“If Robert Johnson had not existed somebody would’ve had to invent him. Johnson the icon is just so prototypically American. It really speaks as much about American mythology as it does about the blues.”
Bruce Conforth, the professor of American culture at the University of Michigan, pretty much nailed it when he said that to the Guardian earlier this month in a story about how he and 48 (!!!) other blues scholars are working to debunk yet another myth about the legendary bluesman. Under scrutiny this time is a two-year-old claim made by the Johnson estate that a photo that surfaced in 2005 captures Johnson (above, left) and his running buddy and musical collaborator Johnny Shines (right). Considering that there are only two confirmed photos of Johnson, the existence of one more image that shows the much-revered yet notoriously mysterious figure would be quite a find.
Which is exactly what New York vintage guitar expert “Zeke” Schein, the man who unearthed this photo, proclaims. As his story goes, back in 2005, Schein was surfing eBay, shopping for old guitars, when he came across an entry for an old photo marketed thusly: “Old Snapshot Blues Guitar BB King???”
Schein didn’t believe it was King. To his eye, the long fingers and lazy eye of the man holding the guitar suggested that this photo was one of Johnson, a discovery that would be like finding the Holy Grail of the Blues. If he was right, it would be a very valuable possession. So he bid more $2,000 for the photo. And he won. After the auction ended, the seller told him they had come into possession of the photo in Atlanta, but that’s the only detail he had to go on. Schein knew nothing of the image’s origins or subjects.
Since then, many scholars have mostly pooh-poohed the veracity of the “third Johnson photo.” That it is until 2013. That’s when it was declared authenticated by former Houston Police Department forensic artist Lois Gibson. This blessing of sorts gave the pic more heft and authority. The April 2015 issue of American Songwriter magazine (above) plastered the photo on its cover with the tagline “The Legacy of Robert Johnson.” Artist Drew Friedman created a “Johnson portrait” based on the image. NotRobert Johnson even comes up as Rolling Stone’s 71st greatest guitarist.
“I would have thought this whole thing was kind of silly were it not the case that this really is starting to surface as a picture of Robert Johnson,” I was told by Elijah Wald, a musician, music historian, and Johnson expert who joined Conforth in signing the article that debunks the claims of authenticity. (Seriously, Wald’s book on the subject, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, is absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants a better understanding of Johnson). “Nobody thinks the photo is [real], which is what’s so funny about it,” Wald continues.
That’s not strictly true. Zeke Schein thinks it’s real, or at least says he does, as does John Kitchens, Claud Johnson’s attorney, who stands by Gibson’s work, citing her most notable laurel: inclusion in the 2005 Guinness Book of World Records as “The World’s Most Successful Forensic Artist.” (Gibson has also claimed to have identified two of the “Three Tramps” of JFK assassination lore as Houston’s suspected Icebox Killer Charles Rogers, and Charles Harrelson, father of Woody and eventual assassin of a federal judge.) To Gibson’s credit, she did leave herself some wiggle room in her official verdict on the photo: “it appears the individual in [Schein’s photo] is Robert Johnson. All the features are consistent if not identical.” (Emphasis mine.) And Schein says several famous people agree with him:
Steve Earle was recently interviewed by Steve DiGiacomo for Billboard and he is on record where he says he believes that this photo is the third picture of Robert Johnson. Jack White had sent me an email … he believes what I found is the same man. Johnny Depp was in the store and he’s a big blues fan and he also said congratulations on the photo. So I guess people who I respect are seeing the same thing I’ve been seeing.
Hogwash, says Wald. Why would any of these people, none of whom ever met Johnson, be in any position to positively ID the man?
Wald says another thing has irritated him about this photo from the day it appeared. “We already have one great and one good picture of Robert Johnson,” he says. “If we are going to start assigning identities to photos of random vintage black musicians, let’s do it for someone we don’t have a picture of, like King Solomon Hill.”
Last year he and Conforth were drawn into examining another contender. “Living Blues had been sent yet another Robert Johnson picture,” he remembers. “This was supposed to have been Robert Johnson and [informal stepson and later a musician] Robert Lockwood. It was simply a picture of two guys in a bar drinking beer and it had been found in a desk drawer in Florida. And my God, the same woman [Lois Gibson] who has identified Johnson in this picture is the same woman who identified Johnson in the other picture. After a few of us stopped laughing so hard, Living Blues abandoned the story and the picture never surfaced.”
For Wald, though, the problems begin with the photo’s shaky provenance. “If this photo had been presented to me by Robert Johnson’s nephew, and he told me my aunt kept this, even though it doesn’t look much to me like Robert Johnson, it would have at least been worth seriously, seriously considering that it might very likely be him. But this is a random photo off eBay of a guy holding a guitar with no strings on it, backwards. C’mon!”
So why is it so important that this photo be Robert Johnson? Why can’t it be some other blues master?
Money, says Wald. Even 77 years after his death, Johnson, who recorded his first 16 songs in San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel and his last 13 at a building at 508 Park Avenue in downtown Dallas, is capable of generating both cash and controversy.
“It’s not about history and it’s not about music,” Wald told the Guardian. “I understand that everyone who finds an old painting in their attic wants to think that it’s a Da Vinci, but we don’t tend to say, ‘Yeah, you could be right!’ If it’s a fact that that is a picture of Robert Johnson then it’s worth a fortune. If it’s of any one of a hundred really, really good singers or guitar players of that generation, it’s not worth anything, and that’s kind of sad.” (Schein still owns the actual photo, but says he has transferred its rights to Claud Johnson, Robert Johnson’s son. It is now in the Getty photo archive.)
So who is in the photo? Wald thinks the man on the left looks more like B.B. King than Johnson. Maybe it is, maybe not. But there’s a lot of evidence that suggests it’s not Johnson. Like the buttons on “Shines’s” suit and the fact that his watch is on his right wrist, indicators that the photo may be reversed, making “Johnson” a lefty, which he was not. (Okay, maybe not until after he went down to the Crossroads and sold his soul to the Devil. More on that later.) Also, some years back, before both men passed away, Schein presented the photo to Robert Lockwood and David “Honeyboy” Edwards and asked them if they could ID the men in the picture. Neither Lockwood—Johnson’s stepson and Shines’s steady musical collaborator—nor Edwards—who knew both Shines and Johnson—recognized the men in the photo. Another expert later declared that NotRobert and Robert have differing earlobes. And finally, then there are the zoot suits, which came in style years after Johnson’s death in 1938.
But why out of all the wonderful and talented prewar blues performers on record, a great many of which were much more popular than Johnson in their lifetimes, does Robert Johnson remain the Chosen One?
Conforth was right about America needing to invent the man, but I would go him a bit further. There is Robert Johnson the man and Robert Johnson the myth.
The real Robert Johnson was born in 1911. He was a first-rate itinerant singer and guitarist who was just starting to come into his own as an innovator when he died at age 27 in 1938. He had absorbed some of Kokomo Arnold’s lyrical and vocal styles, a dollop of Peetie “The Devil’s Son-in Law” Wheatstraw’s badass comic/demonic persona (and a couple of his vocal tics), bits and pieces of the Skip James and Son House performances he’d seen in person, and more commercial pop-blues in the vein of Leroy Carr and Lonnie Johnson than his mythologizers care to admit. According to Johnny Shines, Robert was enamored with Lonnie Johnson, a slick New Orleans-bred guitar master who could and did play everything from gutbucket blues to hepcat jazz to chart-topping white pop tunes. Shines said that in the mistaken belief that Lonnie was a Texan, Robert would tell strangers that he too was a “Texas Johnson” implying that he and Lonnie were kin. Here’s Lonnie Johnson’s rendition of the American songbook’s “Summertime.”
Back to Robert Johnson. He aspired for commercial success and had a modest hit in “Terraplane Blues,” but his other records sold poorly, and his influence on African-American music was small: “Sweet Home Chicago” (which he pretty much lifted from Kokomo Arnold), “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and “Stop Breaking Down” did become standards in the Delta-Chicago blues niche, but it’s important to remember here that it was just that—a niche within African-American music, one farther from the mainstream than the more uptown and far more popular works of Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Lonnie Johnson, and later, T-Bone Walker, Louis Jordan, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, and Bobby “Blue” Bland.
“As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note,” Wald wrote in Escaping the Delta.
And then there’s Johnson the myth, the Robert Johnson who was born on the day Robert Johnson died. This Johnson is the invention of (almost exclusively) white superfans, cynical marketers and overly romantic musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. According to this version, Johnson was, as his first LP described him, “The King of the Delta Blues Singers.” Or as Eric Clapton has put it, “the most important blues musician who ever lived.”
One man, Robert Johnson, stood alone in the Delta, his songs springing forth from his uniquely tortured heart in splendid isolation from all those lesser mortals around him. In sprinkling Satanic messages in a couple of tunes, he was not trying to cash in on a micro-trend within contemporary blues for songs about the devil, as popularized by Peetie Wheatstraw, one of his heroes. No, as Wald put it facetiously in Escaping the Devil, these lines were “the spontaneous heart-cry of a demon-driven folk artist,” and Johnson was stone-cold serious when he sang of walking side by side with the Devil and burying his body down by the highway side so his old evil spirit could catch a Greyhound and ride. Johnson was not singing in metaphors, but believed literally that there were snarling, red-eyed hellhounds snapping at his heels. Commercial success was the least of his concerns: he had real live demons to keep at bay and primitive African-American song-forms to maintain!
All this, because he had cut that deal with the Devil on that warm night at the crossroads, the moon high in the sky, the wind rattling through the cottonfields. He’d given Satan his soul in exchange for a few brief years of guitar mastery, but he’d known all along that, well, there would be hell to pay, and pay dearly he did, when was either poisoned or stabbed or died of pneumonia or syphilis at age 27 in 1938.
The trouble is, there’s not much evidence to support the idea that Johnson believed any of that, or even told anybody that he did, at least not in a serious way. Son House did once tell somebody three decades later that Johnson had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for enhanced guitar chops, but as Wald wrote, “House did not emphasize the point with any seriousness nor did he repeat it whenever he told the story.” (Also, the time between when House saw Johnson struggling on the guitar and his triumphant masterful return was two years, plenty of time for a talented amateur to become adept without consigning one’s soul to hell.)
An old friend named Willie Coffee later told an interviewer Johnson told him that he’d sold his soul but that Coffee saw at just more of his buddy’s characteristic blustering talk. Nobody said anything about any voodoo-tinged midnight crossroads transactions, at least not when it came to Robert Johnson, and Johnny Shines, his closest musical companion ant long-time traveling partner and the other man not picture in the photo at top, scoffed at the very notion. “He never told me that lie, no,” Shines once said. “If he would have, I’d have called him a liar right to his face.”
One of his contemporaries—Mississippi bluesman Tommy Johnson—was another story, at least according to his brother LeDell. Speaking in 1966, long after he himself had set down his guitar and the wicked life it had brought him in favor of a Bible and life as a preacher, LeDell told an interviewer that his brother:
“[He] sold hisself to the devil. I asked him how. He said, ‘If you want to learn to play anything you want to play and learn to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little before midnight that night so you know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself….A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.”
Again, this is in regards to Tommy Johnson, not Robert, to whom the legend has simply been transferred, right down to the smallest detail. And it’s ironic that Tommy was far more successful in his lifetime than Robert ever was.
But not in death. Maybe Tommy Johnson really did make a deal with the devil. This does seem like one of Satan’s finest tricks. Tommy Johnson got to enjoy much more fame and commercial success in his lifetime than Robert ever knew, but Tommy is now a footnote to another man whose posthumous career is based in large part on a misappropriated legend.
The myth props up his recordings with an irresistable backstory, elevating them above all others, and in my opinion, far above their (considerable) artistic merit.
As Wald has pointed out, Johnson’s 29 mostly sides have thrown shade on the vastly larger and more successful careers of slicker musicians such as Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell (to Wald, the most influential of black blues performers within the African-American musical tradition), and also the more haunting (Skip James) and powerful (Son House) music of his youthful inspirations. To my ears, each of these artists sound more like souls in the hand of Old Scratch….
Nope. Today House and James are regarded as secondary talents to their disciple. Perhaps one Johnson fan in four knows their names today, and fewer still know of Tommy Johnson. (Two who do are the Coen Brothers, who correctly attributed the legend to Tommy Johnson in O Brother Where Art Thou, only to have a New York Times reviewer helpfully clarify that this character was a reference to “the real-life bluesman Robert Johnson.” And the Devil hooted another sulfurous belly-laugh at poor Tommy’s expense.)
It’s the kind of legends that marketers dream of, a myth that moves units. It figured prominently in Columbia’s campaign to sell almost 600,000 copies of their box set of his recordings in 1990, and again in 2011, when Sony Legacy released its centennial edition of Johnson’s work.
According to Sony Legacy producer Steve Berkowitz:
“That was always the heart and soul of the marketing plan. We always knew the music was great. But a guy sells his soul to the devil at midnight down at the crossroads, comes back and plays the hell out of the guitar, and then he dies. I mean, it’s a spectacular story.”
That it is. If only it were even a little bit true. And this is a spectacular photo—if only it showed Robert Johnson, even a little bit.
(Photos: Courtesy American Songwriter; Amoeba Music.)