Part 1. Robert Johnson

Who was Robert Johnson, and how did he come to have such a pivotal role in the development of popular music?

We know where he came from, where he was born, who his parents were, where he went to school, what he majored in at college, what football team he supported, what he did on Tuesdays, how he came to have one leg shorter than the other, his birth weight, his blood group, his favourite sandwich and the secret nickname he had for his winky.

But so much about the man is still a mystery.

Mississippi Delta Blues

What we do know is that he single-handedly invented Mississippi Delta Blues on Tuesday 4th April 1905, six years before he was born.

Childhood friends paint a picture of boy of little talent who was given his first guitar for his fifth birthday by an uncle - mildewed, battered and riddled with woodworm, his uncle was a kindly man but the instrument was very nearly as dilapidated as he was.

For the next three years young Robert used it as a makeshift baseball bat, until one day a travelling blues accountant called Howling Peter Figgins came to town and put on a show of double entry bookkeeping in the local cathouse. Young Robert couldn't help but notice that the thing he was playing looked not dissimilar to his baseball bat. It was a revelation! He had never previously realised that sporting equipment could be so versatile and ran straight home and gave it a bash.

Some sort of hat

From the moment he plucked that first string he knew he had to be a bluesman, and thinking that this must involve some sort of hat he bought a second-hand fedora before shuffling off to the church hall to give his now legendarily atrocious debut performance.

And it was as he was being hurled backwards into the street by the angry congregation that he first came to understand the meaning of the blues. It was all about pain and suffering, and just so long as it was his audience that was suffering most then that would be perfectly ok with him.

A pickled egg

Despite his obvious lack of talent, Johnson hit the highway, literally playing for his supper - earning a sandwich here, a pickled egg there - as he travelled from town to town. But he knew that this couldn't go on.

For one thing, his knees couldn't stand the constant roaming and his backside had never really got used to the rigours of skidding across asphalt as he was tossed out into the road. Either he had to give it up or get better. Robert Johnson had reached a crossroads.

Pact with the Devil

No one really knows how Johnson was able to become the most accomplished and highly regarded blues guitarist of all time. Many years after his death the rumour was put about that he had signed some kind of pact with the Devil.

The story goes that one night when Johnson was at his lowest ebb the Devil came to him and offered to cut him a deal. In return for the gift of music, Johnson offered up his immortal soul, but the Devil said that he really didn't go in for that sort of thing anymore. Instead, Satan settled for 60% of the worldwide publishing rights and continued to get royalties right up until 1983 when he sold his interest to Sony.


However, historians at the Kentucky Institute of Twangology have recently dismissed this story as 'bullshit', claiming that Johnson's sudden musical metamorphosis was all down to the woodworm that lived in his guitar.

Tired of Johnson's ham-fisted attempts at musicianship, they figured out how to play the instrument for themselves. And after twenty years of putting up with such a racket, those woodworm really knew the blues.

None of this is true, by the way.

Ricky Stratocaster is the current visiting Professor of Funk at the Kentucky Institute of Twangology

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