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Into the Electric Mist with the Devil and Mr. Johnson

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You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.
-Keith Richards
(Speaking of Robert Johnson)

I dabbled in things like Howlin’ Wolf, Cream and Led Zeppelin, but when I heard Son House and Robert Johnson, it blew my mind. It was something I’d been missing my whole life. That music made me discard everything else and just get down to the soul and honesty of the blues.
-Jack White

The most important blues singer of all time.
-Eric Clapton

Crossroads and the Legend

America and the world hold our myths and legends sacrosanct. 

King Arthur and the Holy Grail. Lady Godiva. Joan of Arc. The Blarney Stone. Thor.  John Henry. Hercules. Samson and Delilah. Pecos Bill. Atlantis. Robin Hood. El Dorado.
The Foutain of Youth. Yamashita’s Tresures. And perhaps the most impenetrable Gordian Knot of them all.

Robert Johnson. Bluesman. The definition of a ramblin’ man. Died in obscurity on August 18th, 1938. 

Deal with the Devil?

Legend has it that Robert, a fledgling musician who was so bad, that at one point, his mentor, legendary bluesman Son House, told him; “put that guitar down boy, you’re driving people nuts.” 

Then one day Robert left the tutelage of Son and went ramblin’. He left a nondescript itinerant drifter, he returned from his sojourn so skilled, that according to Charley Patton, another early blues hero; “no one could touch him.” How did Johnson transfom himself from a virtual non-talent into a man who changed music forever? Well, legend and Son House confirm this: Johnson sold his soul to the Devil for lasting  immortality. Where did this epoch-changing meeting take place? According to who is doing the talking, it was in either in Clarksdale, Mississippi that the very ambitious Johnson and the Devil met around midnight. That section of town where Highway 49 intersects with Highway 61. Others say Johmson”s hook-up with Satan took place in Rosedale (made famous by the Cream version of Johnson’s Crossroads), where Highway 8 crosses Highway 1. 

Did Robert Johnson really sell his soul for musical genius? Most of his contemporaries seem to think so.

An influence so Extraordinary That it Defies Modern Logic.

Robert Johnson created just 29 songs.

Incredibly, over the course of just three recording sessions for Vocalion Records in November 1936, and early 1937, Johnson created what is arguably one of the most influential single artist’s catalogue in rock and blues history. 

“Equally important, Johnson’s persona and his songs introduced a musical and lyrical vocabulary that are the basis of the modern blues and blues-based rock,” wrote Rolling Stone Magazine.

His spectral presence haunts and illuminates to this day.

As recently as theDecember 2017/January 2018 issue of Garden and Gun magazine, multiple Academy-Award wining actress, Jessica Lange also a brilliant photographer, published another group of photos from the Mississippi Delta area that made Johnson famous. The man died 80 years ago.

The Rolling Stones, who throughout their career have mined the musical roots of  the American deep South, included Johnson’s tunes; Stop Breaking Down, from perhapstheir greatest album, the sublimeExile on Main Streetand Love in Vain from Let it Bleed.

Prolific author Shelby Foote, widely known as the Homer of Ken Burn’s first popular documentary, The Civil War, had Johnson’s photo hanging on the wall above his writing space,  along with fellow Mississippian William Faulkner.

Eric Clapton, as popular a guitarist and bluesman as there is on the planet, made an entire album of Johnson’s compositions: Me and Mr. Johnson.

Bob Dylan, a student of Robert Johnson’s sounds from the very beginning, immortalized  him in his epic song and album; Highway 61 RevisitedIn fact, Dylan was born not far away from where Highway 61 originates, in Duluth, Minnesota.

My Trip Down Highway 61

Years ago when I was on a project for the NEH to help create a series of documentaries on Southern literature and history, I was driving across Alabama and Mississippi on my way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when right below Vicksburg, Mississippi I unexpectedly encountered Highway 61. From the very moment I saw the sign, I was mesmerized. I knew of Highway 61 from the Dylan song, Highway 61 Revisited, but, callow youth that I was, I had no idea of the historical significance of the place I was in, or, its perhaps supernatural aura.

As I pulled into a country store after driving my way through endless fields, I felt like I was in a time warp matrix; there is no other way to describe that goose- bump feeling as I stumbled upon this unforgettable tableau of surreal vista after vista.

Although the shy was cobalt blue on that memorable day, and there was not a cloud in the sky, it was a down right eerie feeling that gripped me and one I didn’t lose until I got to Baton Rouge. Once there, I began to unearth the impact Johnson had made on American music.

Beautiful, haunting, and unforgettable, the Mississippi Delta and Highway 61.

A Shaman is Born

There are many who think Jimi Hendrix was supernaturally transformed on a pilgrimage down South,  the reincarnation of Johnson. 
They both died far too young at the age of 27.

To put the true influence and significance of Robert’s life in perspective, I’ll quote from a recent animated short by the very fine organization Music Matters.

Not all of this may be true. But one thing is for certain. No Robert Johnson. No Rock and Roll.”

Back to the Future Blues

I’ll close with the musings of the bard, Mr. Dylan, to ruminate on the lasting power of a man buried in an unmarked grave, after probably being poisoned by a jealous husband.

“I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction—themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease. I didn’t have any of these dreams or thoughts but I was going to acquire them. I thought about Johnson a lot, wondered who his audience could have been. It’s hard to imagine sharecroppers or plantation field hands at hop joints, relating to songs like these. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future.”

— Bob Dylan 
Chronicles: Volume One

Yes, the legend of Robert Johnson resonates to this day