One of the most endearing legends of blues music is the tale that Robert Johnson (1911-38), arguably the best blues guitarist ever, met the devil one midnight in the early 1930s at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The devil supposedly tuned Johnson’s guitar and handed it back on the condition that the young guitar player would one day provide his soul to the fallen angel. That day came sooner than later, as Johnson died from poisoning at the age of 27, thus becoming the first member of the “27 club” (musicians dying at that age such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and many others). A black blues player selling his soul to the devil to acquire an incredible skill on the guitar is indeed a sexy, enticing, and even spooky story, but is also about as unbelievable and unoriginal as it gets, in my humble opinion. However, defenders of this wild Faustian-style story ask the inevitable question: how else could a kid who could only bang on a guitar at local jukes come back a year and a half later as a master guitarist unmatched by the greatest blues players of the time? I believe there is an alternate, and much more believable explanation, that I like to call the “Z” (Zimmerman) factor.
Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman (1907-67; sometimes spelled Zinnerman) was born in Grady, Alabama. He married Ruth Sellers in the late 1920s, and lived with her and their children near Beauregard, Mississippi. “He played guitar and harmonica in local juke joints, often practicing at night in local cemeteries where he would not disturb others. He became known for his guitar skills, and gave guitar lessons. Robert Johnson, who had been born in nearby Hazlehurst, came back to the area, probably around 1931, and sought out Zimmerman with the intention of improving his finger-picking and bottleneck guitar skills,” explains Wikipedia. “R.L.” as he was then known, not only sought out Zimmerman, but took up residence in his home. The two would practice guitar playing in a local cemetery at midnight so as to absorb the spirits of deceased blues players buried there. Zimmerman would tell his young apprentice: “If you play badly, don’t worry because you won’t get any complaints.”
Bruce Conforth PhD, a musician and professor at the University of Michigan, writing in an article entitled “Ike Zimmerman: The X in Robert Johnson’s Crossroads” states that it is “…highly likely that he [Zimmerman] never knew, or understood, the influence he had on Johnson, and by extension, on the history of blues music, and ultimately rock and roll. Virtually every blues guitarist following Johnson owes something to his style: Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Robert Lockwood, Honeyboy Edwards, Johnny Shines, and countless others. And these artists helped give birth to rhythm and blues and rock and roll artists like Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and every rock/blues band that ever played. Whether Zimmerman was ground zero for all this will not even be speculated by this author, but clearly, Ike Zimmerman’s guitar expertise and influence far exceeded his own life and work. He is the X factor in Robert Johnson’s crossroads.” Unfortunately, Ike never made any recordings and gave up playing the blues in his later life, in favor of becoming a preacher.
So-called deals with the devil date back hundreds, if not thousands of years. For example, Italian violinist Niccolo Paginini [1782-1840] was called “The Devil’s Violinist” as people thought he had sold his soul to Beelzebub. One of Robert Johnson’s biographers even claimed that the devil myth in the blues was attributed to the wrong Johnson. “Whilst many claim that it was Robert Johnson who began the legend of selling one’s soul to the devil to play the blues, one of his biographers, Tom Graves, stated in 2008 that this story actually originated with Tommy Johnson [1896-1956], and was later ascribed to Robert [no relation],” states paranormalscholar.com.
There is no doubt that Robert Johnson’s musical style later influenced a great many guitarists. In his autobiography Clapton, Eric writes that the bluesman who impressed him the most was Robert Johnson. “At first the music almost repelled me, it was so intense, and this man made no attempt to sugarcoat what he was trying to say, or play. It was hard-core, more than anything I had ever heard. After a few listenings I realized that, on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man’s example would be my life work,” Clapton wrote. “I tried to copy Johnson, but his style of simultaneously playing a disjointed bass line on the low strings, rhythm on the middle strings, and lead on the treble strings while singing at the same time was impossible to even imagine.”
Clapton puts his finger on exactly how Johnson’s playing was so different and unique. Only a handful of pictures still exist of the real Robert Johnson, but one clearly shows that he had extremely long fingers. No doubt these long appendages allowed him to grip the neck of the guitar better than others and strum many strings with the other hand at the same time. R.L. added a seventh string to his six-string guitar so that when he played it sounded like two or three guitars playing in unison. People who heard Johnson playing live said it even sounded like an orchestra on stage. Others said Johnson played the guitar like it was a piano. With these advantages, it is no wonder Johnson won a reputation as a great blues guitarist, maybe the greatest ever. No mythical tales at play, just superior technique backed by years of hard study with a master guitarist.
Wikipedia summarizes Johnson’s posthumous achievements thusly: “Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first induction ceremony, in 1986, as an early influence on rock and roll. He was awarded a posthumous Grammy Award in 1991 for The Complete Recordings, a 1990 compilation album [41 songs]. His single ‘Cross Country Blues’ was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998, and he was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. In 2003, David Fricke ranked Johnson fifth in Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”
Robert Johnson sings “Crossroad Blues”