Without fanfare or publicity, his first album appeared in 1961. The music was strikingly out of place and out of time, particularly in a year when the best-selling album in America was Elvis Presley's Blue Hawaii. Still, as one critic has aptly remarked, King of the Delta Blues Singers turned Robert Johnson into “a sort of invisible pop star.”
The album consisted of sixteen songs, several with starkly evocative, even apocalyptic titles: “Hellhound on My Trail,” “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” “Me and the Devil Blues.” The songs had been recorded in 1936 and 1937. Robert Johnson had been dead for a generation. In 1961, no photographs of him were known to exist. A mysterious and elusive figure, he was-literally- invisible. He nevertheless became a pop star: minor, perhaps, but highly influential just the same.
In his own lifetime, a total of twelve recordings had been released. With the exception of the first one, “Terraplane Blues,” none of them had sold well, even in Johnson's home region, the mid-South. From the start, the quality of his music was nevertheless recognized, if only by fellow blues singers, as well as by a handful of respected writers and record collectors.
After the appearance of King of the Delta Blues Singers, Johnson's reputation steadily grew. His music was heard, and imitated, by a coterie of prominent young musicians. Among the cognoscenti, his album became a badge of hip taste: in the photo on the cover of Bob Dylan's *Bringing It All Back Home* (1965), the Johnson album is prominent among the emblematic pieces of bohemian bric-a-brac on display. What people like Dylan took away from Johnson's life and work became the source of a tacit ethos, silently transmitted, internationally shared, creating a new mythic measure of what rock and roll could *be*, quite apart from the example of Elvis Presley.
But who was Robert Johnson? In an era when worthless teen idols were routinely ballyhooed, Robert Johnson was a mystery, unknown, remote, accessible only through his music. The most storied of the classic Delta bluesmen, his legend had its roots in a failed quest to find him.
The search had begun in 1938. In December of that year, John Hammond was staging the first of his “Spirituals to Swing” concerts at Carnegie Hall (it was this concert that would introduce the jump blues of Big Joe Turner to New York listeners). Hammond was the first important jazz critic and record collector to become an impresario and record producer in his own right, serving as a role model for Ahmet Ertegun when he started Atlantic Records a decade later. An avowed socialist despite his pedigree (his mother was a Vanderbilt), Hammond in the 1930s was committed to advancing the cause of “the people” through a suitably classy presentation of suitably populist strains of music. In an announcement for the Carnegie Hall concert printed in the New Masses (a wieldy that was an avowed cultural organ of the nation's “class-conscious workers and revolutionary intellectuals”), Hammond promised a program of “American Negro music as it was invented, developed, sung and played by the Negro himself--the true, untainted folk song, spirituals, work songs, songs of protest, chain gang songs, Holy Roller chants, shouts, blues, minstrel music, honky-tonk piano, early jazz and, finally, the contemporary swing of Count Basie.” The list of featured artists included Robert Johnson.
A few months before, Hammond had gone to work for Columbia Records, and had chanced upon Johnson's masters, transcriptions of all of his original recordings, many of them still unissued at the time. Transfixed by Johnson's music, Hammond was convinced that he had found an archetypal troubadour--the purest, most powerful (and most authentically populist and proletarian) blues singer in the Deep South.
A call went out. John Hammond wanted to bring Robert Johnson to Carnegie Hall. In Texas and Mississippi, the music men who had first found and recorded Johnson made inquiries. Piecing together information from a variety of itinerant informants, they learned that Johnson had died just weeks before, under uncertain but sinister circ*mstances.
One search was over. But another was just beginning. In these same months, Hammond played Johnson’s unreleased masters for a young friend of his, the Harvard-educated folklorist Alan Lomax. Though he was only twenty-six, Lomax was already a seasoned student of American folk music. In 1934, he had accompanied his father, John, editor of the first major anthology of American folk song, on a trip to the South to record indigenous musicians in the field. Their express purpose had been “to find the Negro who had had the least contact with jazz, the radio, and with the white man.” On that trip, they had visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where they had discovered Huddie Ledbetter. aka Leadbelly, whose release they secured, and whom they subsequently took on a well-published tour of Harvard and other college campuses: *Life*, a weekly magazine, covered the phenomenon under the headline “Bad n*gger Makes Good Minstrel.”
Leadbelly's tour naturally compromised the authenticity of his claim to be “the Negro who had had the least contact with jazz, the radio, and with the white man.” Robert Johnson's recordings, on the other hand, suitably esoteric as they were, suggested someone who came closer to embodying that elusive (and implicitly revolutionary) ideal. Even better, he was dead: so his work would forever remain untainted by contact with “the white man” (never mind that Lomax, like Hammond, was white). But the fact of his death only added urgency to the riddle that now haunted Lomax: who was Robert Johnson- who had he been?
In 1941, Lomax headed south, in search now of a ghost. He did not return to New York empty-handed. Assembling evidence and following clues from Memphis back to the Mississippi Delta, Lomax was able to locate Robert Johnson's mother. He discovered Son House, one of Johnson’s mentors. And he found one of Johnson's most talented disciples, McKinley Morganfield, later famous as Muddy Waters, who in 1941 was still living on a plantation (he moved to the South Side of Chicago two years later).
