Near the end of his memoir, Chronicles, Volume I, Bob Dylan recalls the seismic effect of hearing Robert Johnson’s album, King of the Delta Blues Singers, for the first time, in the early 1960s.
“From the first note, the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armour… Johnson’s words made my nerves quiver like piano wires.”
Robert Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 27, soon after recording 29 songs. He remains an object of fascination due to those recordings and to the influence they had on rock musicians like Dylan, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Johnny Winter.
But Johnson was an elusive fi gure even when he was alive, and it’s mainly through the memories of other blues musicians and family and friends that any sense of the person has emerged.
The Search for Robert Johnson, produced in the UK and broadcast on Channel 4 in 1991 and now available on DVD at the Whitehorse Public Library, traces the short, uncompromising life of Robert Johnson through the eyes of some of those people, interviewed in the rural South that Johnson roamed as an itinerant musician.
Produced and directed by Chris Hunt, the documentary follows John Hammond Jr. – an accomplished musician himself – as he plays with Johnson’s peers and unearths some clues to Johnson’s psyche in interviews with those bluesmen, as well as Johnson’s girlfriends and his illegitimate son, Claude.
Claude was legally recognized as Johnson’s heir several years after the documentary was released.
The documentary relies on the research of Robert “Mack” McCormick, a legend in his own right as a musicologist.
McCormick makes an appearance in the film, providing rare insight into Johnson, such as an alternative explanation for Johnson’s preoccupation with evil and the devil, which helped fuel the most prominent myth about him, that he’d sold his soul at the crossroads in exchange for his musical gift.
McCormick also found witnesses who relate the tragic account of Johnson’s agonizing death, assumed to be the result of being poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman Johnson was interested in.
With little archival material to show, Johnson takes tentative shape from conversations with girlfriends Willie Mae Powell – shown hearing “Love in Vain” for the first time – and ‘Queen’ Elizabeth, and with musicians David Honeyboy Edwards and Johnny Shines.
But Johnson is still an enigma at the end of the film, and remains so. McCormick recently told writer John Jeremiah Sullivan, in an article published in the New York Times, that he’s come to have doubts about some of the evidence he uncovered – that it might be “unstable”.
Still, the facts of Johnson’s life, though gripping, are less important than that people like Dylan felt the earth shift when they heard his music.
The Search for Robert Johnson lets that music dominate the screen, with Johnson’s original recordings, Hammond’s interpretations and Edwards’ and Shines’ performances interwoven throughout.