Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “The 27 Club Edition” where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore psychedelic tunes from the 60’s and 70’s. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Robert Johnson, the legendary blues musician, died on August 16, 1938 at the young age of 27. The age and year of Johnson’s death makes him the earliest member of the unfortunate 27 club, a group of elite musicians that passed at the age of 27 that includes Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain. So little is known for certain about the biography of Robert Johnson, including the circumstances of his death. Much of the story surrounding Johnson’s life is folklore, myth, and legend. As the magazine Mother Jones reported, testimony from Johnson’s friend and fellow musician David Honeyboy Edwards indicates that Johnson’s death was a murder. As Edwards tells the tale, Robert Johnson was poisoned by a possibly unwitting lover or her jealous husband. The poisoned glass of whiskey contained strychnine in it, and it took three agonizing days to kill him. This narrative about Johnson’s death has been disputed by others. Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know the real truth. Just like we’ll never know the exact truth about how Johnson had transformed from a young aspiring blues star with laughable guitar skills into a master of his instrumental craft.
There is lore about how Robert Johnson happened upon a stranger at a cross roads and sold his soul to become famous, perhaps only the Devil knows for sure.
What is documented for sure is the collection of amazing recordings that Robert Johnson made during his short lifetime. Cuts like “Cross Road Blues”, “Come on in My Kitchen”, and “Walking Blues’, are part of a canon of music that has inspired everyone from the likes of Eric Clapton to the Cowboy Junkies. But even those records have fallen into controversies. Whether or not the recordings we’ve heard are actually played at the right speed. The speculation is that the recordings were accidentally sped up, accounting for the uncanny high-pitched quality of Robert Johnson’s vocals. There is also controversy surrounding the existence of a couple of purported photographs of Johnson. It’s funny to imagine how different things would be now in the age of social media and 24/7 news updates and the existence of music blogs like this one. Not only would we know how Johnson’s recordings should sound, but also what kind of mustard he liked to eat on his sandwiches and where he likes to shop for guitar strings. In the age of social sharing and oversharing we’d know pretty much everything.
There’s something to be said for the abundance of information that we now know about our music, our celebrities, everything. Yet, the consequence of the ease of access to music news would probably have removed so much of the intrigue and mystery that surrounds both the life and death of Robert Johnson. The mysteries will probably never be solved and we’ll always want to know. But like other American legends, that intrigue keeps us interested and helps us keep the story of Robert Johnson alive and fresh.
Keeping the Blues Alive