“Hellhound on My Trail”


Robert Johnson was. . .

There are a million ways to finish that sentence.  The greatest bluesman ever.  The man who sold his soul to the devil.  A young musician who died tragically and mysteriously.  An enigma.

Robert Johnson is whatever you need him to be.  To me, he’s a ghost story.  Most people already know it, but here it is again.  Once upon a time, young Robert Johnson wanted so badly to be a great musician, but he was really only okay.  Then he disappeared for a short time, and when he came back, he was better.  Not just “oh, hey, he’s improving” good, but “oh my dear god, where is that sound coming from” good.  Nobody could logically explain it.  So people started whispering that Robert went to a crossroad and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his supernatural talent.  Maybe Robert even started this rumor himself.  For a few years, he traveled around the South playing bars and honky tonks, gathering fans and building his reputation.  Then one night, when Robert was just 27, he took ill.  After three days of pain and sickness, he died.  Some people said he was murdered, poisoned by a jealous husband or a scorned lover.  Some said it was just the devil collecting his due.  He was buried in an unmarked grave in or near the town where he died.

That’s it.  There’s a lot of facts involved between when he was born and when he died–information about his family and travels, official documents about his life–but you should never let facts get in the way of a good story.  And really, the only facts that matter with Robert Johnson are the recordings he made during two different sessions in Texas.  Although none of his records were successful during his life, Johnson’s recordings live on.  The songs are thrilling and evocative, musicianship at it’s finest.  They’re also. . . spooky.  Johnson’s talent shines through the primitive and time-worn recordings, but there’s a weirdness to them.  The songs transcend themselves to become their own little world, a world where maybe the devil is real and maybe he isn’t.  A place where truth is always going to play second fiddle to an otherworldly slide guitar.