Legend has it that the 19-year-old young man from Mississippi Robert Lorey Johnson made a deal with the Devil. An African American Doctor Faust who sold his soul not to become omniscient but to be an exceptional guitarist.
Born in Hazlehurst in 1911, Robert Johnson was very into music, thanks to his older brother. But this is not enough to make him a prodigy. His short life is still a mystery: his mother had him out of the wedlock after being left by her husband for another woman, Robert later moved to Memphis (future hometown of Elvis Presley and place where Martin Luther King jr. Would be killed) where he married Virginia Travis in 1929. In 1930, after his wife’s death, the young man mysteriously left for nowhere in particular only to come back the following year with his second wife, Calletta Craft. During one of his many trips, at the crossroads of two dark streets, Robert met a musician as obscure today as he was then. His name was Ike Zinnerman, and he was known because he said he had learnt how to play guitar thanks to the spirits – in a graveyard.
Rumors kept on growing to the point people thought Ike was an emissary of the Devil (when not the Devil himself). Probably, his greatest lesson to the inexperienced aspiring guitarist from Mississippi was to bet on such legends. “For better or for worse, as long as we talk about it” seemed to be his motto.
On balance, there is something strange about Robert. After deciding to take his career up again, the young man went to Son House, who still remembered how goofy he sounded half a year previously. Contrary to expectations, however, the sound that came out of the guitar was the best that could happen to hear. Johnson was now able to play any style and genre, from polka to country, but it was with the so-called Delta blues that he gave his best. According to some witnesses, he would even play with his back to the audience. If it is true that the Devil does not like to be looked at in the face, apparently there would have been no other reasons that justified this peculiarity. For some time, he toured the clubs of the southern United States with names like Sonny Boy Williamson II and David Honeyboy Edwards, consolidating his status as a musician but also as a drinker and womanizer.
Between 1936 and 1937 he recorded the only twenty-nine known recordings, entirely sung and played by Robert himself and which allowed him to be of the most influential bluesmen of the twentieth century. Also, these recordings are surrounded by a mystery concerning the execution speed of the songs, increased by 20% and, for this reason, decisive for the tonality: if it were true, the voice would not be as acute as we hear it and would fall within the blues standard.
His approach to the guitar was modern and varied for the time, with jazz influences from different areas of the United States and characterized by fingerpicking. His lyrics evoked blues poetics and granted him comparisons with romantic poets such as Keats and Shelley; some, in accordance with the themes of the great artistic-philosophical movement of the nineteenth century, dealt with the mystery of the pact with the Devil. In Crossroad Blues, for example, he turned to God asking him for mercy, a salvation from the desperation he was in and which no one around him wanted to grant him.
On the evening of August 13, 1938, however, the musician was presented with the bill to pay for an existence as fascinating as damned (and not just for the alleged sale of his soul). Engaged at the Three forks (together with Sonny Boy Williamson II and David Honeyboy Edwards), he fought with the owner after having an affair with the man’s wife, who endured the betrayal until their attitude became too explicit and embarrassing. During a break, the barman offered his employee an uncorked bottle of whiskey and, precisely for this reason, Sonny Boy warns him not to drink; heedless of this Robert took the next bottle, equally open, and emptied it in annoyance. In a short time, it becomes clear that the whiskey contained something and that its effects made it impossible for the musician to perform, in the throes of confusion and delirium.
He would die after two days of agony, during which it seems that Johnson handed over the guitar to his mother, stating “I don’t want it anymore, I don’t want to have any more of it: now I’m your son, mum, and of the Lord… Yes, of the Lord, no more of the devil”. And he would carry with him the solution of the legend about his obscure talent.