For Part One of The Gibson Interview, click here.
The legend of Robert Johnson nearly equals his musical legacy in terms of social pervasiveness. Even casual fans of the blues know the story of the guitar player who met the devil at the crossroads and promised his soul in exchange for virtuosity on the instrument.
The Robert Johnson legend is a topic that his grandson, Steven Johnson, has researched extensively. With his unique position as a descendant of the famed blues player, he has had access to artists and family members who knew Robert Johnson. Their insight, as well as historical records, has helped Johnson uncover what he believes is the truth behind the legend.
When did you become aware of the legend of your grandfather? Both the fact that he was a famous bluesman, but also that there is an entire mythology or legend around him. The “Crossroads” thing.
O.K., well actually, I first knew that my granddad was a bluesman when I was, like, 15 years old. My grandmother told me. She was married to another man at the time named Marshall Cain, but it wasn’t until I was like 14 or 15 that I found out that Marshall Cain wasn’t really my grandfather.
Did you know who Robert Johnson was at the time?
Well, no I didn’t. I had never heard of him until my grandmother told me about him, then. She said, “You know, Steven, your granddad—your real granddad—was a blues singer.” I thought, well, “Really?” So she told me that and it wasn’t until they actually started researching—people from Holland and overseas started coming to the United States and were researching information about my granddad [that I started to understand his importance]. I ended up in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, which was his birthplace. I went to the courthouse. It wasn’t until these types of events started happening that we began to realize the magnitude of the life of Robert Johnson. So it opened up a whole new world for us from that point on.
You are a religious man. What do make of the legend...the devil at the crossroads stuff? Where does that come from?
O.K., here we go...ha ha! Well, first of all, I will say that from being the religious man that I am, that no one can sell their soul to the devil. Because number one, we don’t own our souls. Our souls belong to God. Now, we have a choice of what kind of lifestyle we choose to live. If we choose to live a lifestyle that isn't pleasing to God, we didn’t sell out; it was just our choice. Our choice will determine our destiny. Now I'm done preachin'. (laughs) I'll get back, so...
I never believed the concept that he sold his soul, but I was beginning to wonder why they would say it. So after researching and listening to stories… We actually have a professor at the University of Michigan, that has done extensive study of Robert Johnson and the history of the blues, named Dr. Bruce Compton. I began to talk to him about it and come to find out, when my grandfather first started playing the blues, according to other people, he couldn’t even hold a tune. You know what I’m saying? “Couldn’t hold a tune in a bucket” is what they said, but he loved to play. So between 1930 and 1932, he left the Delta. You know, Charlie Patton and Willie Brown and those guys used to run him away. He would see them playing in the juke joint. He would be on the steps trying to do what they were doing—and sounding terrible.
So he finally left the Delta from 1930-1932. The reason he left the Delta was to come back to Hazlehurst. He was searching for his birth father, Mr. Noah Johnson. He wanted that relationship. See how Robert Johnson's cycle is going from his dad to my dad? You know, both of them were searching for and wanted to have a relationship with their dad.
So Robert Johnson came back to Hazlehurst because he wanted to find his real birth dad, Noah Johnson. Well, in the process of searching for Noah Johnson, he hooked up with a blues guy named Ike Zimmerman. Ike Zimmerman was from Beauregard, Mississippi, which is about 6 or 7 miles south of where Hazlehurst is. Ike was a master. He was a master in his art. He wasn’t well known, because he was what I call a humble person. He didn’t want to be known too much or brag on himself or anything. But Robert saw a lot in Ike. He began to… He hung with Ike so much that Ike’s children began to say, “Is he our brother?” Because he was at their house all the time.
They had a cemetery right across from Ike’s house and they would go out there and practice. His daughter, we had a chance to talk to her and she said her dad told Robert, “You can play as loud as you want out in this cemetery. Ain’t nobody going to bother you.” You know what I’m sayin’? (laughs) “You ain’t going to have no naysayers out here.” So they would practice in the cemetery. They would perform on the courthouse steps there in Hazlehurst and juke joints for a period of about two years… a year and a half or two.
Then Robert went back to the Delta. I’m talkin’ ’bout he was sharp. He was sharp on the guitar. And the first time those guys that ran him away heard him, man! “You’re here outplayin’ us? Where did you get that from? You were so bad you must have sold your soul to the devil to learn how to play like that.” And he was like, “If that’s what you want to believe, so be it.” But it’s my honest belief that it was from hard practice, performing in different juke joints around here in the Copiah County area that made him become masterful at his skill. He just fine-tuned it when he went back to the Delta.
His work is so important worldwide—particularly in England with all those guys who came up in the ’60s. Have you had any of those musicians approach you and talk about how important your grandfather was to them?
I actually met with Eric Clapton. We had a chance to meet with him in Dallas at the Crossroads Festival. It was when he released his CD, Me and Mr. Johnson. He invited me and the family down and he told my dad and my family, my brother, that if it wasn’t for Robert Johnson, there wouldn’t be an Eric Clapton. He said that Robert was the driving force for him doing what he does.
I also talked to B.B. King. He was doing a seminar at the Mississippi Valley State University, which he does every summer with the kids, you know. He said, “Son, your granddaddy is the blues. You know, they call me the ‘King of the Blues,’ but there’s not but one real king and that was your granddaddy. I pattern what I do from the life that he lived in music and the legend that he left behind.”
So those two guys, along with Mr. [Robert, Jr.] Lockwood and Honeyboy [Edwards].
Then when you come to the younger generation, I haven’t talked to them, but take guys like John Mayer; he just released another version of the song, “Cross Road Blues,” which was nominated for a Grammy, by the way. He talked about how he became a Robert Johnson fan. The music and the legend that Robert Johnson has left behind has made a significant impact on all generations and we are trying to keep that legend alive with the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation.
What do you suppose it is about Robert Johnson’s music that continues to have power 100 years after his birth?
It touched people, because it actually comes from the soul of that person. Music comes from the soul of a person. Take gospel, for instance. O.K., when a person sings a gospel song—which is what I listen to—it’s the words along with the music itself that makes the song. And the blues actually tells a life story. You've got sad blues and happy blues, seductive blues—it has lots of dimensions just like gospel does. That’s another one of my missions is to show that music carries a message. It's the words behind the song that are powerful. The words carry the message, so there you have it.
We did a tour with Rory Block. She is a well-known blues artist in this generation. She did all the tunes that my granddaddy recorded. She plays the same style, as close to it as you can—’cause there was only one Robert Johnson. She actually says his style of music, and the way he played was really hard. She could get as close to it as possible, but there was only one Robert Johnson. So we did a tour with her, you know, my choir down at the crossroads where she did a blues set, a Robert Johnson set, and then we came back and did the gospel set.
The theme and point we were trying to make was that both styles of music are soulful. One might talk about the hard times and the good times, the other talks about [the idea] that you might be having a hard time, but it tells you how you can escape those hard times. Give it to God and let him handle it.