Banjo player Don Stover called it ‘snake music’ when referring to the work of Scotty Stoneman—the haunted Virginian who could sound his fiddle like the bark of a carrion crow or a silk stocking slipping on slow—not to mark Stoneman’s obsession with black snakes so much as to describe the way that he would sway like an asp in the footlights, entranced, when he played.
Robert Johnson played snake music too. I have stayed awake at night and seen his guitar leer like a jackal. I have heard Robert Johnson coo like a mama in a room full of newborn babies. And while there is no visual record of Johnson playing—none that we know of, anyway—I imagine he closed his eyes and swayed slow when he played. Listen to his music—how could he not? His is the sound of a soul in flux. His is a deep study.
The facts as we know them go like this: Robert Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, in May of 1911. From 1930 onwards, Johnson worked as an itinerant musician in the juke joints and house parties that dotted the Delta landscape. In 1936, the young musician journeyed to San Antonio, Texas, where he made his first recordings for Brunswick Records. The following year, he again traveled to Texas—this time, Dallas—where he recorded another selection of songs for Brunswick. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Johnson died in 1938 near Greenwood, Mississippi after drinking strychnine-laced whiskey. Musician Sonny Boy Williamson reportedly cautioned Johnson against drinking from an open bottle to which Johnson replied, “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.” He was 27 years old.
Robert Johnson’s collected works fit easily on two long-play records. These sides forever guarantee his place in the American cultural lexicon. And while it’s easy to get lost in the Johnson mythography that seems almost Biblical in age and import, it’s essential that we hear his music for how complex and alive—musically and emotionally—it was. Leave his crossroads deal with the Devil for the theologians.
While there are more harrowing bluesmen—Skip James, maybe, or Robert Pete Williams, or Washington Phillips—Robert Johnson was the cipher. His music is slippery and blue. It jumps like a silver fish. It weighs heavy as the dirt from a new made grave, and laughs like a drunk on the first night of a bender. He was arcane, but surely not primitive. He was the opposite of primitive. He was the progress that we all hope to be and the immortality that results when we live like we don’t mind dying. He is the American totem.
And then there’s snake music another way: The tune the charmer pipes to entice the creature from the basket. And while Johnson may have been a cobra entranced, I believe he was also the piper. And perhaps understanding the serpentine wiles enough to bring them into the world and dance them around for a little while—perhaps this is a curse. But Robert Johnson did this too.