Cultural Crossroads
Travel Ideas

Blues Fallin' Down Like Hail

Robert Johnson's legacy is immense, his story more tragic than any blues, but his actual existance for 26 years, from 1911 to 1938, is elusive.

He may have been partly responsible for this. He rambled around and was not thought to be a talented guitarist. Once he discovered the widely-known Lonnie Johnson, he claimed to be related.

His childhood was spent in migrant labor camps and in the foster care of relatives. Because of this, his last name changed several times.

Robert Johnson grew up in the Mississippi Deltaland around Robinsonville and Clarksdale in the shadow of legendary bluesmen Son House and Charlie Patton. He followed them around like a lost puppy. Johnson lived periodically in Memphis, Tennessee, where many bluesmen set out to make their fortunes on Beale Street. He also rambled to St. Louis, Missouri and to Helena, Arkansas.

When he disappeared for two years, going in search of his father in Hazelhurst (where Johnson was born south of Jackson), he returned to the Delta with tremendous guitar skills he had not left with, leading many of his peers to theorize an unholy pact with the devil.

An image came to life of Robert Johnson waiting at the crossroads at midnight to tune his guitar with the devil.

Johnson proved, or exploited, the theory in his songs "Cross Roads Blues" and "Hellhound on My Trail." His testimonial, "Me and the Devil Blues," conveys the theme of the cursed artist with harsh lyrics:

Early this mornin', when you knocked upon my door
Early this mornin', when you knocked upon my door
I said, 'Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go

Me and the devil, both walkin' side by side
Me and the devil, both walkin' side by side
I'm going to beat my woman, 'til I get satisfied . . .

You may bury my body down by the highway side
Babe, I don't care where you bury my body
when I'm dead and gone

You can bury my body down by the highway side
Lord, my old evil spirit can
catch a Grayhound bus and ride.

He sang songs almost as if to prove he was bad, a survivor of an abused culture. Life was hard and repressive in the Delta in the decades between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Johnson was married before he turned eighteen and his wife, only sixteen, died the following year during childbirth.

Johnson came to Texas for work. Not much is known of his time in Texas except that he recorded there. In San Antonio in 1936 and in Dallas in 1937, Robert Johnson recorded his entire known body of work, 29 songs in 41 takes.

With the mild success of his handful of recordings, he toured as far as the Northeast.

Alan Lomax and John Work came to the Deltaland to record Johnson early in 1941, but they were too late. Instead, they recorded McKinley Morganfield at his cabin on Stovall's Plantation several miles from Clarksdale, and the legend of Muddy Waters was born.

Robert Johnson's short legacy is based on his loneliness and wandering; his association with gamblers and men on-the-run in the Delta; and, the suspicion of his fellow bluesmen that he had traded his sole to the devil for his mysterious found ability to play guitar.

The appeal of Robert Johnson is the conviction to leave the sharecropper's life behind, to seek fame and fortune, or to die, but not to work for a slave master.

Robert Johnson's death in 1938 at age 26 is as mysterious as his life. The only credible accounts may be those of friends Sonny Boy Williamson and Houston Stackhouse. The prevailing theory is that he was poisoned in a juke joint in Three Forks near Greenwood, Mississippi. And, if he survived the poisoning, he died within days from pneumonia. There was no doctor available to determine the cause of death.

He was buried beside the highway, where the busses pass by, in the small Zion Church cemetery near Morgan City.

-- Mark D. Lacy

NOTE: If you are considering going to Mississippi to revisit the history of Blues and Robert Johnson, see the Report from the Delta.