Searching for Robert Johnson

The Life and Legend of the "King of the Delta Blues Singers"


By Peter Guralnick

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This highly acclaimed biography from the author of Last Train to Memphis illuminates the extraordinary life of one of the most influential blues singers of all time, the legendary guitarist and songwriter whose music inspired generations of musicians, from Muddy Waters to the Rolling Stones and beyond.
The myth of Robert Johnson’s short life has often overshadowed his music. When he died in 1938 at the age of just twenty-seven, poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman he’d been flirting with at a dance, Johnson had recorded only twenty-nine songs. But those songs would endure as musical touchstones for generations of blues performers. With fresh insights and new information gleaned since its original publication, this brief biographical exploration brilliantly examines both the myth and the music.
Much in the manner of his masterful biographies of Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips, and Sam Cooke, Peter Guralnick here gives readers an insightful, thought-provoking, and deeply felt picture, removing much of the obscurity that once surrounded Johnson without forfeiting any of the mystery. “I finished the book," declared the New York Times Book Review, "feeling that, if only for a brief moment, Robert Johnson had stepped out of the mists.”


WHEN I WAS A FRESHMAN in college, in 1961–62, my most precious possessions were my blues records and a portable stereo phonograph which my mother had uncharacteristically purchased with green stamps. From time to time I read and reread Samuel Charters’ pioneering The Country Blues, published in 1959, for its poetic descriptions of a music that seemed as remote as Kurdistan and destined always to remain so. I had perhaps fifty albums of country blues—Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Furry Lewis—it seemed as if there could scarcely be any more. Names that are as familiar as presidents’ today, touchstones for anyone familiar with the roots of contemporary music, were the exclusive province of collectors then. My friends and I studied the little that was available, attempted to piece together virtually indecipherable lyrics, pored over each precious photograph, constructed a world of experience and feeling from elliptical clues. Of all the figures who beckoned to us from a remote, mysterious, and foreign past—certainly it was a past that was not our own—Robert Johnson stood out, tantalized, really, in a way that no other myth or archetype has ever done. Lightnin’ Hopkins, the first real blues singer I had ever seen live, was, in Charters’ words, “the last of the great blues singers,” but the ethos of Robert Johnson was nowhere near so prosaic. “Almost nothing,” Charters wrote in a chapter that consisted for the most part of song quotes, lyrical tormented quotes, “is known about his life.… He is only a name on a few recordings.… The finest of Robert Johnson’s blues have a brooding sense of torment and despair.… His singing becomes so disturbed it is almost impossible to understand the words. The voice and the guitar rush in an incessant rhythm. As he sings he seems to cry out in a high falsetto voice.”

What could be more appropriate to our sense of romantic mystery than an “emotionally disturbed” poet scarcely able to contain his “brooding sense of torment and despair”? Just as we imagined that Tommy McClennan was mad from the ferocity of his growl, that Blind Willie McTell was the unlikely reincarnation of a latter-day Flying Dutchman with his uncanny ability to turn up in the recording studio at least once in every decade, so Robert Johnson became the personification of the existential blues singer, unencumbered by corporeality or history, a fiercely incandescent spirit who had escaped the bonds of tradition by the sheer thrust of genius. Incredibly, all of this apostrophizing was based solely on Charters’ chapter and one recorded selection, “Preachin’ Blues,” on which Johnson sounded somewhat thin, constricted, and out of control.

That is why I remember so vividly walking into Sam Goody’s on 49th Street in New York, riffling through the blues section with a practiced eye, and discovering to my utter amazement (for there had been no announcement that I knew about; there was no place where you could conceivably read about such things) not one but two altogether unanticipated treasures: Big Joe Williams’ Piney Woods Blues on the Delmar label, and Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers. I held the records in literally trembling fingers, pored over the notes in the store, studied the romantic cover painting of an isolated, featureless Robert Johnson hunched over his guitar, paid the $2.89 or so that a record cost then, and took the subway back to Columbia without making any of my other intended stops. I probably listened to each record half a dozen times that day.

Sometimes I can evoke the breathless rush of feeling that I experienced the first time that I ever really heard Robert Johnson’s music. Sometimes a note will suggest just a hint of the realms of emotion that opened up to me in that moment, the sense of utter wonder, the shattering revelation. I don’t know if it’s possible to re-create this kind of feeling today—not because music of similar excitement doesn’t exist, but because the discovery can no longer take place in such a void. Or perhaps there is someone right now who will come to Robert Johnson, or a contemporary pop star, or a new voice in jazz, or some music as yet wild and unimagined, with the same sense of innocent expectation that caused my friends and me to hold our breath, all unknowing, when we first played Robert Johnson’s songs on the record player. Let me just quote a passage from Rudi Blesh on which an older generation of blues enthusiasts—Mack McCormick, Paul Oliver, probably Sam Charters—was nurtured and which expresses, I think, that same sense of pure romantic surrender. It describes Johnson’s masterful “Hell Hound on My Trail” in words that come close to mocking their meaning and yet evoke that same sense of awe I am trying to suggest.

