Sunday, October 28, 2012

Death By Misadventure- Robert Johnson

Both Johnsons' (Tommy & Robert) implied association with the devil, may have been an early, though rather crude attempt at self marketing. Controversy equals curiosity which results in more paying customers.  The concept of meeting up with the devil at the crossroads was borne of Yoruba pantheon. Papa Legba is a horned spirit associated with Haitian and Southern  voodoo.  Legba opens and closes doorways and serves as the voice of God. Papa Legba also facilitates communication, speech & understanding. 

Both Papa Legba and Ellegua are known as the gods or guardians of the crossroads. Thus grew the legend of "going down to the crossroads to make a pact with the devil" Blues scholars would have you believe that when African Americans in the South spoke of "selling  their soul to the devil" that they meant something other than the Satanic version that we know so well.  Maybe so, but as a church going man that he once was, I bet that Robert Johnson had the horned red devil holding a pitchfork in mind as he composed his lyrics. 

 "I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving,
 Blues falling down like hail"

The Mississippi Delta was and is the cradle of American blues, a flat bottom nebulae that gave birth to the Hill country blues of Mississippi, the deep blues, the Delta Blues.  The  blue  devils of melancholy and sadness are never far away  and if you've lived your life with demons  nipping at your heels or with hell hounds chasing after your scent, then you're well versed on the subject.

The blues musicians were shrouded in mystery, swallowed up by their obscure circumstances and surroundings. Juke  joint messiahs howling deep into the Mississippi night. The music continues  to  live,  even as the musicians have returned to the soil that spawned them.

Son House played a National resonator guitar using  a 3/4" copper pipe as a slide. He would glide the slide across the  fretted  strings with a frantic energy,  alternating between gentle picking and slashing effortless strumming.  Charlie Patton deftly interjected spoken word passages around his slurred vocals without missing a beat.  It's said that his  voice could project five hundred feet without amplification.

Tommy Johnson was a raging alcoholic, so addicted to drinking methanol from cans of Sterno that he wrote and sang about it "I woked up a-this mo'nin with canned heat on my mind" The song "Canned Heat Blues" is a vivid portrait of a sick and desperate man. When there was no whiskey to be had, Tommy would also drink shoe polish filtered through a piece of bread Tommy  Johnson cultivated an evil persona,  often hinting that he had "sold his soul to the devil" in return for a wealth of talent, most likely he sold his soul for a bottle of whiskey.

"I went down to the crossroads and fell down on my knees,
 asked the Lord up above for mercy, save poor Bob if you please." 

Robert Johnson (no relation to Tommy) fostered a similar image. Johnson was the most influential of all the Delta blues musicians and if he made a pact with Ol'Scratch in return for fame and fortune, he got screwed in the process. Fame never came for Robert Johnson until long after he had paid the Devil his due. As described by Son House, Robert Johnson was  a  mediocre musician who suddenly channeled his meager talents and became the best there ever was.

Son  House, who knew Johnson as a boy said that he "was a competent harmonica player  but  an embarrassingly bad guitarist" That would change once he hooked up with Ike Zimmerman,  an obscure musician rumored to have learned his guitar technique by playing in graveyards while sitting on a tombstone at midnight.  After a few trips to the graveyard with Zimmerman, Robert Johnson was suddenly possessed with an unearthly talent.  Johnson supposedly said that   they preferred to practice in the graveyard, so as not to bother anyone.

A churchified  man at first, Johnson set out to do things the right way, he married  Caletta Craft in May 1931 and  settled down in Clarksdale, Ms. Caletta is said to have died during childbirth while Johnson was on the road playing music. Her family condemned him  for playing "the devil's music" and blamed him indirectly for her death. He abandoned all attempts at living a normal life and took to the road as an itinerant musician. Whether or not, this  led  him to associate himself with the devil in his music or enter into a Faustian bargain is up for debate.

 "Early this morning,  when you knocked upon my door
 and I said hello Satan, I believe it's time to go"

While performing at the Three Forks Store in Quito, Ms. according to a statement from David "Honeyboy" Edwards, who was there with Johnson. Robert drank from a jug of corn liquor placed near him by the barkeeper (the woman's husband?)  He immediately took ill and was transported to nearby Greenwood, Ms. where he lingered near death for three days. His suffering was immense as he was wracked with convulsions up until the moment of death. It remains a mystery as to what type of poison was used.

The symptoms and prolonged agony would discount theories that strychnine was used. (it has an odor and taste too strong to mask, a large dose would kill a man within a few hours) "Robert loved whiskey and women and some women you got to leave alone, you know what I mean?" declared David  "Honeyboy"  Edwards, his traveling companion and friend.  Robert Johnson cultivated women the way a farmer  cultivates his crops.  He had any number of women that would take him in when he was traveling. 

Musicologist Robert "Mack" McCormick claims to have interviewed the man who poisoned Johnson and that he confessed to the deed, however he didn't name the man or offer any type of proof.  "This man had a good looking woman, and he didn't want to lose her. And  Robert was about to take her away," says Honeyboy Edwards. He also tried  to  warn Robert about drinking from unsealed bottles offered as gifts. "Don't you ever knock a bottle of whiskey out of my hands!" Johnson had told him. 

"You may bury my body ohhhh down by the highway side, 
so my ole evil spirit can catch a greyhound bus and ride"

The following transcription was published in Mother Jones, part of  an article by Joe Kloc titled "Fact-checking the Life and Death of Bluesman Robert Johnson" It's mostly conjecture and speculation told in a cheesy, offhanded manner, but there is a gripping account  supposedly from Robert's own mother as  related to musicologist  Alan Lomax. 

"When I went in where he at, he layin up in bed with his guitar crost his breast. Soon’s he saw me, he say, "Mama, you all I been waitin for." "Here," he say, and give me his guitar. "Take and hang this thing on the wall, cause I done pass all that by. That what got me messed up, Mama. It’s the devil's instrument, just like you said. And I don’t want it no more." And he died while I was hangin his guitar on the wall. “Some wicked girl or her boyfriend had give him poison and wasn no doctor in the world could save him, so they say."

There's also an unfounded rumor that  Johnson got up out of his deathbed on all fours and started howling, a sign some people saw as evidence that he had made a pact with the devil.  Johnson died in a Greenwood shotgun shack (109 Young Street), as if the subject of  some dark blues song, he was laid out on the cooling board, possibly covered in an indigo blue shroud  and  was buried in the Mt. Zion churchyard in an unmarked grave.
Later, his body was dug up (at the bequest of his sister) and  re-interred at Mt. Payne  graveyard near Quito. (the Johnson family plot) Another account says that he was buried under a pecan tree at the Little Zion cemetery in Greenwood.  Today, the exact location of his grave in unknown. Three different markers have been placed at the grave sites mentioned. It appears that even in death Robert Johnson had to keep on movin' in order to throw off the hell hounds on his trail. 

This edition of Death by Misadventure is an offshoot of the prep work I've been doing for a review of Old Gray Mule's new album " "Like a Apple on a Tree"  It started out as an introduction but it grew all out of proportion.  This is nothing more than a primer, nothing that hasn't been written before. I can't really explain it, but I think the devil made me do it.

Old Gray Mule is NOW ACCEPTING PRE-ORDERS! PREVIEW TRACKS AND PRE-ORDER on the website or contact C.R. Humphrey at 512/227-4515 or      Old Gray Mule's  homebase is in Lockhart Tx, BBQ capital of the world, 28 miles southeast of Austin.