Times are gone for honest men

I’ve become obsessed with a story. I think about it all the time, though I couldn’t tell you why. A true story, in its own way, though I couldn’t swear to every detail. I’ll tell it the way it was told to me.

A man named Robert Johnson was born in the Mississippi delta in 1911. He was the 11th child of a woman named Julia Dodds, the only child born of a man other than her husband.

He was bounced from home to home in his youth, reviled by his mother’s husband as a sign of her unfaithfulness, spurned by his true father’s family as a child of sin. He was born into evil and desperate times, even by American standards. In Johnson’s day, strange fruit still grew on many a Mississippi tree.

The Depression loomed, remorseless, as though farming cotton beside slave shacks and burned churches wasn’t a hard enough life already. Robert couldn’t abide the life of a farmer, the life of his father, his brothers; he picked up the harmonica and started traveling at sixteen. He never looked back.

Playing on streetcorners, Robert traveled from town to town with several older bluesmen. They survived on tips, playing in converted restaurants and jukejoints packed with the poor and weary. They played for people desperate to forget their troubles for a few hours, dancing and drinking ’til sunrise. At 19, Robert was on the road when his wife went into labor. The birth was difficult; both wife and child died. His wife was 16. Robert came back briefly to bury her near her people, and caught the first train out after the funeral.

This is when things get interesting.

Robert traveled and played with many different musicians during these years. He was solitary, self-contained, alone; the quintessential traveling bluesman, despite his tender years. What he was not, however, was good. In town after town, bar after bar, he was booed off the stage. Son House and the rest of the folks he traveled with agreed he could play harmonica passably, but when Robert picked up a guitar, usually while the other musicians were taking a break, he couldn’t last more than ten minutes without driving the crowd off.

A life of disappointment and difficulty, of poverty and toil, and this was as far as he would come? Sleeping in boxcars, half-starved, unknown?

One night, outside a place called Clarksdale, Robert walked out of a show. Seething, in despair, he walked off into the night and disappeared for three months.

He left the speakeasy and headed for a highway near Dockery’s plantation, guitar in hand. For hours, he waited at a crossroads alone. The July nights in those parts bring no comfort, and this was hotter and more oppressive than most. At midnight, a man approached the crossroads, heading east on the highway. He was the biggest, blackest man Robert had ever seen.

Strange fires burned behind his eyes.

The man, without a word, took Robert’s guitar. He tuned it, silently, handed it back to Robert, and walked off into the dark.

Within the year, Robert was to become the greatest blues guitarist of all time.

He caught up with Son House and the others near the Georgia border. Their little confederation had grown in popularity; several of them had even traveled to Houston to make records. They didn’t think often of young Robert, or where he went. Not until he returned.

Robert climbed up on stage that night and picked out some of the finest blues licks anyone had ever heard. The other musicians watched, awestruck. The women could not help but dance. The men could not help but envy. The sun came up fast on the diner they were playing in, a place called Goldy’s, and no one seemed to notice.

Robert was a phenom. Recorded music was still rare in those days, so musicians seeking to earn a living had to learn the popular songs the people knew from the radio, like walking, talking juke boxes. For the others he traveled with, keeping up with the current hits was a never-ending struggle. Robert, though… Robert could play any song note for note after only hearing it once. Robert could sing a man to tears or strum a woman to frenzy. Robert never practiced.

Suddenly, quiet, sulky, polite Robert Johnson could play. He could play like no man. He played like the devil himself.

Johnson traveled widely, going north as far New York City and west as far as Dallas. He lived on the road; Musicians like Johnny Shines would find Robert shacked up with a woman in a small town and tell him they were heading out. In minutes Robert would be on his feet and out the door without a second thought, any time of day.

Robert always arrived with his suit clean and pressed, despite the dust of the road. He could play all night and travel all day, drink himself blind and be back on his feet in an hour. He could do things on the guitar no other man could. It all came at a cost, however. As it always does.

His blues got darker and darker. While the other musicians would be wailing out bawdy songs about fast women and dangerous living, Johnson sang about fear, about fire. If other musicians were watching him play, Robert would turn his back to them, afraid they’d see something in his eyes or in his playing they knew was… out of place. He lived his life looking back over his shoulder, terrified of what might follow him from town to town.

In 1936, Robert traveled to Texas at the behest of a talent scout for Brunswick Records. He recorded an album’s worth of songs in two days, then headed out to Arkansas. This is the only recording Robert Johnson, the King of the Delta Blues, ever made, and he was paid four hundred dollars for it.

About a year and a half later, Robert was playing a country dance about thirty miles from Greenwood, in Mississippi. As he had in a hundred other towns, he stayed with a woman he met his first night in town. Unfortunately for Robert, this particular woman was married to the man who owned the jukejoint. On August 16th, 1938, Robert played his last show. His friend and fellow musician Sonny Williams was playing the dance with him, and noticed Robert start to do something very unlike him – make mistakes. He began to look bad, fearfully ill, but refused to stop playing. The night dragged on, and Johnson got sicker and sicker. He kept drinking, playing despite a cracking voice and shaking hands, but just before sunrise he fell off the stage, vomiting blood and whiskey, convulsing.

The barman, whose unfaithful wife screamed and ran to Johnson’s aid, picked up the half-empty bottle of poisoned whiskey he had given Johnson. He poured the rest of it over Johnson’s flailing body, cursing him, before Johnson’s friends pulled him away. So it was that Robert Johnson, screaming and begging with his last breath, crawled out the front door and died in the Mississippi dust.

The greatest blues musician that ever lived was buried the next day in an unmarked grave at the edge of a cotton plantation. None of his fellow musicians stayed for the burial, having (rightly) fled the moment someone called the police. In fact, no one but the preacher and the gravedigger came that day. As the sun went down, though, a large and dark man showed up at Robert’s fresh grave, presumably to collect what was his.

———-

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