Today marks the anniversary of the death of The King, Elvis Presley. I consider him the most titanic pop culture figure of my lifetime. I remember where I was when I heard the news of his death. I wrote my honors thesis for my bachelor’s degree on Elvis. It’s not unusual that I think of him every August 16.
Robert Johnson was one of the crucial artists in the history of American music. He recorded somewhere between 40 and 60 tracks in 1936 and 1937, before dying at the age of 27. He is mostly known today as the writer of many songs made famous by rock musicians, most notably the Rolling Stones (“Love in Vain”, “Stop Breaking Down”) and Eric Clapton (“Crossroads” with Cream, along with many others, including an entire album of Johnson songs). This is a fairly ordinary tale of a great black innovator being co-opted by white artists, although at least the Stones are arguably at Johnson’s level. Suffice to say that for many, Robert Johnson is the greatest of the early bluesmen, which is to say one of the greatest progenitors of rock and roll music. The Post Office even put him on a stamp back in 1994.
I think often of Robert Johnson. I don’t play him as much as I play Elvis, or the Rolling Stones ... there is an intensity to most of Johnson’s music that doesn’t lend itself to casual listening, so I need to be ready to sit down and allow Johnson to force me to pay attention. I don’t include him on many mix tapes for the same reason. Of course, this does not mean his music is poor ... on the contrary, it is evidence of how vital it remains.
Here’s the thing. Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938. Elvis died on August 16, 1977. Yet I feel like today is the first time I realized that coincidence. I was alive when Elvis died, maybe that’s why I remember it. But while I know that Johnson died, and the reputed circumstances of his death, I’ve never attached a date to it.
And that says something about how we think of black artists. If anyone was as important a music figure as Elvis, it was Robert Johnson. Yet on August 16, Johnson is forgotten under an avalanche of Elvis nostalgia.
“If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” is not Johnson’s greatest song. (As with all great artists, my idea of which is the best changes regularly, with “Come on in My Kitchen” and “Hellhound on My Trail” always at or near the top.) But it has the greatest title, one that makes every other blues title seem minor in comparison. This isn’t “if my baby came back to me”, or “if I could just get out of this town”. No, this is Johnson imagining he has the power of God itself. (It is Johnson’s version of the blues standard “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” ... Johnson's title was purposeful. The lyrics are not nearly as fantastical, just Johnson bemoaning the loss of his woman.)
An as example of Johnson’s influence, here is my favorite cover of his songs, performed by Mick Jagger:
And finally, this brief clip of “Sweet Home Chicago”, first recorded by Johnson, here with the President of the United States on vocals: