If you read the excerpts from Deep Ellum Pawn, and especially if you went on to read the rest of the story, you may be curious about the legend of Robert Johnson, and of the bluesman’s mysterious life. After reading this you’ll know more, but you also may still be curious.
A mysterious life
I’m not sure any actual, documented person in American history has accumulated more myths, legends, and ghost stories than singer, songwriter, and blues musician Robert Johnson.
Johnson was born in 1911, and died in 1938 at the tender age of twenty-seven. His career spanned only nine years, from 1929 to 1938. Between 1936 and 1937 he recorded 29 songs, only one of which he might have heard in regional release. You would think he’d have disappeared beneath the avalanche of singers who hit the big time in the eighty years since he died. And yet, for all the Leadbellys, and Blind Lemon Jeffersons, the Freddy Kings, Albert Kings, and B. B. Kings who have come after, Robert Johnson stands alone.
It could be because he had a unique sound, and wrote songs that resonated with the rich spiritual and magical traditions of both black culture and white. But I think it’s also because of his deal with the devil, the hellhounds on his trail, his mysterious death, and the disputed location of his final resting place. Johnson’s story is just too darned interesting to forget.
Like other musicians of his time, Johnson traveled from city to city, singing on street corners and in the “barrelhouses” that passed for saloons in neighborhoods like Dallas’ Deep Ellum district. Folks said he wasn’t that good . . . until suddenly he was. Johnson reportedly dropped out of sight for a few months, and when he came back, he was on fire. Nobody played guitar like he did, or wrote of supernatural travails quite so profoundly.
Deal with the devil?
People whispered that he’d made a deal with the devil, and gained his musical prowess by selling his soul. He sang of falling to his knees at the crossroads, of hellhounds on his trail. He asks his friends to “bury my body down by the highway side” as if he knew what was coming.
He made his first recordings at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. His final recording sessions happened at 508 Park Avenue in Dallas, just a mile west of Deep Ellum, which was then a focal point for the emerging blues style.
And then he was gone.
The legend of Robert Johnson
In late 1938, music producer John Hammond sought Johnson out for a blues/gospel/swing concert he was planning at Carnegie Hall, only to find that Johnson was dead. His body had been found by the side of a highway. No inquest was held.
And yet, he wasn’t gone. Robert Johnson’s music lived on, influencing the likes of Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant and so many more. He was a member of the first class inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Rolling Stone magazine named him one of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Serious musicologists scoff at the supernatural trappings that shroud his story, but Johnson seems to have traded his life for musical immortality.
Almost as if he’d made a deal with the devil.
IMAGE CREDITS: The Robert Johnson photo is one of only two (or three; the third is in dispute) images that are certified to actually be Johnson. See its “backstory” on Wikipedia. This photo is ©1989 Delta Haze Corporation, but its use with this article constitutes fair use under U.S. copyright laws. The 508 Park Avenue photo is courtesy of Preston Lauterbach.