The amazing ascent, in 1991, of Robert Johnson’s complete recordings to gold status and a Grammy came as a surprise to virtually everyone in the music business. How could a set of poorly recorded tracks by a blues singer 53 years in the grave cut such a swath in today’s slick market? I’ve been playing, singing, and studying the blues for most of my life, and frankly I haven’t got a clue. And now there’s a subsidiary wonder: The Search for Robert Johnson,a documentary (originally made for British TV) dealing with Johnson’s life, career, shadowy murder, and rumored pact with the devil.
Fortunately, the video doesn’t get too spooky on us. While rockers Eric Clapton and Keith Richards put in cameo appearances to acknowledge Johnson’s influence on their work, the lucid narration by blues musician/keeper of the flame John Hammond focuses on the music. Which is as it should be.
Hammond crisscrosses the Mississippi Delta in this tape, talking with the singer’s childhood acquaintances, former girlfriends, fellow musicians — and a man who well may be Johnson’s illegitimate son. Through them, the story of the singer’s short, violent life comes into focus. Born around 1911-12 of Mississippi farm workers, Johnson left home in his teens, mostly to escape an abusive stepfather. Already an accomplished musician, Johnson bummed around the country, hopping freights to as far as New York and Chicago. About this time, stories began to circulate about a Faustian pact. The legend is an old one: The musician goes to a crossroads at midnight. A ”dark man” taps him on the shoulder, takes his instrument, plays a few tunes, and gives it back. Nothing needs to be said. The musician acquires devilish skill, and Satan has a new soul. Exactly the same tale was told of Paganini.
The denouement came quickly. Two recording sessions that can now be said, through their impact on white blues-rockers, to have changed the course of popular music; more wandering, booze, and women; and in 1938, at the age of 26, a dreadful death by poison at the hands of a jealous husband. Which brings me back to my original question: After all these years, why is Johnson the subject of so much celebration right now? I can’t help but wonder if his posthumous stardom might not be a belated payoff by Old Scratch himself. Suddenly, signing with William Morris doesn’t look so bad. They take only 10 percent.