From these sources, a legend began to take shape. Some friends said that he'd been hot by a jealous man; others swore that he'd been poisoned by a woman. In his death throes, they said, he crawled on all fours and barked like a dog- the victim of a voodoo curse. In later years, Son House hinted that Robert Johnson had sold his soul to the devil-- to House, this was the only conceivable explanation for the man's musical genius.
John Hammond and Alan Lomax first talked about compiling an album of Robert Johnson's music in 1939. But the project was shelved, and, evidently, forgotten. The rugged beauty of Johnson's recordings, well known by reputation, was rarely experienced firsthand.
Then, in the Fifties, in a paradoxical counterpoint to the simultaneous craze for rock and roll, an international fad for “folk” music took off, stalled, then took off again, finally creating a small but impassioned new market for Robert Johnson's rough-hewn style of music. In America, the fad had begun in 1950, when the Weavers, led by Pete Seeger, one of Lomax's musical friends and political allies, turned Leadbelly's “Goodnight Irene” into a lushly orchestrated exercise in sentimentality.
As a writer remarked at the time in *Billboard*, songs like “Goodnight Irene” and “Tennessee Waltz” were of a piece; the Weavers, like Patti Page, demonstrated the popular appeal of “a bright, homey, simple, folksy melody sort of tune.”
This first wave of the America folk revival fell apart in 1951, after the Weavers were prominently mentioned in an FBI publication, *Red Channels: Communist Influence on Radio and Television*. Meanwhile, in England, folk music independently came into vogue in 1956, when the singer Lonnie Donegan took yet another Leadbelly song, “Rock Island Line,' and performed it with spirited artlessness, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Donegan called his brand of music “skiffle,” a term originally used in the late 1920s to describe blues played by so-called jug bands, consisting of guitar, harmonica, kazoo, jug, washtub bass, and washboard drums. It was, in fact, skiffle that John Lennon was playing in 1957 at the church picnic where he first met Paul McCartney.
At first glance, rock and roll and folk music might seem utterly incompatible. Where rock and roll was designed to be popular, folk music evoked a reverie of pastoral populism, untainted by vulgar commercial calculations; where rock and rol1 was loud and highly amplified, folk was performed on acoustic instruments, an audible emblem of its populist authenticity.
Still, as John Lennon intuitively understood (since his skiffle band performed Elvis Presley songs), rock and folk had some crucial ingredients in common: both genres welcomed, indeed highly prized the creativity of frank amateurs; both rock and folk were do-it-yourself formats that inspired many listeners to start bands of their own; finally, both rock and folk were simple enough musical forms that even teenagers could, without much practice, successfully approximate the sounds they heard on their radios and record players.
In 1958, the folk fad had resumed in America, and proceeded to blossom, this time fueled by the popularity of the Kingston Trio, a clean-cut (and impeccably apolitical) vocal group. The Kingston Trio wore starched, striped short-sleeve shirts, strummed acoustic guitars quietly, and sang plangent Appalachian ballads with the same kind of deadpan. intonation and colorless diction that Ricky Nelson had brought to rockabilly. Across America, guitar sales soared, as aspiring folk singers joined the ranks of aspiring rock guitarists. And by 1961, when Robert Johnson's first album was belatedly released (thanks, in part, to the continuing interest of John Hammond), there was, at last, a demonstrable market for music that was ostensibly pure, archaic, uncommercial. Out of time, Robert Johnson could at last come into fashion.
For almost everyone who bought King of the Delta Blues Singers-the point needs stressing-this was *new* music. In some ways, it was more novel, because more exotic, than anything else readily available in record stores around the world. There had been folk song reissues before, of course, on small American labels like Folkways and RBF, but one had to make a special effort to search them out. There had similarly been blues reissues before, but nothing as raw as King of the Delta Blues Singers--and certainly nothing as drenched in romance and mystery.
“The voice sings,” Rudi Blesh wrote in 1946, offering the first of countless purple encomiums, “and then—on fateful descending notes—echoes its own phrases….The high, sighing guitar notes vanish suddenly into silence as if swept away by cold autumn wind. Plangent, iron chords intermittently walk, like heavy footsteps, on the same descending minor series…. The note paint a dark wasteland, starless, ululant with bitter wind, swept by the chill rain. Over a hilltop trudges a lonely, ragged, bedeviled figure.”
For want of a photograph, the album's cover was a painting. It showed an isolated, featureless black man hunched over his guitar, casting a long shadow over an equally featureless ground the color of parched sand. “Robert Johnson is little, very little more than a name on aging index cards and a few dusty master records in the files of a phonograph company that no longer exists,” the album's liner notes began. “A country blues singer from the Mississippi Delta … Robert Johnson appeared and disappeared, in much the same fashion as a sheet of newspaper twisting and twirling down a dark and windy midnight street.”
