Editor's Note: HNN published an excerpt from one of the books discussed in this essay, Annye Anderson and Preston Lauterbach's Brother Robert, in June, 2020.
The blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in 1911, grew up in Memphis, and was fatally poisoned by a jealous husband during a performance at a juke joint near Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1938. He recorded twenty-nine of his own songs for the Vocalion label in San Antonio in 1936 and in Dallas in 1937. In 1938, with the blues musician Johnny Shines, he traversed most of the eastern part of the country, playing from St. Louis to Chicago to Detroit to Harlem. Later that year the producer John Hammond, who had celebrated his recordings in New Masses, knew Johnson had to perform at his historic “Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall; learning of his death, Hammond played two of his songs on a phonograph on the stage.
Within the school of Mississippi Delta blues—where on a nearly fixed structure of verses and melodies a singer was called to craft an imaginative fiction using a persona who claimed to testify to the vicissitudes of his or her life—Johnson made music that went farther than that of anyone else. In 1931 Constance Rourke upended the boundaries of American speech in American Humor: A Study of the National Character, in which she found “lines from forbidden” slave songs in blackface minstrel tunes (“O I’se sorry I sold myself to the debbil”). The hauntings that were left in the American imagination after the first waves of the Great Awakening receded echo through Johnson’s songs, and the most distinctive of them—“Me and the Devil Blues,” “Stones in My Passway,” “Cross Road Blues,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Hellhound on My Trail”—mirror Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” as much as any other blues.
Johnson’s life was tangled. His mother’s first husband, Charles Dodds, escaped a Hazlehurst lynch mob in 1908 after a dispute with a white neighbor. He settled in Memphis and changed his name to Spencer, leaving his wife Julia behind with their younger children. Robert Leroy Johnson was born from her affair with a farm worker named Noah Johnson, though when she left him at the Spencer household in Memphis at the age of five or seven, according to different memories, he was taken in as a Spencer and used that name until, sometime in his mid-teens, his mother told him of his actual parentage, and he began to use the name Johnson.
He started playing music as a child; Charles Spencer, who played many instruments, was his first guitar teacher. Johnson began performing for audiences when he was seventeen, but at that age he married fourteen-year-old Virginia Travis and left music behind for work as a farmer. Within a year his wife and baby died in childbirth, and he tried to make his way in the sophisticated milieu of such older blues players as Charley Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown, in and around the Mississippi Delta towns of Clarksdale and Robinsonville, only to be turned away, House recalled, as a hopeless amateur.
Three decades after King of the Delta Blues Singers appeared, facts had been gathered, photographs had been published. In 1990 Columbia released the annotated and illustrated Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, which included the twenty-nine songs and twelve alternate takes. It won a Grammy and sold more than a million copies. In 1994 Johnson appeared on a US postage stamp. In 2012 his song “Sweet Home Chicago” was sung at the White House by President Obama. In 2017, in an attempt to capitalize on Johnson’s fame, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump announced that they would open a hotel in Clarksdale as part of the since-abandoned venture they trademarked as “American Idea.”
And yet the fascination Johnson’s music provokes has never lessened, or been contained by knowledge of who, what, when, where, and how—because “why” can never be reduced to a fact. “Robert Johnson shaped an art,” Stanley Crouch wrote in 1994, “that elevated his work from the amorphous world of Delta Ned Buntlines to that of fish stories lining up to march on the universe of Moby Dick.” In his own way, Bob Dylan said much the same thing this past June:
Robert was one of the most inventive geniuses of all time. But he probably had no audience to speak of. He was so far ahead of his time that we still haven’t caught up with him. His status today couldn’t be any higher. Yet in his day, his songs must have confused people.