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Robert Johnson At 100, Still Dispelling Myths

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Robert Johnson At 100, Still Dispelling Myths

Robert Johnson At 100, Still Dispelling Myths

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Robert Johnson. Although he recorded just 29 songs, the bluesman had a high influence on guitarists including Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. Robert Johnson is one of the most studied of all country blues musicians. He's been the subject of many books, films and essays.

But as NPR's Joel Rose reports, the mythology surrounding his life just won't go away.

JOEL ROSE: If you know anything about Robert Johnson, chances is the story that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his musical talent.

(Soundbite of song, Crossroads Blues)

Mr. ROBERT JOHNSON (Blues Singer; Musician): (Singing) I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees. I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees. Asked the lord above, have mercy now...

ROSE: That legend reached a mainstream audience with the 1986 movie Crossroads, starring Joe Seneca and Ralph Macchio.

(Soundbite of movie, Crossroads)

Mr. JOE SENECA (Actor): (as Willie Brown) He wanted to learn real good blues and make a name. So we went on down...

Mr. RALPH MACCHIO (Actor): (as Eugene Martone) I know. I read all about this, Willie. He went down to the crossroads. Thats where Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil.

Mr. SENECA: (as Willie Brown) You read about it?

Mr. MACCHIO: (as Eugene Martone): Yeah. I have tons of books on blues folklore.

Mr. SENECA: (as Willie Brown) Oh, dont give me that folklore (bleep). It happened.

ROSE: Not according to folklorist Barry Lee Pearson.

Professor BARRY LEE PEARSON (English, University of Maryland): The popular mythology has him as a total loner and kind of lived this life in regret as a repayment for his alleged sin of making a contract with Old Scratch.

ROSE: Okay, how much of that is true?

Prof. PEARSON: None.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROSE: Pearson is a professor at the University of Maryland and the co-author of the book Robert Johnson: Lost and Found. In the absence of any real biographical information, Pearson says early blues writers got a little carried away.

Prof. PEARSON: Everybody was so anxious to make this devil story true that they've been working on finding little details that can corroborate it.

(Soundbite of song, Hellhound On My Trail)

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) And the day keeps on remindin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail. Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail.

ROSE: Here is what we do know about Robert Johnson. He said he was born in Mississippi on May 8, 1911, and grew up on a plantation in the Delta. As a young man, he was more interested in music than farming and he would hound the older blues musicians for a chance to play. In an interview included in the 1997 documentary Can't You Hear the Wind Howl, Son House recalls that the young Johnson would annoy audiences with his lousy guitar playing.

(Soundbite of documentary, Can't You Hear the Wind Howl)

Mr. SON HOUSE (Blues singer; Guitarist): Folks they come and say, why don't yall some of yall go out and make that boy put that thing down?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOUSE: He running us crazy. Finally he left. He run off from his father and mother, and went over in Arkansas someplace or other.

ROSE: When Robert Johnson came back from Arkansas six months later, he had mastered the guitar. That's where the rumors about his deal with the devil came from, but Johnson acknowledged studying with a human teacher while he was gone. After that, Johnson worked as a traveling musician, playing on street corners and in juke joints, mostly in Mississippi. And in 1936, he got a chance to record in Texas.

(Soundbite of song, Terraplane Blues)

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) When I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan. When I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan.

ROSE: "Terraplane Blues" was a minor hit, and he was invited back for a second recording session. Johnson died a year later at the age of 27, under mysterious circumstances. Some think he was poisoned, although a note on the back of his death certificate says the cause was syphilis.

In any case, the timing was tragic. Legendary Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond wanted to book Johnson at Carnegie Hall for the landmark "Spirituals to Swing" concert in 1938. Hammond was also the driving force behind the first LP reissue of Robert Johnson's music in 1961. At the time, Johnson was so obscure that Columbia didn't even have a picture of him to put on the cover. The LP was produced by Frank Driggs, who also wrote the liner notes.

Mr. FRANK DRIGGS (Jazz historian): If you read the liner notes, youd see next to nothing. 'Cause I just created a thing out of whole cloth when I wrote the notes, because there really was very little known about the guy.

ROSE: That LP, the King of the Delta Blues Singers, introduced Johnson's music to a new generation of young, mainly white blues fans, including Eric Clapton, as he told NPR in 2004.

Mr. ERIC CLAPTON (Guitarist, vocalist, songwriter): It was on Columbia and it had, like, some pretty interesting sleeve notes on it about the fact that these were the only sides he had cut, and that they'd done it in a hotel room, and when he was auditioning for the sessions that he was so shy when he had to play, facing into the corner of the room. And I - I mean, I immediately identified with that, because I was paralyzed with shyness as a kid.

ROSE: But there may be another reason why Robert Johnson recorded facing the wall. Elijah Wald is a musician and the author of the book Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. He says there were pre-war blues musicians who played guitar better than Johnson and musicians who sang better too. But unlike most of them, Walt says Robert Johnson learned to play from listening to radio and records.

Mr. ELIJAH WALD (Author, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues): Robert Johnson certainly was very conscious of what a hit record sounded like. If you listen to something like Come on in My Kitchen...

(Soundbite of song, Come on in My Kitchen)

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) Oh-ah she's gone and she won't come back...

Mr. WALD: ...he's singing very quietly, and he actually has a moment where he says, can't you hear the wind blow, and he whispers it and then plays this very quiet riff.

(Soundbite of song, Come on in My Kitchen)

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) You'd better come on in my kitchen, babe it's going to be rainin outdoors. Yeah, can't you hear that wind howl? Oh, can't you hear that wind howl?

Mr. WALD: That never would have worked on a street corner or in a Mississippi juke joint, but it sounds great on records.

(Soundbite of song, Come on in My Kitchen)

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) Theres going to be rain...

ROSE: Sound is one of the main things that distinguishes Johnson's sides from other records of the time. By facing the wall, Wald says Johnson might have made his vocals sound better to a later generation accustomed to high fidelity. It doesn't hurt that the original masters of his recordings survived, too. But what really set Johnson apart from his peers was all of the mythology that grew up around him, especially the part about the devil. Many of Johnson's friends dismissed it as false. Heres Johnny Shines in the 1997 documentary.

(Soundbite of documentary, Can't You Hear the Wind Howl)

Mr. JOHNNY SHINES (Blues singer; Guitarist): No, he never told me that lie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHINES: If he would've, I would've called him a liar right to his face. Cause I know its a lie. You have no control over your soul. So how you gonna do anything with your soul?

ROSE: But the myth about Johnson persists, in part because it helps sell records. Steve Berkowitz is a producer at Sony Legacy, which is reissuing Robert Johnson's music again, this time in a new centennial edition.

Mr. STEVE BERKOWITZ (Producer, Sony Legacy): That was always the heart and soul of the marketing plan. Because we always knew the music was great. But a guy sells his soul to the devil at midnight down at the crossroads, comes back and plays the hell out of the guitar, and then he dies. I mean, it's a spectacular story.

ROSE: And there wouldn't be any harm in that, says author Elijah Wald, except that the legend tends to overshadow the real Robert Johnson.

Prof. WALD: To just say oh, he went to the crossroads in the dead of night, first of all just means that we're not getting what happened. And second of all, it's kind of insulting. It's kind of implying that, unlike us who do this serious work to understand music, these old black blues guys just went and sold their soul to the devil.

ROSE: If it were really that easy, Wald says, the devil would own the souls of every teenage boy in America.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) From now it must be rain...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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