The Old Guitar - The Prologue

The Old Guitar -  The Prologue

Blake Melnick, Parker Melnick

At the conclusion of the Civil War, much of the conquered Confederacy lay in ruins. Cities like Atlanta and Richmond were almost completely destroyed.

Railroads across the region were torn up and plantations and farms that had once produced abundant cash crops of cotton for export, were burned to the ground or abandoned.

Under the reconstruction movement, Union troops occupied the land, policing the deconstruction of Confederate political structures, and the removal of the rebellious Southern elite from government.

They also oversaw the liberation of the black population from almost three centuries of bondage. Radical Republicans in Congress impeached President Johnson and passed the 14th and 15th amendments, which granted blacks the same rights to citizenship, suffrage, and protection under law, as whites enjoyed.

However, by 1873, many white southerners were calling for redemption; the return of white supremacy and the removal of the rights for blacks they had been granted during Reconstruction. This political pressure to return to the older ways was oftentimes backed by mob violence. Groups like the Klu Klux Klan, the White League, and the Red Shirts began assassinating pro-Reconstruction politicians, and terrorizing Southern blacks.

Within a few years, Northern states were consumed by apathy and fatigue and the South slid back into many of the patterns of the Antebellum era. So dire was the situation that historian W. E. B. Dubois described the period as one "where slaves went free, stood for a moment in the sun, and then moved back again towards slavery".

This marked the beginning of the Jim Crow laws, which remained in effect until 1965. And this is the backdrop to our story.

 He was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi on or around May 8th, 1911, and his early life was anything but typical.  His mother, Julia, had birthed ten children ahead of him, all with her sharecropper husband, Charles Dodds, but he was born out of wedlock. Fathered by a plantation worker named Noah Johnson.

Ahead of his birth and as a result of the revival of redemption in the south, his father, Charles Dodds, was chased out of town by prominent white landowners and was forced to leave his thriving business and relocate to Memphis, Tennessee and change his name. When the boy was just three or four, he joined his mother and Dodds, now called Spencer, in Memphis.

In the city, the boy's world opened up. He attended school and discovered popular music. And his older brother taught him how to play the guitar. When he was around seven, his mother married another man, Dusty Willis, and he moved with them to Robinsonville, Mississippi in the deep south.

The term "the Deep South" was used to describe the states most dependent on plantations and slavery during this early period of American history. They were: Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

As a result of the Redemption movement, members of his community were largely uneducated and turned to religion and superstition to explain and justify what happened in the world around them.

Hoodoo an African spirituality practiced by the early slaves was still prevalent within the black communities of the deep south.

Hoodoo was based on the Congo cosmogram from central Africa, it represents the rising and setting of the sun and the human life cycle of death and rebirth. At the center of the cosmic gram is the crossroads where communications with the spirits take place.

The Kongo cosmogram is a fork in the road or a forked branch, a symbol of passage and communication between the worlds. The turn in the path i.e. the crossroads represents the point of intersection between the ancestors and the living. It is at the crossroads where many Africans believe one will witness the powers of God and emerge from the waters spiritually renewed.

[There is a tale that is believed to be Hoodoo in origin, which tells of selling one's soul to the devil of the crossroads in order to become gifted in various skills. It is believed that one may attend upon a crossroad, either at midnight or just before dawn, where one will meet a black man who will bestow upon the one the skills they desire.

Life in the Deep South was hard for a young black man. There were few employment opportunities other than working in the cotton fields, but he had already been bitten by the music bug while in Tennessee, and was much more interested in honing his craft than working in the fields. So he took to frequenting the local towns popular juke joints - segregated stores, or private houses that doubled, after hours, as recreational places. And this is where his legendary music career began.

Classic Jukes were typically located at rural crossroads. They catered to predominantly black plantation workers and sharecroppers who needed a place to relax and socialize, following a hard week of work in the fields. Being black meant patrons were barred from most white establishments as a result of the Jim Crow laws.

Jukes were more often than not ramshackle abandoned buildings or private homes located on the outskirts of town. They offered food, alcohol, gambling, dancing, and live music. And the owners often supplemented their incomes by providing cheap room and board, selling groceries and of course, making moonshine. They were, in essence, the very first private spaces for blacks at the Deep South.

As the story goes, he would frequent jukes where local blues legends Son House and Willie Brown were playing. When these itinerant blues players took a break from their set, he would jump on stage, grab their guitars and begin playing to the audience.

By all accounts,  he was not very good. And he would be quickly chased off the stage as Son House would later recall.

