As legend has it, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, who gave him
the power of the blues in return.
Apparently, it was a deal that worked out well for the music legend. Sixty
years after the fabled bluesman's death, they'll be playing his music and
talking about his life at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"Hellhound on My Trail: Robert Johnson and the Blues" runs Thursday
through Sunday in Cleveland, with a series of performances, films and
lectures culminating in a conference at that city's Case Western Reserve
on Saturday. The event is the third installment of the Hall's annual
"We wanted to do a blues artist, and when you think of the blues and its
impact on rock 'n' roll and American culture, you think of Robert Johnson,"
said Robert Santelli, the Hall's director of education and the executive
producer of the "American Music Masters Series."
Johnson lived only 37 years and recorded only 29 songs, but few other
figures have had such a dramatic impact on popular music. From Chicago
Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf to British rockers such as Eric Clapton
and the Rolling Stones, musicians have been influenced by Johnson songs
"Crossroads" and "Love in Vain." His influence can be heard today in
artists as disparate as R&B jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, country bluesman
Chris Whitley, acoustic funk artists G. Love & Special Sauce and even
rappers Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
The "American Music Masters Series," which has previously paid tribute to
Woody Guthrie and country musician Jimmie Rodgers, is held to honor one of
the Hall of Fame's "Early Influence" inductees. Johnson was elected in
1986, the Hall's inaugural year, along with Rodgers and rhythm & blues
singer Jimmy Yancey.
The conference will feature writers and historians, including Peter
Guralnick, author of "Searching for Robert Johnson," and Robert Gordon,
author of "It Came From Memphis," a look at that city's unheralded
musicians. Three concerts -- held Thursday, Saturday and Sunday -- feature
lineups that illustrate the extent of Johnson's influence: blues elders
Robert Lockwood Jr. (Johnson's stepson) and Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards, the
Allman Brothers, G. Love, Whitley, Wilson, Keb' Mo', former Grateful
Dead guitarist Bob Weir and Dead affiliate Rob Wasserman.
After two consecutive years focusing on white artists, Santelli said the
Hall also made a conscious effort to select a black performer.
"Our basic definition of rock 'n' roll is black and white music coming
together, and black and white culture coming together," he said. "Next, we
need to make sure we select a woman."
Guralnick said that Johnson's importance stems from the fact that, though
he worked within a musical tradition, he created a unique body of work
that's unequivocally his own. When pressed for an explanation for Johnson's
unique art, Guralnick said, "you can never explain genius."
Writers and musicians have been trying to explain Johnson's genius since
Columbia Records released King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 1 in
The album brought Johnson to the attention of young rock artists, from
folk-rock legend Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones and Keith
The details of Johnson's life were sketchy, but his contemporaries recalled
that the skinny Mississippi kid who couldn't play a lick vanished for a few
years then returned with a singing- and guitar-playing style that blew
everyone else away. Thus rose the legend, repeated from blues greats such
as Son House through rock critics, including (Addicted To Noise
columnist) Greil Marcus, that Johnson had sold his soul to the devil.
"That mythology is wholly irrelevant," Guralnick said. "It makes him more
attractive to a certain audience, a mainstream audience."
Ed Komara, director of the blues archives at the University of Mississippi
in Oxford, Miss., agreed, saying it's a shame that the myth has overtaken
discussion of Johnson's musical contributions. "What you hear Johnson doing
on records took him eight to 10 years of hard practice. But he makes it sound
so simple. It really is amazing that he had enough practice and dexterity
and talent to pull these things off."
Komara has worked recently to help decipher some of the technical mysteries
of Johnson's music, comparing his songs with the work of earlier singers to
show that Johnson was more derivative than he's often portrayed. He doesn't
feel that his comparisons detract from Johnson's genius, though, he said.
"He was a very self-disciplined and skillful musician," Komara said. "He
had a way to match lyrics to a melody that would render it indelible.
'Hellhound On My Trail' sounds kind-of dopey when you read it, but
Johnson's singing burns it into your memory."
The circumstances surrounding Johnson's death were as mysterious as the
he learned to play the guitar. Depending on whom you believe, the story went
that Johnson was poisoned by a jealous husband or girlfriend; some
recollections had him on all fours, barking like a dog before he died. For
his part, Komara said he agreed with an account by the Mississippi Bureau
of Vital Statistics, which quotes a plantation owner who said Johnson
probably died of syphilis, likely contracted at conception from one of his
Santelli said the conference will explore every aspect of Johnson's life in
detail. "Myth is very important to the history of rock 'n' roll, and to
deny the importance of myth is wrong," he said. "Still, we hope to
delineate between myth and reality."