The story is infamous. According to legend, amateur guitar player Robert Johnson stood at the crossroads of US 61 and US 49 in Mississippi. There he sold his soul in exchange for guitar playing prowess. He emerges on the scene in short order to become the first truly modern bluesman, turning his back on stage to hide his guitar licks from competitors. Ultimately, he cements his legend when he dies of poisoning at the age of 27, the victim of a lover’s jealous boyfriend. In his lifetime, he recorded 29 songs and 13 alternate takes, many of which hint at his Faustian deal and its infernal conclusion.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
As with many in and near my generation, I discovered Johnson’s music, and the legend that accompanies him wherever he goes, through covers by Eric Clapton (“Crossroads”) and The Rolling Stones (“Love in Vain”). Johnson’s stomping grounds outside of Mississippi include San Antonio and my home here in Dallas. The legends run rampant if you know where to look. For me, the journey into the music began in the 80s. The journey into the man began in 2004 when I attended Eric Clapton’s Crossroads benefit concert at the Cotton Bowl in Fair Park… what had once been part of Johnson’s stomping grounds. Clapton, B. B. King, Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, ZZ Top, Jimmie Vaughan… the list went on and on, all them playing with the musical DNA of Johnson and his contemporaries. The evolution was there, and so was the respect. Once you have that respect, it’s only natural to want the original music, and sooner or later the stories behind the music are going to turn up.
There are a great many biographies of Robert Johnson to be had out there. Many of them are padded, and most of them miss the details. Admittedly, there aren’t many details to be had directly of the man himself, but as with the likes of Shakespeare or Marlowe, one can extrapolate quite a bit based on the culture and expectations of the era. Lucky for us, more and more details have become available over the years, including testimony from friends and Johnson’s biological son. Those details are in here. Even so, the biography of Robert Johnson is short, sweet, and to the point. Indeed, it doesn’t fill the bulk of this quick little book. The legend of Robert Johnson — the tale of how the story grew, how his fame spread, and the custody battles for his legacy — these answers are also found here. That’s the real treasure trove this book offers.
Author Tom Graves took what I previously understood, real or legendary, flipped it all inside out, and tells the stories behind the stories. It becomes not only a history of Johnson and Depression Era blues, but also of the development of rock and roll and the blues renaissance of the 1960s. It’s the tale of otherwise segregated races borrowing from one another and creating a legacy that has withstood the test of time against all odds. The Faustian legend is likewise examined: who started it, who perpetuated it, where the stories were crossed with other musicians, the culture of the Mississippi Delta that fueled it all, and how that all led to popularity with modern audiences bigger than anything the bluesman experienced in his lifetime. As with all such legends, the legend itself is more fun than the truth, but the facts are more interesting and insightful.
The audiobook version of this is read by the author, and by that, I mean you can actually tell he’s reading. It’s somewhat mechanical, which could easily have been overcome by paying a professional narrator. Even so, such things are acceptable and even dismissable when the story is good. In this case, it’s really good. How could it be otherwise? Everything that comes to light reflects back on the music, making those old songs live again.