Many people find their way to Johnson through the rock musicians who memorably covered his work. Led Zeppelin added their thunder and swagger to “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Cream, with Clapton playing like the hellhounds weren’t just on his trail but were already attached to his leg, turned “Cross Road Blues” into the hellacious “Crossroads.” And The Rolling Stones located both the sinister soul of “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” (as “Stop Breaking Down”) and the aching heart of “Love In Vain.” Yet if you haven’t yet sought out the antecedents to these tributes, be prepared to be stunned by the visceral punch of Johnson’s originals.
Much of that potency emanates from the wizardry of his guitar work. On “Terraplane Blues,” for example, he effortlessly shifts between rhythmic thrust and melodic counterpoint, coming at the listener from multiple angles until it’s impossible to know what’s coming next. And this was with an acoustic; what might he have done had he plugged in? As Steven Johnson said, “I can just picture in my mind what it would have been like if he got his hands on an electric guitar. Playing an acoustic guitar it sounded like two or three people playing; just imagine what it would have sounded like with an electric guitar.”
Another thing that confronts you when you spin through the Johnson catalog is how incisive his lyrics could be. Like all blues artists, he occasionally borrowed phrases and snippets from other songs in the genre. It was the way he married those borrowings to his own original insights that lent the songs their raw appeal.
Johnson wasn’t afraid to tread the darker corners of the human psyche, places that Tin Pan Alley or Broadway songs, which ruled the roost of popular music at the time of his recordings in 1936 and ’37, would never dare to touch. In “32-20 Blues,” he talks about cutting his woman “half in two” if she doesn’t respond to his entreaties, the kind of violent posturing that was common in blues songs. But he could also reveal his own frailties, like in “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” when he confesses that he’s drawn to “evil” women even as a good one professes her love for him. As a matter of fact, the idea of evil comes up often in those 29 songs as a force with which Johnson easily identifies but against which he’s consistently helpless.
Johnson had a way with colorful phrases, such as “The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby” in “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues.” He could also sting with a metaphor, as when the sorrowful protagonist of “Love In Vain” understands the depths of his predicament: “Well, the blue light was my blues/ And the red light was my mind.” That’s the kind of line that’s beyond the reach of most songwriters even in 2015; that it emanated from Johnson in 1937 is simply astounding.
When you combine the guitar-playing and lyric-writing with Johnson’s vocal versatility, his was a powerful package. He crooned sweetly on “From Four Until Late,” riffed playfully on “They’re Red Hot,” and moaned hauntingly on “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” There was nothing he couldn’t do, and talent like that usually finds a larger audience when given a little time and opportunity. The opportunity was coming, in the form of talent scout John Hammond, who was in the process of seeking out Johnson. But time ran out; he died in 1938.
Some might not see the urgency in preserving a legacy that’s built on the bedrock foundation of those unassailable songs and performances, collected most recently on 2011’s Robert Johnson: The Centennial Collection in honor of his 100th birthday. Yet passing time erodes even the sturdiest of catalogues, especially in an era when music trends more toward the synthetic and disposable every day. And the Crossroads myth, the most obvious hook for audience members that might not have the attention span for even 29 songs, is as distracting as it is enticing.
Yet as concerned as Steven Johnson is about the difficulties in highlighting his grandfather’s life and work for future generations, his familial pride comes to the fore when discussing what it was about Robert Johnson, among his many talents and accomplishments, that stands out the most. “As his grandson I’m most proud of the fact that he was an entrepreneur,” he said. “He was well ahead of his time. He wrote the songs, he performed the songs. He was a businessman about his music. The impact that those 29 songs have made in the music industry, I’m most proud that impact still lives today. And it resonates in the music and the minds of artists today.”
Impact and resonance may not have been what Robert Johnson was after those many years ago when he poured the deep secrets and harrowing torments of his heart and soul out into the microphone. But those intangible concepts assist Johnson’s legacy today as it stubbornly persists and sustains, energized by the indomitability of those 29 songs, even as time, that most savage of hellhounds, continues in relentless pursuit.