He may not have eluded the hellhounds on his trail that he sang about in
the 1930s, but bluesman Robert Johnson -- though dead now more than 60
years -- still manages to elude the grasp of those who, to this day,
pursue an understanding of his talent and why it was so influential.
That it was influential is a point of near-universal agreement.
Legendary rockers Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones are but two of the
myriad artists who have absorbed Johnson's sound and spread it
throughout the rock mainstream.
But even 500 scholars, gathered in Cleveland last weekend for a Rock and
Roll Hall of Fame conference and concert series devoted to Johnson (who
was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986), came up short of conclusive
answers as to what it was about Johnson's music that made it resonate so
"There's something deeper in Johnson's music, something in the lyrics
that you can hear echoing around in Bob Dylan's Highway 61
Revisited or in [hip-hop artists] Eric B. and Rakim's raps. The
conference didn't really touch on that," said audience member Craig
Werner, author of "A Change Is Gonna Come: Black Music and the Soul of
America" (to be released early next year), who sat through some of the
speeches held over the weekend.
What the conference, titled "Hellhound on My Trail: Robert Johnson and
the Blues," didn't touch on in words, however, it communicated in
abundance through music. The Allman Brothers, Joe Louis Walker, Jimmie
Vaughan and former Grateful Dead guitarist/singer Bob Weir were just a
few of the artists who gave life to the spirit of Johnson in three
concerts over the weekend.
The conference, sponsored by the Hall of Fame's education department in
conjunction with Case Western Reserve University, was intended as both a
celebration of Johnson's music and an opportunity to discuss it in a
serious, but non-academic, setting. The conference was the third
installment of the Hall of Fame's "American Music Masters" series.
Johnson, who recorded 29 blues sides in 1936 and 1937, including the
seminal songs "Hellhound on My Trail" (RealAudio excerpt), "Crossroads
Blues" and "Love in Vain" (RealAudio excerpt), has become an icon to
blues and rock players alike.
The details of Johnson's life are sketchy, but his contemporaries
recalled that the skinny Mississippi boy 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 arose a famous
legend, passed down through the ranks of musicians and historians, that
Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for the power of the
For author Peter Guralnick, the keynote speaker at the conference part
of the event, held Saturday, the Devil myth merely illustrates just how
remarkable Johnson's music is. "To say he sold his soul to the Devil is
to pay him the highest compliment possible," Guralnick said. "We're
asking, 'What does he have that I don't?'"
Writers, educators and recording-industry professionals spent the day
discussing and debating Johnson's work and impact. Some demonstrated how
he appropriated other musicians' licks, while others simply reminded the
audiences that other guitar players, such as Son House and Charlie
Patton, are at least as important to blues history.
For their part, the 20-plus artists who performed at the weekend's three
concerts seemed happy to simply play in Johnson's honor, rather than
debate the deeper meaning of his impact.
A concert, held at Cuyahoga Community College last Thursday, was a
tribute to Robert Lockwood Jr., Johnson's stepson and a minor blues
legend in his own right. The evening included performances from bluesmen
Henry Townsend and David 'Honeyboy' Edwards -- both of whom performed
with Johnson in the 1930s -- as well as younger players such as Rory
Block and Alvin Youngblood Hart.
Saturday's performance at the Odeon nightclub featured the weekend's
widest variety of music, from G. Love and Special Sauce's hip-hop blues,
to Govt. Mule's mix of heavy southern rock and soul, to a fiery set of
Chicago blues from Oakland guitarist Joe Louis Walker and Windy City
harp player Billy Branch. Fleetwood Mac co-founder and Hall of Fame
inductee Peter Green, whose psychological problems took him away from
the stage for much of the 1970s and 1980s, played delicate versions of
The evening also featured the weekend's biggest surprise, with
ex-Grateful Dead guitarist/singer Weir coming out in the concert's fifth
hour for a jam on Johnson's "Walking Blues" and Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss
Man." Weir never really looked or sounded comfortable playing straight
blues, but the crowd was clearly thrilled at his presence.
Sunday night's concert was billed as the weekend's high point, and it
certainly featured the biggest names. Lockwood opened the show, followed
by jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. Jimmie Vaughan laid down some Texas
bar-band blues, while Keb' Mo offered an updated version of Johnson's
own Delta sound. Former Jefferson Airplane guitar great Jorma Kaukonen
played two acoustic numbers; Weir unveiled a new composition with former
Dead lyricist Rob Wasserman and also played the Dead's "Victim or the
The evening ended with an hour-long set by Southern-rockers the Allman
Brothers Band, who began with a half-dozen acoustic numbers before
tearing into blistering versions of their classics, culminating in a
lengthy jam on their hit version of Sonny Boy Williamson's "One Way
Out." The Allmans were joined by Kaukonen and Weir, ending the evening
with members of three Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees onstage.
The Allmans' long set, along with the sizable audience of Deadheads
excited to see one of their heroes, perhaps took the focus off Johnson,
leaving concert-goers with some great music but -- again -- little sense
of his particular legacy.
For Peter Green, though, Johnson's appeal is both simpler and more
complex than any critical analysis can reveal. "It's the reality of it,
isn't it?," Green asked. "It's just so real. People will be listening to
it in a thousand years."