The greatest and most enduring of all blues legends goes something like this: Born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, in 1911, a boy called Robert Johnson, who was known to different folks on different occasions as Robert Spencer, Robert Dodd, and Little Robert Dusty, took to playing the harmonica and hanging around the older local bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta. Apparently, Johnson had decided early on that he wanted to be a musician and planned to play guitar. But upon hearing him play, Son House and Willie Brown, two of Johnson's elders who happened to be outstanding blues guitarists, encouraged him to stick to the harmonica and give up on guitar. Not long afterward, around about 1930, Johnson drifted away from the area, maybe for a year or so. When he returned, he asked Son House and Brown if he could sit in with them again, and when he played the guitar, far from making the mistakes the older bluesmen expected, Johnson revealed a talent that they saw had surpassed their own.
From that day forward, the story arose that Johnson had learned from the Devil himself, selling his soul to learn so much, so quickly—a narrative countless fans have found supported in the searing intensity and haunting images of his songs, most famously "Cross Roads Blues." Johnson lived the rest of his short life as an itinerant bluesman, wandering the country, taking up with various women, and playing dances and juke joints where he went. Then in 1938, after playing a country dance near Greenwood, Mississippi, Johnson was poisoned by the jealous husband of a local woman. In some accounts, Johnson was seen in deranged and perhaps supernatural agony, down on all fours and barking like a mad dog before he died. He was only 27 years old.
That's one story. Here's another one, by the numbers. Johnson's entire recorded legacy consists of just 29 songs and a few alternate takes that he recorded in San Antonio, Texas, in 1936 and 1937. In his lifetime, his bestselling record, "Terraplane Blues," only sold about 4,000 copies and wasn't distributed outside of the South. Then, about fifty years later, a reissue collection called Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings went gold, selling 400,000 copies in just the first six months of release.23 That's a staggering figure in the world of reissues, to say nothing of the world of long dead bluesmen. And understanding Robert Johnson's trajectory from relatively obscure, murdered blues genius of '38 to gold-selling posthumous star of 1990, sheds a lot of light on the story of the blues itself during those decades.
At the time of Johnson's birth, the blues had not yet been "discovered" by white audiences. It was only in 1903, in fact, that W.C. Handy, a professional black musician with ties to the recording and publishing industry, had famously caught a snatch of the rural folk blues being played by a nameless guitarist at a Mississippi train station. In other words, well before the blues made any sort of recorded debut, it was spreading through the oral and performance culture in parts of the Deep South.
One of those parts, indeed the one most synonymous with the blues in many minds, was the Mississippi Delta. The Delta blues is a music of murky origins. Folk blues——sometimes called down home blues and usually performed by a rural singer accompanied by a single guitar——as a whole, went unrepresented on record until 1924. It's not surprising, given that it was considerably obscure, compared to the more urban classic blues of Mamie Smith, that the first folk blues star, the Texas songster Blind Lemon Jefferson, didn't appear until 1926, several years after the growing market for race records had driven company reps deeper into the South looking for untapped talent. Jefferson played something in between the two dominant types of the folk blues, the more upbeat, ragtime-influenced style associated with the Piedmont region of the Carolinas and the more intense and raw blues of the Mississippi Delta.
Charley Patton, the bluesman who with his thoroughgoing devotion to the trinity of music, booze, and women predated Robert Johnson, is the closest we can get to the origin of the Delta blues. Patton didn't record anything until just before 1930, but in a time and place where musical tradition was still spread largely in person, his impact on the evolution of the Delta style was tremendous. He was a crucial figure, if not an originator of the style, and quite a bit of his approach to the blues—his intense guitar and slide work and his emotional singing——he either passed on directly to those he taught (Son House and Willie Brown, for example) or indirectly to those he influenced (pretty much every subsequent Delta bluesman including Robert Johnson).
Like Charley Patton, Johnson had a chance to record for ARC during the 1930s, and by 1937, Johnson's music had made a sufficient impression on John Hammond. The famous record producer and talent scout for Columbia Records, who was also an engage, white liberal, wrote an enthusiastic article about Johnson in the magazine New Masses and tried to seek the bluesman out to include him in a concert at Carnegie Hall the following year. But 1938 was the year that Robert Johnson died.
And while A & R men, folklorists, and musicologists continued to make occasional forays into the Delta, sometimes looking for Johnson, and recorded some superlative blues players (Son House and Willie Brown among them), Johnson faded into obscurity. And the folk blues, pushed to the margins by the electric blues, R & B, and then the first blasts of rock and roll, seemed destined to follow.
It very well may have but for the folk music revival that began in the 1950s and, along with the publication of Samuel Charters's book The Country Blues (1959), sparked a new interest in the folk blues, this time among young, white urbanites. The advent of the Civil Rights era was accompanied by a cultural searching for the sort of earthy innocence and plainspoken honesty that the rural folk blues was——sometimes erroneously——thought to represent. At the dawn of the 1960s, life and art seemed to be marching in a sort of lockstep, as similar (and surely in some cases overlapping) groups of young, white liberals descended on the communities of the Deep South——the activist Freedom Riders hoping to register black voters and the blues revivalists hoping to find forgotten black bluesmen. And while some of the surviving musicians of the old Delta style were welcomed into the limelight and onto the stages of the decade's great folk festivals, John Hammond pushed for the first reissue of Robert Johnson's work, released in 1961. Johnson's songs at last found their way to an audience not unlike the one he had narrowly missed at Carnegie Hall in 1938.
And that, of course, was just the beginning of Johnson's posthumous ascent. Folk blues records crossed the Atlantic to England during the revival only to inspire a new generation of blues rockers, including A-list rock stars like Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton, who would inundate the U.S. with the electric blues riffs of the British Invasion. Of all bluesmen, Robert Johnson was particularly revered (and endlessly covered) by the new rockers.
Judging by the spectacular sales of the Johnson reissue of 1990, we can assume that the record purchasing public has come to share the assessment of the British Invasion stars, and that Johnson's coronation as the dominant figure of blues in the twentieth century is more or less certain. Consequently, we can make a few points in conclusion about Johnson and the blues, past and present. On one hand, the enduring appeal of Johnson's music, now 70 years past his death, suggests that in the best blues, there exists something timelessly compelling that lets contemporary listeners feel a powerful, human connection with music that is of a decidedly different time and place. On the other, the fact that Robert Johnson—the wandering, doomed bluesman who became a cultural archetype—in particular, is so popular (and especially with white consumers) also suggests that some of that connection with a rural, pre-industrial, and even magical past may rest substantially on imagination.
For the blues as an art form, continued strong sales, surely, can be taken as a sign of substantial health and vitality, and no one can doubt that the blues cast as broad a shadow as ever. Jack White, guitarist of the popular Detroit combo The White Stripes, wears his blues influence on his sleeve. And any of the hard rock bands that proudly cite Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, or Black Sabbath as touchstones (that is to say, all hard rock bands) well know that they're citing a long blues lineage as well. And yet, if the greatest blues figure has been dead since 1938, and the last real innovation was going electric (also a '30s event), can we really say the blues is evolving?
Maybe Robert Johnson really does hold all the clues: As deals with the Devil go, his seems to be getting better every year. Maybe, like Johnson himself, the blues is dead already but can never really die.