Outside Greenwood, Mississippi
April 2009

I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
Mmm, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail

The Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church is an unadorned white weatherboard building, sitting by a road a couple of miles north of the town of Greenwood, in the heart of Mississippi’s delta region. Beside the church building is a cemetery, which contains a marker commemorating the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. But we are gathered further to the rear of the cemetery, in the shade of a large tree. Robert Johnson is proving as elusive in death as he appeared to be in life.

We are here because of 3-RRR’s Brian Wise. If you live in Melbourne and like roots music, then never mind about Kevin Bacon, the more relevant issue is your degree of separation to Brian. ‘We’ are Brian’s annual tour group, en route to our eventual destination at New Orleans Jazz Fest. Brian has just introduced us to Ace Atkins, noted crime writer and Robert Johnson enthusiast. Ace has a theory about Johnson. This isn’t unusual, for when it comes to Johnson so much more is theorised than known.

This cemetery was actually the third place to host a commemorative marker for Johnson. It is now accepted as his resting place because of the eyewitness testimony of Rosie Eskridge. On a hot August day back in 1938, Rosie’s husband Tom was the man who dug Johnson’s grave. Rosie was no fan, but she knew who the local singer was. Ace got to speak to Rosie before she passed. She remembered bringing water to her husband as he laboured that day. As best as can be established from all of that, the unmarked spot at which we stand is where the remains lie.

The official legend of Robert Johnson’s death, aged just 26, was that his whiskey was poisoned by a jealous husband. As it is safely established that Johnson liked both whiskey and women, this theory stood for decades. Ace’s investigations have led him to another conclusion. Given the circumstances and symptoms described at the time, Ace suspects Johnson suffered from untreated syphilis, and this underlying condition either caused or contributed to the singer’s demise. It is certainly a less glamorous theory than the legend. Whether it was strychnine or syphilis, it’s possible Johnson himself might be indifferent to the debate. He did, after all, sing in Me and the Devil Blues, “Babe, I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone”.

In this age where there’s supposedly no such thing as bad publicity, where every mundane detail of life can serve as grist to the celebrity mill, the rarest commodity of all is a genuine sense of mystery. Because he was dead long before he was famous, Robert Johnson will never lose his mystery. His legacy rests on 41 takes of 29 recorded songs, most of which never saw release in his lifetime. Though he would famously inspire Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and so many others, he remains a sufficiently blank canvas that every myth and imagining of the blues has attached itself to him.

What reality will ever match that?

Which brings us to those hellhounds. The Blues was always supposed to be the Devil’s music, and there’s always been a market for the supernatural. Johnson was a young man looking for a way out. He didn’t want to pick cotton. Music was his potential escape. But everything has its price.

Even our supposedly enlightened modern societies have an unerring way of extracting a price for transgressing proscribed norms. As a black, itinerant blues musician, Johnson transgressed what the South of the 1930’s might accept by about as many ways as it is possible to conceive. Forget about mythical hellhounds, everyday life would have offered no shortage of real threats.

There is so much we’ll never know about what Robert Johnson thought. But the music tells us a lot. He may have had some reckless impulses, but he was no fool. By choosing a life on his own terms, he would have suspected a reckoning was due, one way or another.

I can tell the wind is risin’, the leaves tremblin’ on the tree
Tremblin’ on the tree
I can tell the wind is risin’, leaves tremblin’ on the tree
All I need is my little sweet woman
And to keep my company, hey, hey, hey, hey, my company

John Butler has spent many nights treading the sticky carpet. You will usually find him down the back, or to the side.