Podcast Episode: The Fight Inside: The Crossroads of Robert Johnson (Part 2)
Slowly turning inward, even the man who traveled with Robert Johnson for the last couple years of his life, knew little about him.
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What a fascinating human being. Robert Johnson didn't live a long life, but he lived a full one for his years. Amazingly, researchers have retraced a large portion of his life and books released in the last 2 years have shown a bright light on who Robert the man was, rather than the legend.
In this episode, I will tell the story of that man. From the day he went searching for his father, to the uncovering of myths, and his families quest to bring him peace.
Enjoy the finally to the story of Robert Leroy Johnson.
- His duplicity
- The hunt for the real Robert Johnson
- The mysterious mentor
- The second crossroad
- A seminal moment
- Robert turns his back
- Ramblin' man
- The one and only
- Making records
- R.L. in New York
- Never say goodbye
- The death of Robert Johnson
- At peace
"Waiting For a Train" by Jimmie Rodgers is in the public domain.
The crowded streets, the old friends, western movies at the Palace, listening to Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers (especially “Waiting on a Train”), and the sounds of WSM Radio, soaking up plenty of food for his never ending hunger, and taking his guitar to Handy Park to entertain, make tips, and maybe even entertain some children on the way home.
This was life for Robert Johnson in Memphis. Playing music with Charles Jr. in Handy Park. Reading the paper in Church’s park. Hearing stories about the gambling around town, from playing Policy to shooting dice - something Robert didn’t have for, all because of his love for playing music. He was good enough that soon he was being ushered in through the backdoors of white establishments so they could hear him play.
It’s not surprising that he had so many nicknames. There truly seemed to be more than one Robert Johnson. And as confusing as he can be to researchers, he seemed to be just as confusing to himself.
Robert wasn’t a fighter but he never avoided a fight, and actually picked a few. At 5’8” and 140 pounds soaking wet, it probably didn’t seem like he’d hold up long. But he took plenty of beatings by his stepfather Dusty. And later in life Johnny Shines, his long time travel companion said enough time with the bottle and Robert could definitely stir up trouble, and by the end of the battle, you’d know you’d been in a fight.
Robert’s life turned upside down when Julia took him away from Charles Spencer and the family he had grown up with. But Robert loved his mother and she loved him. He always came back to her.
But Robert’s relationship with women evolved as he met several crossroads along the way. The first being the loss of his 15 year old wife Virginia and their unborn baby. Robert had seemed loose and fancy free with the ladies before then, and so it shocked the community when he not only decided to settle down with her but he also took up sharecropping (something he had fought against for years).
Her death and the scorn her family dished out to him when they accused him of playing the devil’s music while his wife and child died, made a change in him. And it went beyond the increased drinking and cursing of religion - it also apparently made him start questioning who he was. Having recently discovered that the man who raised him, Charles Spencer wasn’t his real father it made him start questioning who he really was.
And so he felt the only way to get to know Robert Johnson was to go find the father he never knew in southern Mississippi. Willie Brown’s mentoring, the performances with Willie Moore, and his life in Robinsonville would have to wait. He picked up his guitar and started making his way down Highway 61 to his birthplace - Hazlehurst.
THE HUNT FOR ROBERT JOHNSON
What Robert found was less than a ghost. He scoured the area asking anyone he could find, did they know Noah Johnson? Nobody had heard of him. It’s like he just vanished completely from the record books. Even seasoned historians digging through census records have not been able to locate him, so Robert’s efforts would end in frustrating disappointment.
To survive so far away from home, Robert would perform in the afternoon on the street all the while promoting where he would be playing that night.
Then one day he happened by a loud and boisterous country juke. He was impressed by the music he was hearing and when stepped inside, he was mesmerized by the performance of the man on stage. Who was this man? He was playing in a way Robert had never heard before. He went up to talk to the man between sets and the two found a common language - music. Next thing you know, Robert started lodging in the man’s house.
THE MYSTERIOUS MENTOR
Not much is known about Ike Zinnerman. He was a regionally known bluesman, who was born in Alabama, but loved the Delta blues. He had developed a bit of a legend himself. It seems that he liked to play guitar at night in the cemetery and wasn’t shy about saying he was playing to the haints (or ghosts). But according to his daughter, it was more likely that this was just a quiet place to play.
Robert wanted to learn from Ike and Ike obliged. They played in the little shotgun shack and they went out at night to sit opposite each other atop tombstones at Beauregard Memorial Cemetery. Ike was masterful at the finger picking and playing a bottleneck slide.