Once music has been preserved on recordings, the sounds become available, in principle, to any listener anywhere. When the music thus preserved represents the orally transmitted heritage of an otherwise inaccessible milieu, the effect, paradoxically, is to open up for cosmopolitan appreciation, and imitation, what had been previously segregated, what had been self-contained: the legacy of an organic community of musical craftsmanship. In this way, the Beatles could master from afar a regional American idiom like rockabilly. It was in this way, too, that a new generation of British rock and roll musicians came to study, and copy, a music so tortured in its timbres, and so tormented in its poetic imagery, that Johnson's recordings made “Blue Suede Shoes” sound like “Three Blind Mice”--a simpleminded nursery rhyme.
“I don't think I'd even heard of Robert Johnson when I found the record,” Eric Clapton recalled years later. “It was probably just fresh out. I was around fifteen or sixteen,” and Clapton's apotheosis as the first widely celebrated demigod of the rock guitar was five years in the future: “It was a real shock that there was something that powerful…. It allied me to believe that here was a guy who really didn't want to play for people at all, that his thing was so unbearable for him to have to live with that he was almost ashamed of it. This was an image that I was very, very keen to hang on to.”
A similar scene occurred in the spring of 1962, when Keith Richards, then nineteen, visited a fellow rhythm and blues enthusiast named Brian Jones, then twenty- together with Keith's friend Mick Jagger, they would shortly begin to play together as the Rolling Stones. “I'd just met Brian,” Richards later recalled, “and I went round to his apartment-crash pad, actually, all he had in it was a chair, a record player, and a few records, one of which was Robert Johnson. He put it on, it was just astounding stuff… To me he was like a comet or a meteor that came along and, BOOM, suddenly he raised the ante, suddenly you just had to aim that much higher.”
What Johnson represented to art school students like Clapton and Keith Richards was, to start, a matter of music: a complexity of affect conveyed by guttural vocals, kinetic countermelodies, and a rhythmic attack so relentlessly choppy that on a recording like “Walkin' Blues,” the singer and his guitar achieve a feeling of raw urgency rarely matched by later bands playing with amplified instruments. A model of impassioned artistry, a song like “Walkin' Blues” was also a perfect expression of (among other sentiments) unrequited love; desolation and abandonment; and the untrammeled freedom of a young man unafraid to leave his “lonesome home.” For a generation bored by the complacency and comfort of middle-class life, Johnson's songs held out the image of another world—one that was liberated, fearful, thrilling.
It was a music of apparently brute honesty. But as countless later homages would prove, if Johnson's basic sound was imitable, the impression of brute honesty was not. As Greil Marcus remarked in *Mystery Train*, perhaps the first major study of rock as a cultural form, “all of Eric Clapton's love for Johnson's music came to bear not when Clapton sang Johnson's songs” —for example, “Ramblin' on My Mind” in 1966 (with John Mayall), or “Crossroads” in 1968 (with Cream)—”but when, once Johnson's music became part of who Clapton was, Clapton came closest to himself: in the passion of 'Layla'” in 1970 (with Derek and the Dominos).
There was, finally, a certain Gothic beauty about Johnson's legend, which insured that the legend itself became an influence in its own right. By reputation a diabolical and doomed figure, he had died for his art. That creative freedom required a pact with the devil was, of course, a romantic cliche, as well as a major theme in Goethe's *Faust*. Nietzsche's philosophy, and Baudelaire 's poetry. But with Johnson's example in mind, the mystique surrounding evil in modern thought acquired a concrete new meaning, transforming the significance of blues borrowings within rock culture.
For Elvis Presley, the blues had been a matter of elemental sensuousness, the kinds of passions that could be routinely evoked by a journeyman like Arthur Crudup: “if I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur felt , I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw.” As Elvis proved, one could be “a music man” like Crudup and still embody the virtues of patriotism and a pious reverence for traditional family values.
For Keith Richards and Brian Jones, by contrast. the blues had now to be visibly rooted in [[The Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil”]]. Thus was born what has become one of the corniest motifs in subsequent blues-oriented rock and roll, a fascination with evil routinely exploited by so-called heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath in the 1970s, Van Halen in the 1980s, and Metallica in the 1990s. As one academic has solemnly summed up the “discursive practice” of these latter-day rock and roll bands, “Running with the Devil means living in the present. and the music helps us experience the pleasure of the moment…Freedom is presented as a lack of social ties no love, no law, no responsibility, no delayed gratification.”
That such sentiments almost certainly travesty Robert Johnson's life and work does not change the lines of cultural descent connecting Johnson's “Hellhound on My Trail” (recorded in 1937) with Van Halen 's “Runnin' With the Devil” (1978); or, for that matter, the parallel lines of cultural descent connecting the gangster folk music of Leadbelly with the gangsta rap of N.W.A. (for “n*ggers With Attitude”--compare “Bad n*gger Makes Good Minstrel”)
Thanks to the growing influence of country blues, and specifically of Johnson's example, unruliness, already a key component of the rock ethos, acquired the kind of cultural legitimacy Norman Mailer had prophesied in his essay “The White Negro”: the cachet of frankly expressing raw desires, deep emotional truths, specifically those too violent for civil society, too ugly for fine art--too dangerous to be condoned.