Robert Johnson is a mythical figure in the history of the blues. The details of his life are sketchy but his versatility and invention make him the most influential blues singer ever.
Robert Johnson is an almost mythical figure in the history of the blues. The chronology of his life is somewhat hazy – we are unsure even of when he was born but it was probably around 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. The circumstances of his death have been much discussed, along with the question of where he was buried, but it is likely he was murdered in 1938 – poisoned – by the jealous husband of a woman Johnson had taken up with. We know the date of some of the recordings he made and we have a legacy of 41 tracks he recorded of just 29 songs. And yet, for all his short life and mediocre recording output, Johnson is probably the most influential of all the Delta bluesmen – undoubtedly because of his inventive, versatile and masterful guitar playing and his energized singing, which included growls, shouts and tuneful falsetto. And, because Johnson was able “to transform the blues into marketable popular music” (Ted Giola).
Johnson was relatively unknown in his own lifetime and for some decades after his death, but after the reissue of his recordings in 1961 on the LP King of the Delta Blues Singers, he became a blues star, admired and popularized by blues and rock performers from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton to Jeff Beck to Jimi Hendrix. Clapton said of Johnson, “At first the music almost repelled me, it was so intense, and this man made no attempt to sugarcoat what he was trying to say, or play. It was hard-core, more than anything I had ever heard. After a few listenings I realized that, on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man’s example would be my life’s work.” In his book Chronicles, Bob Dylan said, “When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor.”
One of Johnson’s most influential songs has been Hellhound on My Trail, recorded in 1937. It was the first song recorded during Johnson’s last recording session in Dallas, Texas on Sunday, June 20, 1937 and the first single released from that session. Inspired by earlier blues songs, it is considered one of Johnson’s “best known and most admired performances—many would say it is his greatest” (Giola).
The theme of the song is a familiar one for bluesmen of the time – “rambling”, never staying too long in one spot:
I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
The theme seems similar at first to another song Johnson recorded, Ramblin’ on My Mind – I got ramblin’, I got ramblin’ on my mind / Hate to leave my baby but you treats me so unkind. Like many of his contemporaries, Johnson was in constant motion, moving from town to town around the Delta and greater Mississippi. And from woman to woman. David “Honeyboy” Edwards said of Johnson, “He loved whiskey and he loved women. That’s two things he was crazy about”. But maybe there’s more to Hellhound than the itinerant bluesman who never likes to stay in one place too long, who is unfaithful to his woman and just wants to catch the next train.
In his book, Seems Like Murder Here, Adam Gussow offers a provocative new understanding of the genesis of the blues. For Gussow, an understanding of the blues starts with the lynchings and violent realities of African American life in the Jim Crow South. Most of us have no appreciation of what it meant to be black, and to be a black man in the early decades of the 20th century in the southern states of the US. African Americans were relegated to the status of second class citizens. They were routinely referred to in newspapers and magazines as niggers, coons, and darkies. Blacks became oppressed, marginalized and made to suffer indignity, poverty and hopelessness, kept down at the bottom by the threat of violence by the authorities or legitimated by them.
Every black child in this period appreciated “the terrible unfairness and narrowness of that world – the limited options, the need to curb ambition, to contain feelings, and to weigh carefully every word, gesture, and movement when in the presence of whites” (Leon Litwack). The injustice took many forms but was built into the fabric of life. It might simply be a matter of being excluded from buses or railroad coaches. The young James Robinson, born in 1907, attempted to get on a bus in Knoxville, Tennessee and was roughly pulled back by a white person who shouted at him, “You damn little darkey, didn’t anybody learn you to stay in your place? You get the hell back there and wait till the white people get on the bus. Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take a mile” (J H Robinson).
But there was an ever present and real threat of violence and the spectre of lynching hung heavily over the black community during this period. Lynching became a means of terrorism of whites towards blacks, used to defend white domination and to intimidate and control blacks. It was usually done by hanging, but also by burning at the stake. By conservative estimates, 3,500 African Americans were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968, mostly from 1882 to 1920. Lynching was widespread and common in the South during the Jim Crow period and blacks lived in terror of their lives because of the capricious nature of lynching. Looking at a white woman the “wrong way” or acting in a way that was perceived “uppity” were sometimes all it took to begin inciting whites to form a lynch mob. Bluesman Skip James said simply, “They’d lynch you in a minute.”
For Gussow, then, it was this threat of violence that helped to generate the blues and accounts for the “ramblin’” of the bluesman. Robert Johnson’s Hellhound, in this context, seems to resonate strongly:
I can tell the wind is risin’, the leaves tremblin’ on the tree
Tremblin’ on the tree
I can tell the wind is risin’, leaves tremblin’ on the tree
Hard to miss the lynching tree in these lyrics, isn’t it? Gussow says that lynching casts “a broad shadow across the blues lyric tradition.” In Johnson’s song, he isn’t just moving around, he’s being pursued – arguably by the blues nightmare, the hellhound, of white violence and lynching.
Mmm, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail.
The daily confrontation with this threat, argues Gussow, gave rise to the blues which were a means of processing and dealing with that threat – speaking back to it in song. We’re beyond the territory of mere loneliness and restlessness here – we’re in the area of people trying desperately to assert their humanity, their being, in the context of a broader society that wanted to proclaim their non-being.
The other way that black people did that, of course, was through their faith. The Bible, like the blues, proclaims life in the midst of death and humanity in the midst of forces of evil that seek to annihilate that humanity. The book of Psalms howls out the blues of the oppressed:
I am distraught by the noise of the enemy
Because of the oppression of the wicked
For they bring trouble against me. Psalm 55. 2-3
But continues to hope for God’s deliverance:
But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish. Psalm 9:18
And then, there’s Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome in the 1st century, themselves poor, some of them destitute, all under pressure:
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow– not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. Romans 8:38
The hellhound might quite literally be on our trail, but we can still proclaim our humanity and still be confident in the encompassing love of God.