The little shack was filled with life. 7 children, a wife, and 2 blues men. And Ike’s daughter Loretha said Robert fit right in. She thought he was family. Robert learned quickly and after a while, according to Loretha, the two seemed to be locked in competition.
Now even though Ike played what they called the “devil’s music” he was not one to like trouble. Loretha said he liked things simple and he wouldn’t mess with anyone that wasn’t a good person. Robert, or R.L. as people knew him around Hazlehurst was on his best behavior, playing children’s songs when he was around Ike’s children and living life as a dedicated student.
THE SECOND CROSS ROAD EVOLVES
Robert Johnson and Ike Zinnerman must have been an amazing duo to hear and they honed their performances at jukes, lumber camps, and house parties. At one of these events Robert would meet Virgie Jane Smith, who would light a lustful fire in his heart. The two became inseparable as Robert aggressively pursued her. The relationship was both emotional and physical for Robert, but it appeared to be only physical for Vergie. A friend would later confide that she and her boyfriend would have sex in the woods at the same time Vergie and Robert were going at it. And all of the physical activity would lead to Vergie becoming pregnant.
And Robert again was ready for a family. He would ask her to come with him to Memphis so they could raise their child together, but she didn’t want to go. Frustrated he immediately began courting a much older woman, Callie Craft and within days, they were married.
What Robert’s plan was is hard to figure, because having a new bride didn’t stop Robert from continuing to pursue Vergie. Again he asked her to run away with him. Even after Robert and Callie went on their honeymoon in Vicksburg, Robert had to return to Hazlehurst one more time to see if she would come north. But Virgie had no wish to head north with a married man and her parents would never approve of her being around someone who played the devil’s music.
Again that term was burning heavily in his ears and his mind. Everyone was blaming his music and he had no power to change their minds.
Callie fell for Robert and went with him and settled with her 2 children in Clarksdale. But Robert was just going through the motions. He was still in love with Virgie. When Callie started having health problems, Robert would start disappearing more and more, likely off playing jukes. And soon he abandoned her all together. She would pass away soon after that.
Robert would make a couple of attempts to go see his newly born son Claud and woo Vergie a couple more times. The last time he saw her, he gave $50. Later he was told she remarried and he told a relative he’d never go back.
A SEMINAL MOMENT
Having left over a year before, it was now time to rejoin the music scene in Robinsonville. Tagging along was his new found friend and mentor Ike Zinnerman. Ike was actually there at the Oil Mill Quarters juke joint the night Robert walked in to show what he had learned to Son House and Willie Brown.
Robert had lived a whole lifetime in that year away, but Son couldn’t have known that. He said “little Robert, you still got a guitar? What do you do with that thing? Can’t do nothin’ with it.” To which Robert said “let me have your seat for a minute.” It was more than a minute. After both Willie Brown and Son House picked their jaws up off the floor, Robert shown his mastery of the instrument and had taken Son House’s seat for good.
It’s very possible that Son House’s comments about Robert Johnson’s bad playing and remarkable transformation were based on competitiveness, and his later comments about Robert selling his soul to the devil, may have been out of frustration for Robert taking his seat.
But the more likely reason is because when Son first met Robert, Robert was a folk blues player while Son House played a more raunchy blues. It’s very possible the crowd was unsettled when Robert played a less gritty form of blues during the breaks. It wasn’t that he was bad necessarily, but that he was just outmatched for what the crowd was expecting.
Whatever it was, Son knew that Robert had turned a corner and in the coming weeks, he would warn the young man about his passion for women and booze. He would say, don’t go too far with the wrong woman.
ROBERT TURNS HIS BACK
By 1934, Robert was bouncing from juke to juke through the Delta, but still made frequent trips up to Memphis to see the Spencer family. Yet Hattiesburg, MS also drew him in. It was the perfect spot to ride the rails south to Gulfport where he could get bonded whiskey right off the boat, or north to Jackson. Whiskey and womanizing were becoming a larger part of his existence and his blasphemous talk when he overindulged never seemed to fade.
The Jackson music scene was filling up with talent and at some point R.L. crossed paths with another guitarist named Johnnie Temple and the two would start trading techniques. Johnnie loved the way Robert would play a boogie shuffle and mix in bass notes like a piano player. Robert helped him learn the technique and Johnnie would get a record deal in 1935 and would use the boogie bass in his song “Lead Pencil Blues.” Johnnie never shied away from giving Robert credit for teaching him the style. But Robert had missed his big chance to unveil it to the world and it is from this point forward that rumors of Robert’s shyness on stage would start.
