By Jess Szabo | Arts Writer
We all know the urban legend surrounding Robert Johnson. He had the desire to play guitar, but he played so badly, bar owners couldn’t let him take the stage. Other musicians refused to play with him. His playing would run paying customers and audience members away. Then, he went away. Nobody saw or heard from him for more than a year. When he came back, he was the Blues legend we listen to today. It was said he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads for the ability to play the guitar. This story is the most popular story about Robert Johnson today.
But like many urban legends, there is no validity to that story. Robert Johnson neither actually swapped his soul for his talent, nor was he involved in any occult practices that would lead to the attempt to do so. In reality, Robert Johnson became a great musician the way everyone who becomes great at any art form gets there; he studied and he practiced. Here are just the basics about two of the men who provided these lessons.
Eddie “Son” House (1902-1988)
Son House was born into a family of musicians and sang gospel, but music was not his first career. He began as a preacher at only fifteen. A few years later, he moved to Mississippi and served as a Baptist and then an Episcopal preacher. He would eventually give up the pulpit, as serving as a pastor was seen as incompatible with playing the Blues music he had begun not only playing but perfecting, developing his own bottleneck guitar style.
According to a Guitar World article by Dale Turner, “House often used open-G tuning, at times sounding a half step or more sharp, due to either tuning by ear without a reference pitch or recording equipment tape-speed calibration inaccuracies.” Son House also used Open D tuning, as demonstrated in his song “Preachin the Blues.”
He reportedly met Robert Johnson in the early 1930s. Johnson would follow Son House around, trying to imitate this distinctive playing. While Son House was one of the people who noted that Johnson’s playing was alarmingly bad, all Johnson’s time spent trying to imitate him clearly served as some much-needed study and practice. House’s influence can be heard on Johnson’s recordings that we still listen to today.
Ike Zimmerman (1907-1967)
While studying and attempting to imitate Son House helped Johnson’s playing, his association with Ike Zimmerman provided actual guitar lessons. When Johnson disappeared, he did not go in search of the devil in order to sell his soul for the ability to play the guitar; he went to Hazlehurst, Mississippi in search of his biological father. Johnson did not find his biological father. However, he did meet up with a Blues guitarist named Ike Zimmerman.
A paper by Dr. Bruce Michael Conforth of the University of Michigan program in American Culture appears to be among the most complete and detailed reports of their relationship available online. According to Conforth, Johnson met Zimmerman at a juke joint in the Hazlehurst area. Zimmerman was known to give guitar lessons, and Johnson was far from the only person he taught to play. Johnson may have sought Zimmerman out due to his reputation as a teacher.
It is through these lessons that some of the “sold his soul to the devil,” rumors gained a foothold, as Zimmerman did indeed take Johnson to a local cemetery to practice. But, like Johnson’s progress overall, this had nothing to do with the devil or any other occult practices. The lessons and practice sessions were held in the cemetery because while Zimmerman had more money than many, and was able to afford a better guitar than most, these were men of limited financial resources. The cemetery was the one available place that was both quiet enough to serve as a lesson and practice studio, and empty of anyone who would complain about the early mistakes and poor playing.
Zimmerman would go on to play after Johnson left, but would eventually give up music without ever knowing he had given what today would be called an intensive study or workshop series that resulted in a Blues legend.
Urban legends are fun. They provide interesting stories that can inspire interest in music. Over the past three years, YouTube channels devoted to legends, folklore, and music have covered the legend as a way to generate interest in Robert Johnson and his music.
But the real story of Robert Johnson provides a much more useful, and important lesson. Rather than being a spooky story about what can happen if you sell your soul, Johnson’s life demonstrates what can happen if you find something you are passionate about and called to do, and then put in the time, effort, and study necessary to gain the skills to attain greatness.