 Son House: "He'd follow me and Willie around on Saturday night, yeah, Willie Brown. And every time we stopped to rest and set our guitars over in the corner or something and go out and catch air, you know, he'd get the guitar and be trying to play and be just noising the people, you know, and the folks would come out. and said, 'why don't y'all- some of y'all going to make that boy put that thing down. He running us crazy!' He finally left. He ran off from his father and mother."

 For a time, he continued to frequent local Jukes, but his efforts to be recognized as a bonafide blues player had the same result as before.

 And then something happened, a legend was born, which changed the course of [00:08:00] music history.

He disappeared from the scene, some say for anywhere between six months and a year and a half. But during this period, there were no sightings of the young man at the popular jukes in Mississippi. And then, one night, he reappeared at a juke near Robinsonsville, where Son House was playing with Willie Brown, and he asked Son House if he could get up on stage and play. Son House replied, "audience don't want to hear any of your racket." And he replied, "I don't care what they want. I want you to hear what I've learned" And with that, he climbed on the stage, with his own guitar this time; turned his chair so that he was facing the back corner of the stage, and began to play.

And oh, how he played. Son House and Willie Brown's jaws dropped. The room fell silent. No one had ever heard a sound like this coming from a guitar. It sounded like two guitars being played simultaneously. It was unearthly.

When he was done, the young man stood up, walked off the stage and out the door of the juke. And some say they heard Son House utter, "how did he learn to play so good in such a short period of time, he must have made a deal with the devil".

Rumors of his playing spread quickly across the juke joints of the deep south as did Son House's proclamation. The rumor was furthered by the young man himself through the lyrics of his songs. "There's a hell hound on my trail"," I went to the crossroads and fell down on my knees" and "me and the devil walking side by side."

 As the myth grew, the story solidified and aligned closely with the Hoodoo spiritual beliefs. According to the developing myth, Robert, a guitar in hand, went down to the crossroads of highway 49 and 61 shortly after midnight, fell down on his knees and began to play.

A large black man appeared and asked Robert what he desired most in the world. Robert  replied, I want to be the best guitar player in the south. The man asked Robert to give him his guitar. Robert, careful not to look at the man, handed it over, the man tuned the guitar, gave it back to Robert and the deal was sealed.

Robert took to the road, travelling north and made it as far as Canada playing wherever he could on street corners, in Jukes, at crossroads throughout the United States. And his reputation continued to grow.

In 1936, his dream of recording a record came to pass. He was sought out by promoter, Henry C. Spear, and after hearing Robert play, he referred him to his contact at the American Record Company who in turn arranged to have famed producer Don Law set up recording sessions for him.

The first took place at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas in 1936, followed by a second recording session in Dallas, Texas in 1937.

During both sessions, Robert insisted on being in another room from the recording equipment and the technicians. Again, he positioned his chair facing away from the door towards the corner of the room; no one saw him play.

In 1938, Robert returned to the Deep South where he met Honeyboy Edwards. They struck up a friendship and got a gig playing together at a juke in Greenwood, Mississippi.

According to Edwards, Robert had been sleeping with the wife of an older man, and this affair was well-known and regularly discussed amongst the field workers.

At a break during their set, an open bottle of whiskey arrived at the table where Robert was sitting, apparently sent from the young woman Robert had been seeing, and he drank from the bottle.

A short while later, Honeyboy saw Robert was slouched on the stage with his guitar dangling from his arm. Honeyboy thought Robert was drunk. He asked Robert to start playing. Robert started playing, but said, I don't feel good." He played about half a song and then had to lie down on a bed in the next room.

 Honeyboy thought he had just drunk too much and would be fine, so he didn't visit him the next day. However, when he returned to the juke the following day and went into the bedroom, Robert was really sick. According to Honeyboy Edwards, it took three days for Robert to die and all the time he was on all fours, howling like a dog.

His death was never officially reported or investigated, and no charges were ever laid.

All of a sudden, the man who had become the best guitarist in all of the South was gone.

However, the guitar tuned by the man at the crossroads was never recovered.

How does a man become a story? How does that story become a myth? Passed down from one generation to another. What do we add or change, forget, or remember ,embellish or dismiss as his story changes hands. As the legend grows, what happens to the original seed of truth it sprung from, and does it really matter?

Robert Johnson became one of the greatest blues musicians the world had ever seen, in an unbelievably short period of time. Is it a story of an unaccomplished musician who makes a deal with the Devil and becomes extraordinary? Or is it the story of a determined artist who commits himself to endless hours of practice in a graveyard under the watchful gaze of his mentor? Both make for a good story.

And you might think this is the end of our tale. However, it's just the beginning. Join us next week for the first chapter of The Old Guitar. For What it's Worth.

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