ME & MR. JOHNSON: Eric Clapton CD Honors Robert Johnson

   "It is a remarkable thing to have been driven and influenced all of my life by the work of one man," Clapton says. "And even though I accept that it has always been the keystone of my musical foundation, I still would not regard it as an obsession; instead, I prefer to think of it as a landmark that I navigate by, whenever I feel myself going adrift. I am talking, of course, about the work of Robert Johnson.  Now, after all these years, his music is like my oldest friend, always in the back of my head, and on the horizon. It is the finest music I have ever heard. I have always trusted its purity, and I always will."


    The 50 entries into the second annual Library of Congress' National Recording Registry have been selected and along with Johnny Cash's legendary concert album At Folsom Prison and the Beatles classic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band are the complete recordings of Robert Johnson. The inductees are selected by Librarian of Congress’ James H. Billington for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant," and must be at least ten-years old.


    Patricia R. Schroeder's Robert Johnson, Mythmaking and Contemporary American Culture (from University of Illinois Press in July 2004), traces the persistence of Johnson's image in the culture at large, from postage stamps to novels, plays and film. Johnson's myth, it suggests, is truly larger than his life.


    On March 7, 2001, the "Songs of the Century," a list compiled by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts, was released and Robert Johnson's CROSS ROAD BLUES came in at 342.


    After a long legal battle with other relatives, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that  Claud Johnson, a 68-year-old retired gravel truck driver, is the legal son and heir of Robert Johnson. Though Robert Johnson died penniless, it has been reported that his son has inherited more than $1.2 million in royalties collected over the years. "All my life I have known that he was my father," said Claud, whose mother, the deceased Virgie Jane Smith Cain, had a one time encounter with Johnson on a country roadside in 1931, resulting in his birth. This event was witnessed by her childhood friend Eula Mae Williams.

  1. * The release of The Complete Original Masters: Centennial


photo © Sweet Home Pictures

            Keb' Mo' as Robert Johnson at the crossroads

*    Multiple Grammy Award winner Keb’ Mo’ on the filming the 'Crossroad' scene for CAN’T YOU HEAR THE WIND HOWL?: "The crossroad scene, meeting the devil, was very eerie. I felt like I had been to the crossroads already. Every single person, at some point in their life, has to go to the crossroads. Maybe not to meet the devil, but to stand up and acknowledge who they are. That scene reenacted the commitment I made to be a musician, through hell or high water, and accept whatever consequences came with it."

photo © Sweet Home Pictures

Icon drawn by famed-cartoonist ROBERT CRUMB, and placed on the

Mt. Zion Memorial marker. It was later stolen by some zealous fan.


    According to Robert Johnson's death certificate, he died on August 16 and was buried on August 17, 1938. Over the years, there's been a lot of speculation and dispute about where Robert Johnson was actually buried.

*    GRAVE SITE #1 -- The first is north of Morgan City, Mississippi, at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church off Highway 7. According to Johnson's death certificate, he's buried in "Zion Church" and speculation was that this was the Mt. Zion graveyard. A Robert Johnson Memorial marker was funded primarily by Sony Music shortly after the unexpected success of the 1990 CD box set reissue. This marker is inscribed with the titles of all his songs. The various Johnson picture icons on the memorial, one by cartoonist Robert Crumb, were often stolen by tourists, until an engraving of Johnson's photo booth self-portrait was permanently set into stone.

Payne Chapel Gravesite, Greenwood, Mississippi - 1991
offerings and personal mementos are left by fans.

*    GRAVE SITE #2 -- The second is at Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Quito, Mississippi, about 2 miles north of gravesite #1 and about 5 miles south of Itta Bena, off of Highway 7. In 1991 a highly questionable account appeared by a local woman named Queen Elizabeth. Believing her story to be true, an Atlanta rock band named "The Tombstones" placed a stone marker there.

            The questions continued until recently when new, more substantial evidence was brought to light.

photos © Sweet Home Pictures

*    GRAVE SITE #3 -- Noted historian and record producer Stephen C. LaVere, who has spent over 30 years researching Johnson's life, believes that Johnson's actual burial site is at the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church two miles north of Greenwood, Mississippi. Little Zion was also suggested by Greenwood locals as the correct site for an indigent burial in 1938 and this was confirmed by 86-year-old Rosie Eskridge, whose husband, Tom Eskridge reportedly dug Johnson's grave. Mrs. Eskridge recalls that a famous bluesman in very poor physical condition was brought to the place [The Star of the West plantation owned by Luther Wade] late one Saturday night and that he didn't live a week. When the hands told Wade that the man was dead, Wade ordered him buried and asked Tom Eskridge to dig the grave. Tom told Rosie to bring him some water up to the graveyard around noon. When she got there a deep grave was dug and she saw the famous man buried. Mrs. Eskridge indicated about where she remembered the grave was.

photo © 2002 Richard A. Oakes. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission

In January 2002 Steve LaVere placed a memorial marker upon this site.

*    Robert Johnson was a slight-built man with small hands and long fingers. He had a 'sleepy' eye caused by a childhood disease. His body size resembled that of Prince, who at one time considered playing Johnson, as did Sean “Puffy” Combs, in Alan Greenberg's 1983 screenplay Love In Vain. Greenberg's screenplay, his personal vision of Johnson, has yet to be produced, but it has been published -- one of the few screenplays ever published without being made into a film.

*    Though we know Robert Johnson through his 29 original songs, he probably didn't play much of his original material in public, except for Terraplane Blues. According to Johnny Shines, they mostly played pop songs, like Bing Crosby's, or even Irish songs. These "walking jukeboxes" played anything the public wanted -- and paid -- to hear.


    In all blues folklore, surely The Crossroads is the number one mythical site sought out by fans -- as if it really exists -- a place to sell one's soul to the devil. Where are the Crossroads? Many say it is the intersection of Highway 49 and Highway 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Others say it is in Tunica. The crossroads in the 1986 feature film Crossroads was filmed in Beulah, Mississippi, south of Rosedale. But in truth it could be anywhere, in any town. According to some accounts, Robert Johnson wrote his Cross Road Blues on the steps of the courthouse in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, before heading out to San Antonio to record it.

Over a period of 30 years, the first and second volumes of the Columbia LP album KING OF THE DELTA BLUES SINGERS sold a mere 15,000.

For many years the LP's were unavailable until finally a box set of his complete 29 recordings and 12 alternates were released in October 1990. This introduced a new generation to Johnson's genius. This box set made the Billboard 'pop' charts, went platinum and won a Grammy.

*    There are only two photos of Robert Johnson known to exist, the so-called Dime Store photo and the Studio Portrait.

The small PHOTO BOOTH photo is no larger than a commemorative postage stamp. Young Johnson carefully posed for his own portrait, placing his cigarette artfully dangling from his lips. When it was asked of Johnny Shines what chord Johnson was making, he replied it isn't really a chord, as far as he could tell, but just Robert showing off.

(NOTE: We have been informed by a fan that "the chord he's playing is the equivalent of 'A' but he's capoed up to f so it would be 'B.' Johnson would play the baseline with his thumb and forefinger while playing intricate lead lines with other fingers and with his left hand's pinky." Thanks for the info.)

© Delta Haze Corporation.                  Used with permission.

© Delta Haze Corporation. Used with permission.

The STUDIO PORTRAIT, taken in Memphis by the Hooks Bothers and kept by Johnson's half-sister Carrie Spencer in her Bible. The dark three-piece suit Johnson wears really belonged to his nephew Louis, Carrie's son. Louis was about to go into the Navy and was having his picture taken in his uniform. He asked his favorite uncle Robert to pose with him. According to Carrie, "Louis loved his Uncle Robert and Robert loved Louis's suit." There is a third photo known to exist. It was taken at the same time as the Studio Portrait -- it shows Johnson posing in his new suit along with his nephew Louis in his Navy uniform..

These two photos were discovered by researcher and music historian Stephen C. LaVere in 1973 in the possession of Johnson's half-sister Carrie.

It wasn't until February 1986 that the world finally saw what Robert Johnson looked like when the "PHOTO BOOTH" photo was first published in ROLLING STONE magazine’s article announcing his induction into the newly formed Rock 'n' Roll Hall of FameIn the "Dime Store" photo, Johnson is holding a 14-fret flattop Kalamazoo with a capo across the second fret. This is the guitar he probably used during his recording sessions. In the "Studio Portrait," Johnson holds a Gibson L-1.


    In September of 1994 when the United States Postal Department issued its commemorative stamp of Johnson, in a bold move of censorship, they removed the cigarette from his mouth. Dr. Charles Snyder, CEO of Central Virginia Educational Telecommunications Corp., remarked, "This is the stuff of great political farce -- at once tragic and ludicrous. By altering the photo, the Postal Service has placed itself in the distinguished company of Stalin and Mao."

United States Postage Stamp issued

September 17, 1994

Though Terraplane Blues was Robert Johnson's biggest hit when he was alive, selling 5,000 copies in the South, he never owned or drove an automobile, but somehow he was able to travel the around the country fluidly from the Delta, up the Mississipi to Chicago, and to Canada and New York City and back many times.


    Not only did Robert Johnson die on August 16th -- the same day as Elvis Presley, he was one of the first legendary musicians to die at 27 -- the same age as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and now Amy Winehouse

In 1986 Robert Johnson was honored in the first group of five "Forefathers" inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame along with "The Singing Brakeman" Jimmie Rodgers, Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, boogie-woogie pianist Jimmy Yancey and Cleveland DJ Alan Freed.

During the filming of Can't You Hear The Wind Howl? the crew traveled many miles throughout the Delta region interviewing Johnson's closest friends and associates, some of them, like Willie Mae Powell (for whom Robert wrote Love In Vain) for the first very first time. During her October 1990 interview, Willie Mae Powell recited the lyrics to Johnson's Stones In My Passway accurately though she hadn't heard the song since Robert played it on her back porch over 50 years before.  The Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, Willie Mae Powell, John Hammond and Willie Mason interviews in CAN’T YOU HEAR THE WIND HOWL?were filmed in and around Helena, Arkansas in October 1990.

photo © Sweet Home Pictures

Willie Mae (Holmes) Powell

(September 1990)

BLUES LEGENDS: The Johnny Shines (left)

David 'Honeyboy' Edwards (right)


    "We were in St. Louis, and we had drink and barrelhoused and boogie woogied around until early in the morning, and Robert was playin' his song Come On In My Kitchen. And when he quit I thought everybody had gone to sleep on us, ya know, and I looked around to see who all was asleep and I found wet faces, nothing but wet faces, people sittin' there crying. It was the first time I'd had ever heard the song."

Robert Johnson's traveling companion, blues legend Johnny Shines claimed there was a photo taken of himself and Johnson by a woman named Johnnie Mae Crowder in Hughes, Arkansas, in 1937 and later published in a local newspaper. However, the photo has never surfaced.

   During the week of September 20-27, 1998, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored Robert Johnson in their Third Annual American Masters series. It was attended by scholars, historians, and fans from all over the country. Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? was shown in a special presentation at this event.


    Also shown at the Hall Of Fame was rare 16mm film footage supposedly of Robert Johnson found by a man called Tater Red of Memphis. This footage has gotten a lot of notoriety over the past years and was up for sale at a high price. However it was shot in front of a movie theater that was showing the motion picture Blues In The Night and all anyone had to do was consult Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide to find out the film wasn't released until 1941 - three years after Johnson's death. Nice footage, but definitely not Robert Johnson.  There is no known film of Robert Johnson.  But the quest continues as fans and historians try to find that lost or forgotten picture of Robert Johnson.  In 2010 an article appeared in Vanity Fair featuring a “lost” photo of Johnson and Shines, but unfortunately most scholars debunked the photo.


    Cover one side of Robert Johnson's face with your hand -- then the other and you will discover two different faces. The left side appears to be of an older, road weary man, while the right is of a younger, cocky one.

Photos of Robert Johnson © Delta Haze Corporation. Used with permission.  All other photos © Sweet Home Pictures


    On Saturday, June 5, 2004, while Eric Clapton was in Dallas for his CROSSROADS GUITAR FESTIVAL, featuring many guitar legends, he went down to 508 Park Avenue, the same building in which Robert Johnson recorded in 1937. Before the cameras of a Japanese film crew,  Clapton sat on the third floor, acoustic guitar in hand, channeling Johnson, singing Hellhound On My Trail and Terraplane Blues. Hellhound is an incredible vocal performance -- amazingly Clapton reaches the same tonality as Johnson. But even as great as he is, he still found Johnson's guitar work difficult to copy.

photos © Sweet Home Pictures


    The six-cylinder Terraplane was a product of Hudson Motor Car Co. It had a reputation for being sturdy, lightweight and fast. So that no one missed the "plane" connection, the first model built was given to aviation pioneer Orville Wright. Its advertising jingle became: "In the air it's aeroplaning, on the sea it's aquaplaning, but on the land it's Terraplaning." The Terraplane, one of the fastest American cars of the 30's, was gone after only seven years. It established many speed records, and like the Ford V-8, had been a favorite with bank robbers.

photos © Sweet Home Pictures


Searching for

Robert Johnson

by Peter Guralnick (Dutton)

Love In Vain:

A Vision of Robert Johnson

by Alan Greenberg

(DaCapo Press)

Mystery Train

by Greil Marcus (Dutton)


   This is a special Merit Award presented by a vote of the Recording Academy's National Trustees to performers who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artist significance to the field of recording.  The award was presented to his son and grandson Claud and Steven Johnson.


    From Bob Dylan’s 2004 Chronicles: Volume One: “From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard. The songs weren't customary blues songs. They were so utterly fluid. At first they went by quick, too quick to even get. They jumped all over the place in range and subject matter, short punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story-fires of mankind blasting off the surface of this spinning piece of plastic.”  Bob Dylan’s first release of a Robert Johnson song, 32-20 Blues, can be found on his Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol 8.

Born May 8, 1911


    According to Johnny Shines “Robert played a Kalamazoo.  He was crazy about the Kalamazoo. And the Stella. Stella was kind of hard to come by then, like a steel guitar is now.  It come far and in between, those Stellas was.  He liked the Stella and the Kalamazoo.”


Kalamazoo Ad

Stella Guitar


    July 2011 - The three story brick building in downtown Dallas, where Robert Johnson recorded 13 songs in 1937, has been saved from demolition and there are now plans to restore this historic site. The new owners, First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, will replace the three ground floor windows and restore the exterior with plans to refurbish the interior and create a museum and recording studio.  Check out their progress at

508 Park Avenue today

508 Park Ave. as it might have appeared in 1937

photo © Sweet Home Pictures

photo © Sweet Home Pictures


         Recently a collector paid $12,000 dollars for an original Vocalion 78 recording

      of "Hell Hound On My Trail."

Recreated in the historical look and feel of the twelve 10” 78rpm discs that originally carried Robert Johnson’s music into the world in 1936 and 1937 (only playing at 45rpm), this Limited Edition collector’s set was individually numbered to 1000.  Housed in an actual 78rpm album book – each “page” being a sleeve holding a single disc - each vinyl disc was outfitted with reproductions of the original record labels.  Also included was a unique booklet with new essays telling the updated story of Robert Johnson, photos and more!



    The POISON that did in Robert Johnson was probably a distillation of moth balls into a clear, odorless liquid that can cause extreme pain, but is not fatal if purged from the body within 24 hours. At that time, it was a common practice of bartenders to use it to rid themselves of rowdy troublemakers, unwanted customers or pesky musicians. It causes an extremely painful death by eating its way through the stomach lining. But as Honeyboy Edwards remarks, "there is no blood to stand for then"-- a bloodless and hard-to-trace crime.