There are two interwoven stories surrounding Robert Johnson and “Sweet Home Chicago.” The first involves the power of his recorded music, discovered facts and repeated legends, the intersections of blues and rock ‘n’ roll and claims over ownership. The second story is about, “Sweet Home Chicago,” a blues standard and Black Metropolis/Bronzeville cultural marker. The Delta blues would go up to Chicago and travel the world. “Sweet Home Chicago” would remain close to its urban roots.
World War II helped initiate the second wave of the Great Migration. Robert Johnson’s contemporaries brought the Delta blues to Chicago to be played in clubs on the South and West Sides and recorded at Chess and other Chicago recording studios. The audience was primarily black until the folk and blues revivals of the 1950s and 1960s.
The revivals sent researchers south in a competitive quest to uncover the lives of seminal blues musicians who had recorded in the 1920s and 1930s and, if still alive, to bring them north to folk festivals and to cut new records. Mississippi journalist and record collector Gayle Dean Wardlow found the death certificates of Delta blues legends Charlie Patton, Willie Brown and Tommy Johnson. Robert Johnson’s was more elusive due to confusion as to how and where he died. Finally, both Wardlow and Mack McCormick independently uncovered his death certificate and identified his parents. Subsequent interviews with various family members, widows, childhood friends and traveling companions allowed researchers to piece together the outlines of a biography.
Ramblin on my Mind
Robert L. Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911. His mother was Julie Major Dodds and his father Noah Johnson, a farm worker. Julie’s husband Charles Dodds, a land owner and furniture maker, had fled to Memphis under threat of lynching and changed his name to Charles Spencer. Robert lived with Charles Spencer in Memphis as Robert Spencer and then with his mother and her new husband, Willie “Dusty” Willis. Robert didn’t get along with his hard working stepfather who wanted Robert to be a cotton farmer. He discovered his birth father’s identity and changed his name to Robert Johnson. Through his short life he used various names including Robert Dusty, Robert Dodds and RL (his middle name was Leroy). He would tell people that he was one of the “Johnson boys,” a relative of Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson and Chicago guitar virtuoso Lonnie Johnson. He would claim that his middle initial L stood for Lonnie.
In 1929, after the death of his first wife, Virginia Travis, and their child, Robert Johnson met Eddie “Son” House and Willie Brown who were living and playing in Robinsonville, Mississippi. Johnson was shooed away from their Saturday night gigs for making a racket with House and Brown’s guitars during breaks. He went back to Hazlehurst, perhaps to find his father. He married Callie Craft, and was said to have been mentored by blues slide guitarist, Ike Zinnerman. Robert returned to Robinsonville, some two years later, an accomplished guitarist, performer and a rambling musician.
Over the next few years, Johnson traveled throughout the Delta and reportedly to New York, Canada, Detroit and Chicago. Sometimes he traveled with Johnny Shines and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. He was said to have had a sister in Chicago. He played on the streets, in juke joints and anywhere workers had a payday and money to spend. He had siblings and cousins all over the Delta. In his travels, he preferred living with older women who could take care of him. When not traveling he stayed around Helena, Arkansas, a center for the blues. He lived there with Estella Coleman, the mother of Robert Lockwood. Johnson mentored Lockwood who was called Robert Jr. in acknowledgement of their close relationship. Lockwood became one of the Delta’s first lead guitarists and a session musician at Chess records.
By 1936, Robert Johnson had established his reputation in the Delta. His mentors, Son House and Willie Brown had recorded, and Robert had built his own repertoire on recordings of Kokomo Arnold, Leroy Carr, Scrapper Blackwell, Skip James, Lonnie Johnson and others. He approached H.C. Speir, a furniture store owner in Jackson who had gotten most Mississippi blues singers their recording contracts. Johnson was sent to the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas where he had three recording sessions in November, 1936 with ARC records. He recorded “I Believe I’ll Dust my Broom” and “Sweet Home Chicago” at the first session. His “Terraplane Blues,” a double entendre piece about a fashionable car (“I said I flash your lights, mama/this horn won’t even blow”) was his only big hit, selling several thousand records. Johnson was paid a few hundred dollars for 16 sides. He proudly brought copies of his record to family members throughout the Delta. ARC called him back for another session in Dallas in June, 1937, where he recorded another 13 sides.
Robert Johnson’s fame was short lived. Fourteen months later he was dead. His death on August 16, 1938, at age 27, was alleged to be the result of poisoning by a jealous husband.
Despite being one of the most researched early Delta musicians, relatively little is known about Robert Johnson. Robert Lockwood said Johnson played in a revolutionary style. He made his guitar sound “uncannily like a full band, furnishing a heavy beat with his feet, chording innovative shuffle rhythms, and picking out a high, treble lead with his slider, all at the same time.” His traveling companions describe him as handsome, personable, and always neat even after a night on the rails. He was a showman with personal magnetism who attracted people but was reserved in private, a loner and a drifter. Men liked him and women were attracted to him. He was small but would get in fights with bigger men when drinking; his friends would have to step in for him. Johnny Shines was impressed with his talent and sought opportunities to travel and play with him. Johnson was notable for his long guitarist’s fingers and skill with a slide. He was a man of his time, talked really hip said Shines, like “Yeah, man,” and “Look, Daddy So-and-So.”
His recorded repertoire provides some insight into his life. He sang of women and the impermanence of relationships; travel most often due to the disappointment he suffered in relationships with women; and mindless terrors that intruded on his days and nights. He also sang upbeat numbers with sexual innuendos that had memorable lines such as “she got a mortgage on my body, now, and a lien on my soul.” As noted earlier, his performance repertoire was much broader and included many popular songs of the day. He liked to play “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “My Blue Heaven.” A different picture of Johnson could emerge when imagining him singing the lines “just Molly and me, and baby make three/we’re happy in my blue heaven.”
The Delta blues were brought up to Chicago during the second wave of the Great Migration by musicians born within a decade or so of Robert Johnson. The Delta blues innovators, the first to record the genre, were born in the last decades of the nineteenth century: Charlie Patton, Son House, Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown and Skip James. They were the children and grandchildren of the settlers who had cleared and planted the Delta around the turn of the twentieth century. Plantation owners had offered better wages and attracted a young and mobile population. But, the Delta was a violent place with a disproportionate share of Mississippi lynching. Some settlers were there preparing for a more dramatic move north to Chicago. Either as a place or as an ideal, Chicago is the only city in the title of songs identified as favorites in an early 1940s survey of black Clarksdale residents: “Sweet Home Chicago” and Count Basie’s “Going to Chicago.”
By the 1930s, mechanization was replacing manual farm labor and encouraging migration to the north. The WPA built roads and the Depression encouraged riding the rails, both helping a younger generation travel within and beyond the Delta. Electricity brought records players and the jukebox. Many people had radios. The blues musicians who came of age in the late 1920s to 1940 grew up in a community with considerable exposure to the urban life and culture of Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago. They were the generation who brought an electrified blues to Chicago. They grew up with the freedom to travel and the desire to seek a better life than that afforded by cotton farming.
Those of Robert Johnson’s generation who left the Delta for Chicago include Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett) born in 1910, Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) and Sonny Boy Williamson (Aleck Miller) in 1913, Roebuck “Pop” Staples (who formed the gospel Staple Singers and fathered Mavis) in 1914, Willie Dixon in 1915, Big Walter Horton in 1917, Elmore James (who had a big hit with Johnson’s “Dust my Broom”) in 1918, John Lee Hooker (featured in the Blues Brothers movie) in 1920, and later Albert King in 1923 and B.B. King in 1925.
Me and the Devil Blues
Probably the best known story associated with Robert Johnson is his deal with the devil at the crossroads. The telling and embellishment of the story, combined with the power of his recordings and his covers by the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and other rock and blues stars, made Robert Johnson an urban legend. The legend was created more or less unintentionally by a series of blues writers who juxtaposed interview fragments, Western and African tradition, the lyrics of Johnson’s songs, and a heavy dose of descriptive terms like demonic, demon-driven, apocalyptic, evil spirits, and hellhounds. Once created, it was almost a requirement to reference it in any discussion of Robert Johnson and his music.
In a 1966 article, Pete Welding recounts the story of Robert Johnson and his mentors Eddie Son House and Willie Brown around 1930 at a Saturday night dance in Robinsonville. The young Johnson takes up a guitar during a music break. His strumming is a racket and a distraction. House and Brown chase him away. He leaves the Robinsonville area for about two years and returns an accomplished musician. He shows up again at a party and plays for House and Brown who are amazed by the transformation. House says that in his time away from home he must have “sold his soul to the devil in exchange for learning to play like that.” Son House never repeats this observation.
Prior to the Welding article, bluesman turned Baptist minister Ledell Johnson told researcher David Evans a story about his deceased brother Tommy Johnson. Tommy was an established blues performer of Charlie Patton’s generation, who sang “Canned Heat Blues” and died from alcoholism. Tommy said the reason he knew so much was that he sold his soul to the devil. He said you go to a crossroads a little before midnight. You have your guitar and “be playing.” A big black man will walk up, take your guitar, tune it, play a piece and give it back to you. Tommy claimed “that’s the way I learned to play anything I want.” Neither Johnson was a relative of Robert.
The “black man” is recognizable as Legba, a Yoruba trickster, a messenger of the gods who interprets the will of the gods to man; who carries the desires of man to the gods. He is the guardian of the crossroads with one foot in the realm of the gods and the other in that of humans. He has the power to open the path to other supernatural powers. Legba is associated with the Devil of Christianity. “Slave lore,” writes Robert Palmer, “often depicted the Devil as a trickster figure, more like Legba with his mordant sense of humor and his delight in chaos and confusion than the more somber and threatening Devil portrayed in hell-fire and brimstone sermons.” Tommy Johnson’s story is merged with the Son House quote and Robert Johnson‘s reference to “standing at a crossroads.” A legend is established worthy of a trickster.
Greil Marcus, political theorist and a past editor of Rolling Stone magazine adds to the legend in his 1975 book Mystery Train. Marcus speculates, “let us say that (Robert) Johnson sought out the Mississippi Delta devil-men, or one of the devil-women, and tried to sell his soul in exchange for the music he heard but could not make.” Rather than linking the deal with the devil to African crossroads legends, Marcus links it to the Puritan revivals that spread across America in the early eighteenth century. In his words, it was an “explosion of dread and piety that Southern whites passed onto their slaves and that blacks ultimately refashioned into their own religion. The blues singers accepted the dread but refused the piety.”
The 1986 movie Crossroads brought the legend of Johnson’s deal with the devil to the big screen and a wider audience. The movie begins with imagery of a lone figure at a crossroads bargaining with a man in a car and then fades to the recording studio scene from the album cover of the 1970 Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers. A young white Julliard trained blues loving guitarist travels to the Delta with an old bluesman, Willie Brown, to settle a contract with the devil. Young Lightning Boy beats a representative of the devil (Legba now known as Scratch) in a cutting contest and saves Willie Brown. As the movie ends, the two walk off together from the crossroads on their way to Chicago. Willie Brown is played by Joe Seneca who had played Cutler, Ma Rainey’s band leader in the 1984 opening performance of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Alan Greenberg’s Love in Vain, an earlier screenplay fantasy about the last days of Robert Johnson, was published in 1983 but never produced. Important bluesmen in Johnson’s life appear including Tampa Red and Georgia Tom who play at a juke joint the night that Robert Johnson dies.
In 2000, Ethan and Joel Coen tell their version of Homer’s Odyssey in O Brother, Where Art Thou. In the film, the protagonists pick up a young Tommy Johnson at a crossroads. He tells them that he had just sold his soul to the devil. In the liner notes to the accompanying CD and in a movie review in the New York Times, the writers state that the Tommy Johnson incident is based on the legend of Robert Johnson’s deal with devil. Such is the strength of the legend that it demands correcting a somewhat more accurate telling of the story.
There is demonic imagery in Robert Johnson’s lyrics and he sang about going to the crossroads; enough material to help storytellers flesh out a Faustian legend. In “Me and the Devil Blues,” Johnson and the devil are walking side by side. He ends the song with a refrain more humorous than demonic: “you may bury my body down by the highway side/so my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.” In “Hell Hounds on my Trail,” blues are falling down like hail and he’s got to keep moving, hell hound on his trail. Johnson was not alone in using such imagery and bad man posturing. He used lyrics from his contemporary Skip James’ “Devil Got My Women,” who sang “I’d rather be the devil than be that women’s man.” And there was the devil’s son-in-law, Peetie Wheatstraw.
In “Cross Road Blues” Johnson says nothing about the devil or meeting him at a crossroads. He’s alone at night at a crossroads, trying to flag a ride. It was a dangerous place for a black man in the 1930s Delta. He falls down on his knees and “asked the Lord above, ‘have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please.’” He has no sweet woman in his distress and he’s sinking down. It’s the blues. Gayle Dean Wardlow writes that as soon as Johnson called onto the Lord, he was “saved” and had an eternal home in heaven.
If I had Possession
The 1961 LP release of 16 of Johnson’s recordings in King of the Delta Blues Singers was followed by Volume II a decade later. The Rolling Stones introduced a younger white audience to Robert Johnson with their 1969 version of his “Love in Vain.” “Sweet Home Chicago,” included in Volume II, reached the widest audience with release of the Blues Brothers movie in 1980. The Blues Brothers perform the song, appropriately, at the greatest rent party ever filmed to raise money to pay off the Cook County tax debt on their orphanage home.
On release of the first album there were no known photos of Robert Johnson; he only existed as a powerfully emotional voice on vinyl. The album cover for Volume II is based on the reminiscence of producer Don Law. Johnson is sitting in the corner of a room at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, playing into the microphone. It was his first recording session in 1936.
In 1974, Steve LaVere contracted with Johnson’s half-sister, Carrie Harris Thompson, to share royalties with Johnson’s heirs from use of photographic images of Johnson and from his music. The image of a nattily dressed Robert Johnson in pin-striped suit, striped tie and fedora was finally revealed when LaVere made public two photographs possessed by Thompson and put a face on the musician.
Of greater significance, LaVere, now with a stake in the Johnson estate, aggressively pursued alleged infringements of Johnson’s copyright. Through an “anomalous court decision,” he was able to win copyright protection for Johnson’s songs in the 2000 case of ABKCO versus LaVere. This allowed him to successfully sue ABKCO, the publisher of the Rolling Stones’ “Love in Vain.” He then asked for and received royalties from Eric Clapton who had recorded covers of many of Johnson’s songs.
Since the photographs were part of the estate, LaVere had demanded and received royalty payments, grudgingly delivered, from cartoonist and blues aficionado Robert Crumb. Crumb had published a drawing of Robert Johnson based on the second photograph received from Thompson, the so called “dime store photo.” LaVere also sued Mack McCormick, unsuccessfully, to retrieve other photos given to him by Carrie Thompson. Disputes among claimants and fear of lawsuits delayed release of a complete package of Robert Johnson recordings until 1990.
Determining the beneficiaries of Johnson’s estate also was contentious. Claud Johnson, the out of wedlock son of Robert Johnson and Virgie Mae Smith Cain, came forward in 1984. Fourteen years of delay and legal wrangling later, patrimony was established by a birth certificate and the testimony of Virgie’s friend, Eula Mae Williams, who claimed to have witnessed the conception while the couple had sex in the woods. Claud inherited over a million dollars from the Johnson estate.
In 2008, an article in Vanity Fair told the story of Steven “Zeke” Schein’s purchase on eBay of a third picture purported to be of Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines. Zeke Schein noticed that the man holding the guitar in the picture had long fingers and a narrower left eye; Johnson was thought to have a bad left eye that shows as unevenness in photographic images. The resulting quest to determine authenticity then reprised elements of the decade’s long search for Johnson and the legal battles over ownership. Author Frank Digiacomo tried to contact Mack McCormick who’s Biography of a Phantom about his 1960s search for Robert Johnson was never published and surmised that McCormick was still scared of “notoriously litigious” Steve LaVere. He sought out Claud Johnson, even though Schein was aware that the Johnson estate could then claim publishing rights to the picture. At the time, Claud was still in court over the issue of who owned the other two photographs. Claud says “this look like before he was grown” but refused to say more.
The picture was than submitted to Lois Gibson, who had famously confirmed the identity of the sailor in the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt Life magazine photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on the day World War II ended. She concluded that it “appears” to be Johnson and Shines and that all facial features between the three photos are “consistent if not identical.”
The Johnson estate accepted the picture’s legitimacy. It was subsequently purchased by Getty images and appeared on the May 2015 cover of American Songwriter magazine. Its authenticity has since been questioned in a thorough forensic analysis by Bruce Conforth, University of Michigan Professor of American Culture. Conforth points out that there is no evidence or provenance to prove authenticity. Further, it is clear that the photo is reversed; the buttons on the white men’s jacket should be on the right side. Once reversed to show as photographed, the guitarist is left handed (Johnson was right handed) and the right eye is the one that could be bad. The photo was resized and Conforth demonstrated that the alignment of facial characteristics on the third photo do not match those on the two confirmed Johnson photos. He concludes that the photo is not of Johnson and Shines. A Who’s Who of blues authorities signed on to the Conforth argument agreeing with his conclusion that it was not in fact a photo of Johnson.
Robert Johnson has become firmly embedded in popular culture. He is a unique, posthumously honored blues player ahead of his time; a King of the Delta Blues. While researchers and writers have revealed and analyzed what there is to uncover of his life and place in history, Johnson remains an enigmatic figure who exists in 29 recordings, two photographs, reminiscences of contemporaries, legal battles over his estate and an afterlife legend.
“Sweet Home Chicago” involves another Robert Johnson story. In his Vanity Fair article about the alleged Johnson and Shines photo, Frank Digiamoco observes that “the story of Robert Johnson is usually presented as a Faustian bargain, but it is really a tale of possession.” His music and image are valuable products while his artistic contributions to blues and rock go beyond what might be subject to claims of copyright.
“Sweet Home Chicago” holds a unique place among Johnson’s recordings. It’s a Delta artifact with strong Chicago roots and subsequent prominence in Chicago’s blues culture. It was the third song Johnson recorded in his first session at the Gunter Hotel and he thought of it as an important and original piece. It was a creative instrumental and lyrical reworking of the Blackwell and Arnold precursors.
Those who traveled with and learned from Robert Johnson would sing and record his version of “Sweet Home Chicago” and in some instances would be threatened with legal action for copyright infringement. David “Honeyboy” Edwards covered Johnson’s version in the early 1990s for Chicago’s Earwig Records. The label eventually agreed to pay royalties to LaVere under threat of a lawsuit.
At the same time, “Sweet Home Chicago” truly resonated as a city’s anthem when its refrain was recast by other musicians as “back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago.” Bruce Iglauer of Chicago’s Alligator Records summed up the case for “Sweet Home Chicago” as Chicago’s own when he refused to pay royalties to LaVere, noting that Johnson’s song is derivative of the versions by Blackwell and Arnold. Further, the version most associated with Chicago is the one reworked by Magic Sam, as acknowledged by the Blues Brothers.
Like the stories of Robert Johnson and of “Sweet Home Chicago,” Bronzeville is currently mired in its own dispute over ownership; the strength of claims to a community and its cultural heritage. “Sweet Home Chicago” with roots in the Delta and a history that tracks the Great Migration looms over that conflict as a cultural marker in Bronzeville.
Next: Part VI. Back to that Same Old Place