The Devil's sweet poison

by Vicente Mateu

Baby, I don't care where you bury my body when I'm dead and gone
You may bury my body, hoo
Down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
Can get a Greyhound bus and ride

At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter who that elegantly-dressed young man, holding an acoustic guitar with the longest of fingers ever seen, sold his soul to. This is perhaps the most famous picture that exists of Robert Johnson (Hazlehurst, Mississippi 8th May 1911 – Greenwood Mississippi 16th August 1938), the man that defined the language of the Blues, or at least one of its most important dialects, with just a handful of songs recorded either in a hotel room of a shop storeroom.

It doesn't matter because the real devil can be found in his music - that age-old spirit that took advantage of his early demise to take a ride, as the lyrics to Me and the Devil tell, on the Greyhound bus that passed by his grave, on to spread his sweet poison around the world. Few people have managed to be as influential as Robert Johnson with so little – just 29 songs which laid down the path along which various generations of bluesmen walk to this day. Absolute classics that are still played nowadays; cover versions of, for example, Ramblin' on my Mind and Love in Vain played in just about every possible key.

The real mystery to Johnson is how he managed to trap the dark and heavy air of the Mississippi Delta inside his guitar. His technique is still marvelled over today, but what really captivates us is that authentic feeling of the Blues spirit, that atmosphere of pure authenticity. It's impossible not to smell the cheap alcohol and feel the warmth of the tobacco fumes that the young woman sitting next to you keeps blowing your way, while the blues plays in this dusty old bar in the middle of nowhere. You even have a moment to dance with her to the tune They're Red Hot, unaware that her jealous husband is poisoning your whisky.

This is exactly what happened to him in the mid-summer of 1938, just when he had struck a deal to play at the Carnegie Hall a few months later. He was only 27 years old. Others assure that he died a less glamorous death from pneumonia.  

Records tell that he was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and christened Robert Leroy Spencer. The Spencer would change to Johnson when his mother finally revealed to him who his natural father was. He spent his childhood and adolescence travelling far and wide throughout the state, never missing sight of its river or its cotton plantations. A young black man in America's Deep South, something you can almost smell in Milcow's Calf.

Son House
and Willie Brown (who were amazed when they first saw him play) and especially Lonnie Johnson, were the kings of southern blues back in the 1930s and the young guitarist's first teachers. Johnson was one of a group of aspiring bluesmen which included Big Joe Williams, Tommy McClennan and Robert Petway. The tragedies that were the deaths of his second wife and his son were the deciding factors that set him out on the road as a travelling, professional musician.

From joint to joint, he started to make something of a name for himself across the southern states and even managed to record Terraplane Blues in Texas, which sold a couple of thousand copies – about as near as you could get to a hit back in those days. His trick was to give his own personal touch to well-known melodies, such as Rambling on…. It looked like Lady Luck was at last smiling on him.

His music was more than just that of six strings. He could make it sound like a piano playing along to the guitar, and he would often use it as a percussion instrument, belting out the beat with his thumb on the soundboard, a drum machine made of wood and bone with more rhythm to it than any of today's micro-processed paraphernalia. The harmonica was the icing on this musical cake, and the slide, the cherry on top. After his death, his friends made his legend even greater by talking of his amazing ability to perfectly reproduce any song that he had heard straight off the cuff –the Devil’s work to be sure.  

His syncopated style, inherited from Son House, would lay down the foundations upon which rock music was built, its disciples forever paying tribute to him at every opportunity. From Joe Bonamassa to Billy Gibbons, without forgetting John Mayall, one of the main contributors to the Robert Johnson lore, discovering that the magic worked even better through an electric guitar, all appreciate that nothing of what they do would be possible without the late guitarist's legacy.

The list of those indebted to him is as long as the guitar players’ hall of fame of the last 75 years. Blues legend made even greater thanks to other geniuses such as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, who memorize his picking with the hope of one day being able to sound as he did. His followers are legion, but perhaps these two symbolise more than anybody else the tremendous influence that Johnson has had, without, of course, forgetting Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Bob Dylan, CreamRed Hot Chili Peppers, The White Stripes

Some music buffs assure us that the image of Johnson as the very icon of the blues has been grossly exaggerated, that all the mythology surrounding his supposed pact with the Devil (which according to some is a story stolen from another bluesman) and his veneration by various rock superstars have distorted reality. Indeed, he was a true great, but there were many others before and after him in a genre that didn't begin and end in the Mississippi Delta, one that he alone cannot be thanked for.

They believe that his fame came about by pure chance thanks to the re-issue in 1961 (and then again in 1970) of the tracks he had recorded 30 years previously in a Columbia Records anthology of the "kings" of the Delta Blues just when the aforementioned blues and rock stars were starting out. This coincidence, together with the story of his fateful meeting at the crossroads, made him a star. Until then, few had even heard of him.

Robert Johnson
may have been on the right record at the right time, but his critics forget that this magical element is precisely what those geniuses who are destined to change the world need – that, and in his case, an acoustic guitar.