You don't have to poke around in Mississippi long before you find someone
who swears there were only two beings present when Robert Johnson died in
August 1938: Johnson himself and Satan.
"He sold his soul to the devil to get to play like that," fellow musician Son House once said of the mysterious man who influenced the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and many more with such classic recordings as "Crossroads Blues," "Sweet Home Chicago," "Terraplane Blues" and "Love In Vain." Many musician peers of Johnson have maintained that legend as gospel.
Not Johnson's friend David "Honeyboy" Edwards.
Edwards was at the Three Forks roadhouse with Johnson on the night he died. "He got poisoned three miles from Greenwood, Miss.," Edwards told blues historian Pete Welding in 1967. Their conversation (RealAudio excerpt) is now available on a newly released album of Edwards' songs, including "Just Like Jesse James" (RealAudio excerpt), entitled Crawling Kingsnake (Testament/Hightone).
Johnson "was playing for a country dance," recalled Edwards, who was 51 at
the time of the interview. "He was living in Greenwood at the time. And
if a fella give a dance in the country, he come to the city and pick the
boys up, and carry 'em back to the country to play on Friday and Saturday
night. We went out there a couple of times, and the fella said Robert was
messing around with his wife."
Edwards and Johnson first met when they were about 25. On Crawling
Kingsnake he talks about their travels together with rich, everyday
details that are often absent from the Johnson legend: Johnson's appearance
("It looked like he had a cataract in that one bad eye"); his guitar style
("He played a lot of Spanish music, too"); his penchant for spending cash
("He'd throw it away as fast as he'd make it").
According to Edwards, he and Johnson returned to the Three Forks after
Johnson had begun seeing the owner's wife. The angry husband instructed
his friends to offer Johnson whiskey laced with poison.
"I was out there with him the same night," Edwards said. "But I came back
around one o'clock, from out there where Robert was playing. I was with
him the same night he got poisoned. I didn't drink none of the whiskey,
but I don't guess the guy was trying to give it to me. He had it in for
Robert, and his [own] wife, but he still kept Robert to play for him."
Edwards got wind of the news back in Greenwood later that evening. "The
people told me about one o'clock, 'Robert's taken sick while he was
playing.' About two o'clock he got so sick they had to bring him back to
town. And he come back to town and died in Greenwood."
Bruce Bromberg, co-owner of Hightone and a close friend of Welding, said that Edwards' fascinating recollections are the rare accounts of someone who actually witnessed the life that became the legend of Robert Johnson. "It is absolutely alleged by just about everybody that he in fact was there," Bromberg said. "He may not have been at the actual bedside when he died, but he was at the gig with Robert Johnson. They traveled together."
Music scholar Robert Palmer spoke extensively with Edwards for his
classic blues tome Deep Blues. Palmer relied on Edwards' memory not
only for his work on Johnson, but for various chronicles of what life was
like for blues players before World War II.
The songs and interview on Crawling Kingsnake are taken from newly
discovered tapes made by Welding during the 1960s. Welding, who died in
1995, recorded songs and interviews from scores of itinerant blues
musicians for his own Testament label. "He didn't concentrate on the guys
who had the contracts," Bromberg said. "He concentrated on the older guys
who influenced those guys."
In Bromberg's view, it's not only Edwards stories of Johnson that
recall days long gone -- it's also the music itself. "There's no extended
guitar solos. Music was songs then. It wasn't just an excuse to play five
million notes like it's become largely."