Rolling Stones play “Love in Vain” on The Ed Sullivan Show—though not, as Guralnick also imagined, on “a TV he still owed payments on.” Johnson knew how much he was going to make off the song, for the rest of his life.

In the 1930s, near his birthplace in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, he’d spent over a year with the older guitarist Ike Zimmerman. Johnson had arrived at Zimmerman’s place as a banger from Clarksdale, scorned by the likes of House and Charley Patton; after long nights learning from Zimmerman as the two men sat on tombstones (in a cemetery owned by white people, Zimmerman’s daughter Loretha Z. Smith would recall with glee in 2011), Johnson returned with a visionary technique no one in the Clarksdale school—not Patton, not House, not Willie Brown—could touch. “They named my daddy the devil, because they felt like no human being could teach a person to play the guitar like that,” Smith said. “But my dad, he wasn’t the devil. He was a good man.” In later years, Zimmerman moved to Compton, California, and opened his own Pentecostal church. In the ’60s he and Johnson joined hands once again. Johnson wasn’t a believer, but he loved the fellowship. Among the friends he made were the Jacksons, the Youngs, and the Wrights—and, years later, long after Zimmerman’s death in 1967, when Johnson was in his seventies and comfortably retired, O’Shea Jackson, Andre Young, and Eric Wright, remembering the family friend, the record man, sought him out, took him to swap meets and played him tapes, which is why, in 1988, it was Johnson’s name, one last producer’s credit, that appeared on the back of N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton.

In the first years of the twenty-first century, people began to connect Mr. Johnson—the very old, very well-dressed man they’d see strolling the streets in Greenwich Village, the man living in an apartment on Washington Place and Sixth Avenue, right over RadioShack—with the Robert Johnson of those old index cards. Scholars sought him out. Books were published. He was interviewed on Fresh Air, and listened as hundreds of people recorded his songs. Thank God for Clive Davis.

On February 21, 2012, in his 102nd year, he attended “Red, White and Blues” at the White House, and heard the president of the United States sing the last chorus of “Sweet Home Chicago.” Six days later, he saw the entire show—featuring performers B. B. King, Buddy Guy, Susan Tedeschi, Warren Haynes, Jeff Beck, Booker T. Jones, and Mick Jagger (He looks older than I do, he thought)—broadcast on PBS. He called the White House to inquire about royalties; finally he was put through to Jack Lew, President Obama’s chief of staff. Lew was stunned. “Mr. Johnson,” he said, “no one gets paid for playing for the president!” “Well, I don’t know about that, son,” Johnson said, “but there’s one thing I do know. As the great Colonel Parker once said of his boy Elvis Presley, nobody asks Robert Johnson to play for nothing.”

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum.