Robert Johnson, an important name in blues and the development of rock, even though he passed away two decades before rock and roll took over the world. Musicians like Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan have called him an influence on their work. Clapton even said that Robert Johnson was “the most important blues singer that ever lived.”
He’s a fascinating musician whose life story has legends, the most famous one being that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads to achieve musical success.
Admittedly, I don’t know much about Robert Johnson, or even much about the blues. It’s not my specialty, even though all the music I listen to has a blues influence. Most of what I know about him is that he is a lesser known member of the 27 club and that he wrote the song “Crossroads” (which I know because of Cream). He also wrote “Sweet Home Chicago”. I know of that song, but I didn’t know that he wrote it until I read about it online.
Whenever I hear about musicians who died young whether it’s Buddy Holly, Ian Curtis, Jimi Hendrix, etc, it always makes me wonder what could have become of them. What more could they have accomplished. I was talking about this with my friend, Patrick the other day.
So when I found out today that there’s a new Netflix documentary out on Robert Johnson, I decided to give it a watch and I’ll be reviewing it for you guys so I can tell you if I think it’s worth your time.
Before we get started on this documentary, it’s important to note that his life was mysterious and elusive. There are only two photographs of him. The most we have is his music. Biographies about Robert Johnson don’t talk as much about his time on this planet, but rather about the influence he had on rock and blues. The more critical reviews on Amazon of biographies written about him often say that the books don’t give much insight about his life and that the booklet with liner notes that comes with CDs of his music is much more informative.
The documentary is less than an hour long and begins with a man playing blues guitar, a re-enactment of who Robert Johnson was, if you will and testimonials saying that he was one of the greatest blues musicians ever and that he had a “level of genius that maybe will only exist once” and that his music is the “template for what became rock and roll” because rock stars use his chords all the time.
There’s so much mystery behind him, which added to his appeal, and what this documentary aims to do is to unfold and unpack all of that to find out who really was Robert Johnson. There’s a challenge though. They’re not going to have much b-roll, so they’re going to have to capture the scenery and mood of his Delta Blues music with footage of the Mississippi scenery, animations, and fitting archive footage from the time period. I think they did well with the presentation given this challenge.
In this documentary, interviews are conducted with people who have studied Robert Johnson’s music, academics, Robert Johnson’s grandsons Steven and Michael, and musicians inspired by him. There are people who are so intrigued by him that they tried to find out as much as they could about him, doing research and cold calling people. One expert says that the fact that the humble shack he was born in is still standing is a metaphor for his life. He may be gone, but his influence stays with us.
In this documentary, racial issues will be talked about. It’s inevitable and a big part of history. What Steven said was so true, “As a race, we didn’t have much to choose from as far as work goes. It was the field or basically nothing.” It wasn’t that long ago that black people faced such oppression and discrimination and limitations on what they could do and that has an effect on how black people live today. You see the effects of redlining, segregation, and generations of poverty. It’s not so easy to break the cycle.
As so little is known about Robert Johnson himself, the documentary explores the context in which he grew up in, which is important to understanding him, blues music, and its impact on the music world. Connections are made between the history of blues music and what is known about his life. I also felt connections between the songs sung in the documentary and life events. You’ll also find out about hoodoo and how it’s referenced in his music and a basic explanation of its significance in black American culture.
The story of his life is concept album worthy and fascinating. Wonder what that would sound like. Ends are tied up in this documentary telling his life story, explaining why this “sold his soul to the devil myth” makes sense to people. As an atheist, I think the reason people turn to religion and mythology is they want an explanation and not necessarily the boring, simple truth, they want something more flowery and complicated. He was a brilliant musician. His weakness was that he liked to drink a little too much and that can get you in trouble. People didn’t know much about addiction then, like we do now.
There’s a little story at the end about how John Hammond wanted to get Robert Johnson to play Carnegie Hall as part of a show that celebrates the history and evolution of jazz music, but he found out that he died. In lieu of a live performance, a phonograph was put on stage and a recording of his music was played and people cheered. Going back to what I said at the beginning. It makes me wonder. What if Robert Johnson survived and lived to play Carnegie Hall. What would have become of him? What would that have led to? Would we have seen a Robert Johnson/Muddy Waters collaboration?
Of course, we have to end this documentary showing the impact he had on the musicians of other generations. Bob Dylan credits Johnson for inspiring so many of his lyrics. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin lifting the “squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg line” from Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues”, which Led Zeppelin later covered. The Rolling Stones covered Johnson’s “Love in Vain”. This quote at the end of the documentary sticks with me “Selling your soul to the devil is the basis of the ’27 Club’.”
Overall, like any Netflix documentary, this was a beautiful presentation and a good start for learning about Robert Johnson and the impact he had on rock music. It’s a short documentary and definitely worth the watch.
Key Takeaways: 20 Things I learnt about Robert Johnson
I did a little key takeaways thing for my review of BoRhap, but that was more joking. For this one, I’ll share 20 facts that you will learn from this documentary.
- Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in a humble wooden shack that is still standing today.
- He moved around a lot, and allegedly, his mother walked out on him at one point.
- His stepfather was a sharecropper who would abuse him if he didn’t work. He decided to leave that life and be free.
- Sharecroppers and farm workers in their leisure time would play music. Blues musician, Taj Mahal, put it “It served as a balm for people who were in bondage.”
- Blues didn’t come from the church, it came from field workers.
- Music was a way out of poverty and a humdrum life in the field. People in the cities had money and would spend it on going to clubs to see musicians play.
- Travelling around the south as a black person was dangerous. Robert Johnson was out there risking his life to play music.
- Robert Johnson has descendants who are still alive today.
- Legend says that he was just a novice guitarist who left to sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads to become an incredible guitarist.
- Researchers found out some information about Robert Johnson by cold calling people who knew him. That’s journalism!
- He died of poisoning at the age of 27 and his death certificate wasn’t discovered for almost 3 decades.
- It was because of his death certificate that some of the mystery was uncovered: finding out about family, where he lived, and other vital information. This is also how you do genealogy, looking at government records.
- There’s a blues museum named after Robert Johnson in Crystal Springs, Mississippi.
- Christians considered the blues to be the devil’s music. So Robert Johnson was counterculture in Mississippi. There was a real contrast between the church and the juke joint.
- Robert’s first wife, Virginia, died in childbirth, along with the baby. After that, he dedicated his life to music.
- Robert was a fan of Son House and Willie Brown, following them as they toured. He would fool around with their guitars and they reprimanded him. He left for a year, came back and met them again and wowed them with his improved guitar skills, being better than his idols.
- His slide guitar technique was like nothing else at that time. We take it for granted because we’re used to it. But imagine being in the 30s and hearing that. That guitar technique is what led to electric blues and then rock as we know it.
- Because Robert Johnson died at 27, he didn’t have a relationship with his children. His son, Claude, had some memories of him, but not very many. Robert Johnson’s father did not approve of his career as a blues musician.
- Robert Johnson was poisoned by the husband of a woman who he was seeing. The woman worked at the Three Forks juke. He died two or three days after he was poisoned. The man who poisoned him got away with it. Some say that his murderer got away with it because people didn’t care because Robert Johnson played “devil music”.
- Robert Johnson embraced his “man of the devil” reputation. He was rejected by a lot of people around him. It explains why he liked to drink and womanise. Sadly, this lifestyle cost him his life.
Shout out to my good friend and Topaz level Patron, Patrick.
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