October 21, 2008


Searching for Robert Johnson: In the seven decades since his mysterious death, bluesman Robert Johnson’s legend has grown—the tragically short life, the “crossroads” tale of supernatural talent, the genuine gift that inspired Dylan, Clapton, and other greats—but his image remains elusive: only two photos of Johnson have ever been seen by the public. In 2005, on eBay, guitar maven Zeke Schein thought he’d found a third. Schein’s quest to authenticate the picture only led to more questions, both about Johnson himself and about who controls his valuable legacy. (Frank DiGiacomo, November 2008, Vanity Fair)

As he pored over the mass of texts and thumbnail photos that the eBay search engine had pulled up on that day in 2005, one strangely worded listing caught Schein’s eye. It read, “Old Snapshot Blues Guitar B.B. King???” He clicked on the link, then took in the sepia-toned image that opened on his monitor. Two young black men stared back at Schein from what seemed to be another time. They stood against a plain backdrop wearing snazzy suits, hats, and self-conscious smiles. The man on the left held a guitar stiffly against his lean frame.

Neither man looked like B. B. King, but as Schein studied the figure with the guitar, noticing in particular the extraordinary length of his fingers and the way his left eye seemed narrower and out of sync with his right, it occurred to him that he had stumbled across something significant and rare.

If there was one thing that Schein was as passionate about as guitars, it was the blues, particularly the Delta blues, that acoustic, guitar-driven form of country blues that started in the Mississippi Delta and thrived on records from the late 1920s to almost 1940. Not long after he’d begun working at Matt Umanov, Schein’s customers and co-workers had turned him on to this powerful music form, and, once hooked, he had studied the genre—its music and its history—with the same obsessive attention to detail that he brought to his work. And the longer Schein looked at the photograph on his computer monitor, the more convinced he became that it depicted one of the most mysterious and mythologized blues artists produced by the Delta: the guitarist, singer, and songwriter whom Eric Clapton once anointed “the most important blues musician who ever lived.”

That’s not B. B. King, Schein said to himself. Because it’s Robert Johnson. [...]

The story of Robert Johnson is usually presented as a Faustian bargain, but it is really a tale of possession. Johnson was the product of an affair his mother, Julia Dodds, had with a plantation worker. Johnson had unusually long fingers and a bad left eye (that has been attributed to a cataract), and by the time he had recorded his canon, he had earned the right to sing and play the blues.

His youth was spent moving between homes in Memphis and Robinsonville, Mississippi, 30 miles south of Memphis, where he lived with his mother and her second husband on a plantation. There he was known for his interest in guitar and his reluctance to work the fields.

It was in the aftermath of his wife’s and child’s deaths—Johnson was approximately 19 at the time—that his musical education is believed to have begun in earnest. In 1930 the ferocious blues singer Son House had moved to Robinsonville to begin a fruitful musical partnership with the guitar ace Willie Brown, and Johnson became a regular presence at their performances, although the two elder bluesmen perceived him as a nuisance. House’s recollection of Johnson—as told to folklorist Julius Lester in 1965—was of a “little boy” who would commandeer either his or Brown’s guitar during their breaks and irritate the audience with his marginal skills. Perhaps Johnson sensed, too, that he was not ready for the stage, because around this time he moved back to the Hazlehurst area, his birthplace, where he began an apprenticeship with a blues guitarist named Ike Zimmerman (the spelling of his name is disputed) which would transform Johnson into the virtuoso he is known as today.

That Robert Johnson is remembered as a guitarist who could play almost any song after hearing it just once on the radio; a singer whose repertoire, like those of most itinerant bluesmen, included numbers made famous by Bing Crosby, Irish standards, and even polkas, in addition to his own songs; a performer whose travels took him as far north as New York City and even Canada in search of an audience; and an artist who could move an audience to tears and then disappear into the crowd as if he had never played at all.

Clearly, Johnson was a man of some ambition, and in November of 1936 he traveled to San Antonio, Texas, for the first of two recording sessions for the American Record Corporation. Once in the makeshift studio, he played facing a corner, with his back to the technicians and other musicians who had come to record, a move that has been variously interpreted as shyness, an attempt to prevent other guitarists from seeing his unusual playing style, or a street-savvy technique for getting the most sound out of his acoustic guitar. Whatever the case, Johnson recorded approximately 16 songs over three days, most of them in two or three takes. One of those tunes, “Terraplane Blues,” a double-entendre-laden number, was issued as a 78-r.p.m. single on the Vocalion label and became a modest regional hit, selling approximately 5,000 copies. As a result, Johnson was invited back to Texas, this time, in June 1937, to Dallas, where he recorded another 13 tracks, but no more hits.

A little more than a year later, Johnson would be dead—and probably destined for obscurity had his music not already gotten the attention of a record producer who would exert a huge impact on popular music in the 20th century. By the time John H. Hammond Jr. came across Johnson’s records, he had persuaded Benny Goodman to integrate his band, discovered a young Billie Holiday in Harlem, and recorded Count Basie, but he was just getting started. As a talent scout for Columbia Records in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Hammond would discover Aretha Franklin and sign Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan to the label.

Hammond’s role in Johnson’s legacy is pivotal. He first championed Johnson in print in 1937 when, writing under a pseudonym for the left-wing publication New Masses, he asserted that “Johnson makes Leadbelly look like an accomplished poseur.” Then, in 1938, Hammond sought to feature Johnson in a concert he was producing at Carnegie Hall that December called “From Spirituals to Swing.” He sent an emissary into the South to track down Johnson and bring him back to New York. But as the day of the show approached, Hammond learned that Johnson was dead—possibly murdered. On the night of the concert, Big Bill Broonzy took Johnson’s place, but Hammond memorialized the late Delta artist by playing two recordings of his songs for the Carnegie Hall audience.

More than 20 years later, Hammond would expose Johnson’s music to a whole new generation of listeners. Columbia now controlled Johnson’s recordings, and in 1961, Hammond oversaw the release of King of the Delta Blues Singers, the first album-length collection of Johnson’s music, which helped spark a blues revival in America. According to the album’s producer, Frank Driggs, it sold approximately 10,000 copies upon its initial release—impressive for an obscure, dead, vernacular performer.

Robert Palmer's book, Deep Blues, is a terrific introduction to Johnson.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 21, 2008 9:11 AM
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