Today marks the centenary of the birth of the great, late bluesman, Robert Johnson. Or at least, the best guess of when his birthday was, for his life is poorly documented, like those of many African-Americans born in segregated Mississippi, and it is also overshadowed by myth. Thanks to Mack MacCormick and other researchers, we know that Johnson's family was split up when his father had to flee a lynch mob after becoming embroiled in a property dispute with white landowners. After his mother died when he was still young, Johnson left his wife and the child he fathered with another woman, and became one of the many musicians wandering the high roads, low roads, and railroads of 1930s America. Early in his career, he latched onto Son House, who recalled that Johnson was an awful guitar player who disappeared for a short spell and returned as a fully-fledged musician, so starting the legend that he'd learned his licks from the devil, either at first-hand, or via one of his tutors, Ike Zimmerman. Johnson died at the age of 27, from drinking poisoned whiskey supplied by a jealous husband, and soon after cutting 41 tracks that were reissued on two LPS by Columbia Records during the folk music revival of the early 1960s. He died in relative obscurity (even the site of his grave is disputed), and he had little influence on his contemporaries. But via those two Columbia Records LPs, his guitar playing and singing influenced many British musicians, including Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, Fleetwood Mac, and the Rolling Stones, and their music fed back into the US music scene. Johnson is renowned as an innovator and early pioneer of rock and roll. A 2CD compilation, The Complete Recordings, was issued in 1990, won a Grammy; four of his songs are included in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame; The Complete Recordings has been deposited in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
My own small tribute is a story I published early in my career, and republished in revised form in Little Machines. It imagines a time-travelling historian becoming embedded the story he's been sent to research, and creating an alternate world in which Robert Johnson died just before his music was properly recognised in a concert in New York City: an unkinder world which is our own. Here's the beginning:
The first time Turner heard Robert Johnson play was to a vast crowd in Washington, D.C., December 5th 1945, the night the desegregation bill went through, and just three weeks before Johnson was assassinated. The second time was on what was supposed to be a routine archive trip, June 3rd 1937, a jook joint just outside the little Mississippi town of Tallula, and it was something else.
Afterwards, Turner hung around outside, an anonymous still point in the crowd that, slow as molasses, dispersed into the hot dark night. The music still thrilled in his blood. Songs he’d had known only as ghosts in the crackle of a few badly worn 78s or no more than titles in charred files from the fire-bombed office of an obscure record company had one after the other ripped through the heat and noise of the crowded jook joint, so much sound from one man and one guitar, driving the whoops and pounding feet of the dancers, that Turner doubted his state-of-the-art Soviet recorder had been able to capture one tenth of the reality.
Turner had once played a little guitar himself, enough to know that what the old bluesmen said about Robert Johnson was true. Even before the New York concerts, the years in prison on a trumped-up murder charge, his letters and his protest songs, the Freedom Marches and he Segregation Riots, near-canonization after his assassination, he had been the best of them all. The hard little capsule planted under the skin beneath Turner’s collarbone, where the grain of Americium hung suspended in its Oppenheimer pinch, tingled. He should have cut out and closed the Loop when Robert Johnson had finished his set. Get in, do the job, get out. Don't give the paradoxes any chance. But Turner had heard raw truths in Johnson's songs; for the first time since he'd been brought home after the Peace Corps had been disbanded, he felt alive again. Before he closed the Loop, he wanted to meet the man whose music had cut him deep.
The sandy yard and dark road in front of the jook joint were empty now; only Turner and three men sitting on the sagging porch were left. The men, all in various degrees of drunkenness, were passing around a chipped enamel jug in the yellow light of a couple of kerosene lanterns, talking in low voices and glancing sidelong at the stranger in the dark suit it hung oddly around Turner, and the suspenders which held up the trousers were gouging his clean white shirt (soaked in sweat), and polished two-tone shoes (which pinched like hell). He strolled over to them, casual as he could, wondering if one of them was the man whose recollections about Robert Johnson, told to a field researcher in some twenty years time, had brought him here. His pulse in his throat, his mouth dry, he asked where Robert Johnson was.One of them said, "He out back somewhere."Another added, "With a woman. Comes to women, Bobby Johnson's like a snake in a henhouse."The third wanted to know who was asking. Turner gave his cover story of being a talent scout, named a large New York record company. It was sort of true.The man, burly and barechested under bib overalls, fixed a mean look on Turner. "Never heard of no gentleman of colour working for no record company before.""Bobby Johnson, he already done got himself a deal," the first man said. He was the oldest of the three, his face a map of wrinkles like drying mud, his eyeballs yellow as ivory,his nappy hair salt and pepper. He peered at Turner and said, "You got yourself seventy-five, Mr New York, you can walk into Mr Willis’s dry goods store tomorrow and buy a record of his ‘Terraplane Blues’."The second man, skinny and mournful, said, "I heard he been on the radio in Detroit, singin spirituals. Shit, he been round this country a couple three times now.""Race records are a big thing in New York," Turner said, already in deeper than he'd intended. "That’s why we’re very interested in Robert Johnson.""What they know bout the blues in New York?" the old man said. "You go tell your boss that down here is the rightful home of the blues, no place else. Why, I play harmonica myself. I get the blues real bad sometimes."The mournful man said, "Bobby Johnson, he got 'em worse of all.""He got a mojo hand, no mistake," the old man said, and drank from the enamel jug and smacked his lips."They say ol Legba gave the boy a lesson in the blues, in exchange for his soul," the mournful man said, and there was a hush as if an angel had passed overhead.The old man took another drink and said, "Well I don't know if that be true, but I do know one time Bobby Johnson couldn't play a lick to save himself. I got the story straight from Son House. Bobby Johnson, he could play harmonica right enough, but he was always fixin after playin gitar. Hung out every joint and dance and country picnic there was, pesterin the players to give him a chance, but he was so bad it wasn't even funny. Anyway, he went away maybe a year, and I don't know if he went to the crossroads with Legba or not, but Son House told me when he came back he was carryin a gitar, and asked for a spot like old times. Well, Son was about ready to take a break, and told Bobby Johnson to go ahead and got himself outside before the boy began. But that time it was all changed. That time, he tol me, the music he heard Bobby Johnson make put the hair on his head to standin."It had the air of a story told many times. There was a silence, and then the mournful man said, "He near to burnt down the place tonight, and that's the truth."The old man said, "Son House tol me Bobby Johnson tol him a man called Ike Zimmerman taught him how to play, but what truth's in that I don't rightly know."Turner, whose first name was Isaac, felt an airy thrill.The burly man in the bib coveralls hauled himself to his feet, using as a support one of the posts that propped up the corrugated tin roof that sloped above the porch. He pointed at Turner and said, "You fools tell this stranger whatever’s on your minds, an you don’t know who he is.""He tol you he scouting talent, Jake," the old man said. He told Turner, "You come on down to Mr Willis’s dry goods store tomorrow, Mister New York, I show you stuff on the harmonica you ain’t never before heard.""He ain’t no scout," the burly man said. "He got the look of the law about him."He came down the steps towards Turner, a mean glint in his eyes."I’m just passing through," Turner said, and raised his hand to his chest, ready to collapse the Oppenheimer Pinch if he had to."Don’t pull no gun on me," the burly man said, half-angry, half-fearful, and swung clumsily at Turner and turned halfway around at sat down with comic suddeness.The door of the jook joint opened. Yellow light fell across the yard. A slightly-built man in a chalk-stripe suit stepped out, a guitar slung across his back, a fedora tilted on his head. It was Robert Johnson. He looked directly at Turner and said, "Why, Isaac. You come back. I always wondered if you would."