It wasn’t shyness. Robert played juke joints where you had to engage with the audience and he was said to be great at it. But he became very guarded about other players watching his fingers and began shying away if they started staring too close.
The release of King of the Delta Blues Singers Volume 2, Robert is seen sitting in a corner with a microphone at the wall while he plays facing the corner. Some said this was a technique to get a sound, others brought up the shy aspect. But during Robert’s recording sessions, the sound tells the tale, he played out into the room.
So did Robert Johnson every mentor another player? He did. A year before Johnnie’s record release Robert began mentoring young Robert Lockwood Jr. Lockwood had not been a fan of the guitar and saw it as a limited instrument, until Johnson’s playing showed him it could be just as versatile as a piano. The two would play together for a time, until an incident where Robert was almost run over by a car in Tutwiler, sent the two in opposite directions.
Life on the road for Robert consisted of plenty of women and whiskey. He wasn’t choosy about his women, he took them anyway they came. His favorite bourbons were Ten High, Dixie Dew, Old Taylor and Old Grand Dad - he loved his bourbon.
He would set up a performance by day, playing in the street, collecting tips and announcing where he was playing that night. At night, the money paid for the gig usually wasn’t much. The tips are where you made your money.
This need for tips is likely why Robert learned and played a lot of pop songs and songs from different styles.
It is thought that Robert had a photographic memory. He seemed to be able to pick up a song instantly, no matter the style. And his ability to play these different genres likely came from his youth, when his family was just as eager to listen to WSM and the Grand Ole Opry as they were to listening to jazz, or blues musicians. Memphis exposed him all the best that was available. Robert even knew polka’s and would play at an Italian wedding towards the end of his career.
Robert spent most of these rambling years traveling with a young and eager musician named Johnny Shines. Johnny would shadow Robert for his remaining days on the road. But as close as Johnny seemed to be to Robert, Robert never talked to Johnny about his life, and very little about music. In fact, Johnny thought Robert was illiterate and was shocked when he saw his beautiful penmanship years later.
THE ONE AND ONLY
If you had the pleasure of watching Robert in the juke joints, then you heard a man who could easily fill your ears with music. Early on Robert would play with other musicians, but after a while, his ability to make a guitar fill a sound space like a piano, there was no reason for another player. And this made him unique.
Beyond the influences of Ike Zinnerman and those days of playing boogie woogie bass with Son in Memphis, Robert had very long fingers. This allowed him to easily reach notes others couldn’t. Eric Clapton later admitted he never played a Robert Johnson tune note-for-note, he always had someone accompany him. And it wasn’t just the dexterity, it was the ability to make those fingers do unique and difficult techniques.
But there were also the highly personal songs Johnson wrote. Sure he played a lot of crowd pleasers for tips, but his other songs could move a crowd. What Johnson wasn’t saying to people like Johnny Shines was coming through in his music. And maybe that is why he is so misunderstood. Lyrics aren’t always straightforward and are easily left to interpretation.
When Eric Clapton and Cream performed Crossroads, which was basically Johnson’s Cross Road Blues with the addition of another new verse pulled from another Johnson composition, Traveling Riverside Blues, it actually shifted the song into something that could open the door to the sold my soul to the devil narrative. The new verse says he’s “going down to Rosedale” and taking a rider by his side. Who was the rider? Was it the spirit of the devil?
And so with a simple addition, the 60s generation who never heard the original, picked up a whole new meaning. An artist’s composition is a fragile thing.
There was a music and record store in Jackson, Mississippi along North Farish Street owned by a talent scout named H.C. Speir. The Spier Phonograph Company was the only place between Memphis and New Orleans where a musician could cut a record.
Robert had only cut one song in his life and that was in Memphis. A single disk that Robert used to show how he played. It eventually wore out.
But he wanted to do more than just make a single piece of vinyl, so he went in to audition for H.C. Speir who was impressed enough to cut a test recording of “Kind Hearted Woman Blues.” He asked for Robert’s home address, to which he gave them the Spencer’s address in Memphis and he waited to hear if he would get a chance to go to New York to record.
Back in Memphis, Robert played “back door man” at some of the white establishments, but mostly he played house parties, rent parties, fish frys, barbecues, and take his guitar down to Handy Park and alone or with Son would ask “what’s your pleasure?” He started getting friendly with a girl named Bernese West at Friendly’s Cafe where he would also be seen picking his guitar. She may be the mysterious Bernese in his song Walkin’ Blues.
Finally the message came through, Robert wasn’t going to New York, but instead to San Antonio, Texas to record his songs. Showing the frustrating racial issues that still flowed through the Jim Crow south, Robert was asked by the white couple who would take them to San Antonio, to be their driver - it would cause less questions. Robert also wasn’t too happy when he was told he wasn’t able to enter the front door of the recording studio and that he would have to be ushered in the back.
The third issue happened when Robert, a definite night owl, went out through the San Antonio streets with his guitar, looking for a place to play. But Texas was in the middle of its Centennial Celebration and the police were rounding up people they considered vagrants. Johnson, whose hotel room had been provided by the record company, told a policeman he wasn’t a vagrant. He was roughed up and his guitar was smashed to pieces. He was forced to call Don Law, the man heading the sessions, and ask him to tell the officers he was there to make a record. Law was able to get him released. The next day, Johnson would play his first 16 records on a borrowed guitar.
The recording session would go on and off for a week. Johnson would play a test version for timing, then he’d record a first version, and then a second version. The second version was just in case something happened to the first. Most artists varied their versions between takes, but many of Johnson’s recordings were similar. After a week’s work, he received $25 cash for each of his songs.
After the sessions, he would go back to live with Julia and Dusty. It seems he had made his peace with his step-father. He started courting Willie Mae Holmes. With the regional success of one of his songs Terraplane Blues, he was invited to a second recording session, this time in Dallas. He asked Willie Mae to come along, but she declined. When he left, he promised he would immortalize her in a song. That song would be the second to last that he would record - Love In Vain.
Terraplane Blues would sell by some estimates around 10,000 copies, some of those in New York, where a music critic named John Hammond started touting Johnson as a man so good, he made Leadbelly look like a poser.
But Robert’s other records were only having mild success. Big city blues recorded with bands had started taking over the airwaves and jukeboxes.
Robert continued to play around Arkansas, up to St. Louis, and in Memphis - all with Johnny Shines. Johnny though, would never accompany Robert into Mississippi. Mississippi was the most dangerous state to be in for a black person and Johnny used that as his excuse to stay away.
When another Memphis area guitarist Calvin Frazier became involved in a dispute that left two men dead, one being his brother, Robert and Johnny decided to help him escape to Canada. The three men made their way together through St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and into Windsor, Canada where Robert performed some spirituals for a local preacher.
Yes, Robert was a complex man. Even with all of his blaspheming when he drank, he was well acquainted with spirituals and gospel and played those songs his whole life. He was a crowd pleaser and if that’s what you wanted, that is what you got.
After leaving Calvin in Detroit, Johnny and Robert headed for New York City. New York would offer Robert his only chance to play an electric guitar. A store owner in Harlem suggested it to him. But Robert didn’t take to the instrument. He said he couldn’t make it talk, and although he liked the volume, he said carrying an amplifier would be a hindrance to his hobo lifestyle - and that most jukes didn’t have electricity.
He never bumped into his champion John Hammond. He did try to get on the Major Bows program, an amateur hour radio program that had featured a young Sinatra before he got his big break. But with thousands of potentials vying every week, he didn’t have a chance.
NEVER SAY GOODBYE
He seemed to be trying to shake Johnny Shines as they made their way home. He kept disappearing. Johnny would later say that Robert never liked to say goodbye. Robert returned to Memphis to find that his record label had been sold to Columbia Records, and that the new label wasn’t eager to get him back in the studio.
The trip had taken its toll on Robert and he started complaining of chest and stomach pains. His sister Carrie urged him to see a doctor.
The diagnosis? Robert not only had an ulcer, but esophageal veraseas. Both were dangerous conditions and Robert was told he needed to stop drinking.
On a warm night June 22nd 1938, Julia and Dusty made their way up to Memphis for the most anticipated event of the summer. It was a rematch of the Joe Louis / Max Schmelling heavyweight bout. For African-Americans, that fight was important on so many fronts. What a statement it would be if Louis could avenge his earlier defeat and retain the heavyweight belt.
Annye said that Robert was a huge Joe Louis fan, and knew full well the impact a win would have. He came dressed in a sharp white suit and was quite the spectacle jumping up and down when the German hit the canvas multiple times in the first round.
Schmelling would note later that while on the way to the hospital and traveling through Harlem, he heard the celebrations and people chanting Joe Louis’ name. He had been soundly defeated in the first round by technical knockout. Joe later admitted that his strategy was to not let the fight get out of the third round. He laid it all on the line from the very start.
Robert and Son stayed up late celebrating and playing music and by the next day, he was off. He would leave Julia and Dusty in Robinsonville. Johnny Shines had already told Robert he wouldn’t be accompanying him to his next destination in Greenwood, MS. His moratorium on visits to that state was still in play. Robert would head south never to see his family again.
THE DEATH OF ROBERT JOHNSON
So how did Robert Johnson really die?
Well, the last week of his life, he was living it up in Greenwood, playing the streets by day and the jukes by night - at least the jukes that weren’t playing his records in lieu of having live performers. He was also making the acquaintance of Beatrice Davis who served drinks at the Three Forks Plantation Store and Juke.
Robert was lodging in an area of Greenwood called Baptist Town, on the side of the tracks where the black people lived. And Beatrice, who was married to R.D. Ralph Davis would tell her husband she was going off to see her sister, but instead would head straight to Robert’s. When her husband caught wind of the affair and knowing Robert had been booked to play the Three Forks for the next two Saturday nights, he decided to act.
On Saturday, August 13th, while his wife wasn’t looking, he put two mothballs into a jar of corn liquor and gave it to Beatrice who had no idea of the plot she was involved in. According to Davis those 2 mothballs contained poison but it was not intended to kill but only make him sick. He had used a colorless odorless poison called passagreen. Passagreen rarely fatal. But Davis had no idea of Robert’s ulcer and problems with his esophagus.
After Robert drank the tainted spirits, most likely the two wounds began to hemorrhage. Robert went from feeling sick to quickly deteriorating. They took him back to his room in Baptist Town. Everyone expected him to improve. But the next day he was bleeding at the mouth and howling in pain. Rather than take him to the hospital, his friend Tosh Hog brought him over to the Star of the Woods plantation, where a relative of Charles Spencer lived. After three days of torture, he would die in Tosh Hog’s shack.
Why didn’t anyone take Robert to the hospital? There was a black hospital in Greenwood.
Tosh contacted Luther Wade, the plantation owner. Likely scared of an investigation over foul play, he said the man died of complications from syphilis, thus creating one of the many theories about his death. Some also believe he died of a condition called Marfan’s Syndrome which can result in abnormally long appendages and can lead to an early death.
His death was not investigated and his death certificate has the reason listed as “no doctor.”
Wanting the man to have a proper burial, Luther called in a local jackleg preacher. Tom Eskridge ended up being the man who toiled in the hot sun digging a hole for the cheap indigent worker’s casket Robert was to be laid in. They wrapped Robert in cloth, the preacher said a few words and Robert’s casket was laid to rest under a pecan tree.
When word finally reached Memphis Carrie, his loving and protective sister took the news really hard. But she gathered herself, got to Julia, Dusty, and Bessie and they headed to Greenwood together. When they arrived, Carrie was frustrated when she learned how her brother had been buried. She contacted the local undertaker and had a proper coffin prepared, summoned an embalmer and the family held a private and proper ceremony and bid a tearful goodbye to their loved one.
He had met many crossroads, but ultimately it was women and whiskey did him in.
Robert Leroy Johnson was gone...he was just 27 years old.
I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore
Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life, LLC
Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush
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I hope you enjoyed the story of Robert Johnson as much as I enjoyed researching and bringing it to you. And next week, I’d say we have a proper setup for my episode about Blues, Juke Joints and Whiskey. I look forward to bringing you some of my surprise discoveries, including my chat with a local DJ named Poe who is helping to bring Mississippi Delta Blues to the world.
And until next time, cheers and slainte mhath
- Best resource: Up Jumped the Devil by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow (Amazon commission)
- Brother Robert by Annye C. Anderson (Amazon commission)
- Tracing the Crossroads Legend by Jim O'Neal (Living Blues Magazine)
- He Sold His Soul to Play the Way He Did by Greil Marcus (New York Times)
- Mississippi Man Named Sole Heir to Blues Legend by Rick Bragg (Chicago Tribune)
- Robert Johnson: New York Times Overlooked Obituary by Reggie Ugwu (New York Times)
- Bluesman's Estate Settles After 62 Years (Save Wealth)
- Language of the Blues: Passagreen (American Blues Scene)
- Wikipedia: Robert Johnson
- Wikipedia: Sonny Boy Williamson II
- ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads (Directed by Brian Oakes) (Netflix)
- Son House talks Robert Johnson (YouTube)
- Honeyboy Edwards: The Robert Johnson Story (YouTube)
- Wikipedia: King of the Delta Blues Singers
- Wikipedia: King of the Delta Blues Singers II
- Biblia: Jeremiah 6:16
- Cross Road Blues by Robert Johnson (YouTube)
- Paul Merry Blues: Meet Robert Johnson
- Music Radar Eric Clapton Interview