The voice sings and then—on fateful descending notes—echoes its own phrases or imitates the wind, mournfully and far away, in huh-uh-uh-ummm, subsiding like a moan on the same ominous, downward cadence. The high, sighing guitar notes vanish suddenly into silence as if swept away by cold autumn wind. Plangent, iron chords intermittently walk, like heavy footsteps, on the same descending minor series. The images—the wanderer’s voice and its echoes, the mocking wind running through the guitar strings, and the implacable, slow, pursuing footsteps—are full of evil, surcharged with the terror of one alone among the moving, unseen shapes of the night. Wildly and terribly, the notes paint a dark wasteland, starless, ululant with bitter wind, swept by the chill rain. Over a hilltop trudges a lonely, ragged, bedeviled figure, bent to the wind, with his easy rider held by one arm as it swings from its cord around his neck.

—Shining Trumpets: A History of Jazz, 1946

Or, as Greil Marcus wrote, only a little more deliberately, in his 1975 Mystery Train: “Johnson’s vision was of a world without salvation, redemption or rest.… Johnson’s music is so strong that in certain moods it can make you feel that he is giving you more than you could have bargained for—that there is a place for you in these lines of his.… Johnson’s music changed the way the world looked to me.”

Revisionist blues historians sometimes suggest that Robert Johnson is derivative, that what seemed so startlingly original has in fact clear antecedents, that Johnson comes from a strong Mississippi Delta tradition which encompassed Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson who, because they came earlier, must have been greater. All of this seems strangely beside the point to me when compared to the unabashedly apocalyptic effect of the music, the still startling and contemporary vision, the selective artistry of the work.

Robert Johnson has been a constant presence in my life ever since that first long-playing record—of sides that were originally recorded twenty-five years before that—came out all those years ago. I can no longer listen as fresh and unencumbered as I once did, obviously, but the music retains its freshness, Robert Johnson’s music remains the touchstone against which the achievement of the blues is measured.

The album sold ten or twelve thousand copies in its first ten years of existence, and a second volume came out in 1970 which, while it recapitulated Johnson’s greatness, didn’t really add to it. It showed off the full scope of his work, however; all twenty-nine originals along with one alternate take were now released. Primarily through the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton and their versions of Johnson’s “Love in Vain” and “Crossroads” in particular, the language of Robert Johnson entered into the common vocabulary of rock. It seems unlikely at this point that there are many people with an interest in contemporary music who are not familiar with one or two of Johnson’s tunes—“Dust My Broom,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Stop Breakin’ Down,” “Walkin’ Blues”—even if they are not familiar with their origins.

In addition, new sources of information have sprung up. Johnny Shines, who was discovered by a young white blues audience in 1965 and traveled with Johnson for several years in the thirties, has proved a most articulate guide in his recollections of Johnson and in his arresting recreations of Johnson’s songs. Even more improbably, Mack McCormick, a Houston folklorist, doggedly pursued the most tenuous leads and over a five-year period in the late sixties and early seventies actually unearthed sisters, relatives, children, and photographs of Robert Johnson as well as a death certificate (in fact, found first by Gayle Dean Wardlow) which fixes the date of death as August 16, 1938, in Greenwood, Mississippi. McCormick has gone a long way toward filling the enormous void of knowledge surrounding Johnson’s life and in 1976 announced that he had completed a book, tentatively entitled Biography of a Phantom and structured as a mystery, which I still believe, even after Mack’s 2015 death, will add a great deal to our understanding if and when it is finally published. The lyrics over which we agonized have long since been thoroughly deciphered, annotated, and analyzed, and seem almost laughably accessible today when one thinks of the hours spent in fruitless speculation.

And yet the essential mystery remains: Who was Robert Johnson? He may well be known to have been born and died on certain dates; his relatives may have vivid memories of him; and his work has long since been placed within a context. Like Shakespeare, though, the man remains the mystery. How was one individual, unschooled and seemingly undifferentiated from his fellows by background or preparation, able to create an oeuvre


  • "Combines head and heart [and] seduces you with the flow of a sentence...With a thoroughness that belies his book's slender size, Guralnick traces Johnson's lineage in the history of the Delta blues."—Village Voice

On Sale
Aug 25, 2020
Page Count
96 pages

Peter Guralnick

About the Author

Peter Guralnick’s books include the prize-winning two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love; an acclaimed trilogy on American roots music, Feel Like Going Home, Lost Highway, and Sweet Soul Music; the biographical inquiry Searching for Robert Johnson; and Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. Guralnick won a Grammy for his liner notes for Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, wrote and co-produced the documentary Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, and wrote the scripts for the Grammy-winning documentary Sam Cooke/Legend and Martin Scorsese’s blues documentary Feel Like Going Home. His 2015 book Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll was a finalist for the Plutarch Award for Best Biography of the Year, awarded by the Biographers International Organization. His most recent book is Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing.



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