Searching For Robert Johnson: Guitar expert spots new photograph on eBay auction
October 9, 2008 12:26 PM   Subscribe

...As he pored over the mass of texts and thumbnail photos that the eBay search engine had pulled up on that day in 2005, one strangely worded listing caught Schein’s eye. It read, “Old Snapshot Blues Guitar B.B. King???” He clicked on the link, then took in the sepia-toned image that opened on his monitor. Two young black men stared back at Schein from what seemed to be another time. They stood against a plain backdrop wearing snazzy suits, hats, and self-conscious smiles. The man on the left held a guitar stiffly against his lean frame. Neither man looked like B. B. King, but as Schein studied the figure with the guitar, noticing in particular the extraordinary length of his fingers and the way his left eye seemed narrower and out of sync with his right, it occurred to him that he had stumbled across something significant and rare... the more convinced he became that it depicted one of the most mysterious and mythologized blues artists produced by the Delta: the guitarist, singer, and songwriter whom Eric Clapton once anointed “the most important blues musician who ever lived.” That’s not B. B. King, Schein said to himself. Because it’s Robert Johnson.
Searching for Robert Johnson reveals not only what may be the third picture of Robert Johnson but a Byzantine struggle over his legacy as well.
posted by y2karl (29 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, great link. Even if the photo isn't really Johnson, the story and adventure are worth every penny of that $2,200.
posted by vorfeed at 12:39 PM on October 9, 2008

...and they've already airbrushed out the cigarette!
posted by JBennett at 12:42 PM on October 9, 2008

...and they've already airbrushed out the cigarette!
The Devil made them do it.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:45 PM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

...and they've already airbrushed out the cigarette!

Yeah that's total BS.

I remember when I discovered Robert Johnson. I always knew music like that existed but didn't know where it was exactly. When I was 17 I moved out and that same day or two I ran across Robert Johnson. I remember sitting in my new apartment, drinking a beer on a hot, sunny afternoon listening to him, enjoying my freedom. It's still one of my favorite memories.
posted by milarepa at 12:46 PM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Robert Johnson had crazy long fingers. They're like spiders, man.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:26 PM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

That was a hell of a story. Thanks y2karl.
posted by xbonesgt at 1:45 PM on October 9, 2008

Tommy Johnson sold his sold to the devil. TOMMY JOHNSON.

My theory is that, when you sell your soul to the devil, the devil always tricks you. So Tommy got what he asked for -- he learned how to play guitar -- and then he got the trick. And the trick is that people think it was Robert who sold his soul. I love Robert Johnson's music, but I think that legend has gone a long way toward explaining his ongoing popularity.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:47 PM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Astro Zombie writes "My theory is that, when you sell your soul to the devil, the devil always tricks you. So Tommy got what he asked for -- he learned how to play guitar -- and then he got the trick. And the trick is that people think it was Robert who sold his soul. I love Robert Johnson's music, but I think that legend has gone a long way toward explaining his ongoing popularity."

Or the trick was that RJ got famous, but mostly after his death at a very young age. I've heard that idea, too, that it was really Tommy Johnson or someone else, but seems to me that instant fame and a quick end is still pretty tragic, and perhaps tricky enough. Or maybe Steve Vai sold his soul ... and the trick was that he got famous playing for Zappa, but that most people know him as the devil's guitarist playing against Ralph Macchio (OK, so it's Ry Cooder playing ...).
posted by krinklyfig at 2:06 PM on October 9, 2008

I would like to know who else was bidding on that photo in order to get it up to $2200, because clearly they also believed it was Robert Johnson. If it wasn't, that picture sells for thirty bucks.

So there was another believer, right off the bat. If the article touches on this, I missed it.
posted by rokusan at 2:15 PM on October 9, 2008

Great article—thanks, y2karl!
posted by languagehat at 3:00 PM on October 9, 2008

As always, y2karl a wonderful link. Great story.
posted by bjgeiger at 3:01 PM on October 9, 2008

Awesome y2karl linkage. Great article. Perfectly timed to salve the other depressing images racing through my mind after watching the market dump again today. I'm grabbing the guitar, if this keeps up it may be the only thing I have left.
posted by HyperBlue at 3:06 PM on October 9, 2008

Nice find! I eat this old blues stuff up.
posted by malaprohibita at 3:09 PM on October 9, 2008

Here is a link to a story of some friends of mine who went on a Robert Johnson pilgrimage some time ago.
posted by svenvog at 3:21 PM on October 9, 2008

Fantastic! I needed this link today.
posted by rhythim at 3:33 PM on October 9, 2008

Great link! I'm going to go dig out my Robert Johnson box set right now and put in on.
posted by COD at 3:37 PM on October 9, 2008

Even if the photo isn't what he hopes, I love the story of the quest. Great read. I got excited reading about a possible new photo of him, I can't imagine the hub-bub if a recording turned up that would be even close to be verified as a Robert Johnson unknown.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 3:42 PM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Tommy Johnson sold his sold to the devil. TOMMY JOHNSON.

Well, for a fact, Tommy Johnson claimed he sold his soul to the devil.

But, then, I have been all over this in the past.

And as the article notes, evidently things did not turn out so brightly as matteo's post about Robert's recognized heir, Claud Johnson had hoped. Not as far as Claud was concerned.
posted by y2karl at 3:44 PM on October 9, 2008

I love stuff like this. Best story and FPP since the Velvet Undeground acetate found at a yard sale.
posted by fire&wings at 3:48 PM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the heads up on this very interesting article, y2karl.

And concerning Johnson's buddy in that photo, the unjustifiably under recognized Johnny Shines, it was surely unfortunate for his subsequent career that he never recorded with Robert Johnson: had there been some aural documentation of their playing together, it may well have given some lift to his career back when that Robert Johnson box set was all the rage.

Here's a tasty little sample (too short, though!) of Shines' bouncy rhythmic feel and soulful voice on Ramblin', and on acoustic (fingerpicking) in a solidly satisfying rendition of the familiar Sweet Home Chicago. Here's Johnson's Sweet Home Chicago, with some really nice old footage of Chicagoans in various everyday activities.

And here's Shines in a very brief talking head (following the inevitable appearances of Keith Richards and Eric Crapton) from a documentary called The Search for Robert Johnson.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:33 PM on October 9, 2008

One of the best classes from college was "History of the Blues." The teacher was great, had us listening to blues stuff from the earliest recordings, so we could hear all the changes as the music was developing.

When we got to Robert Johnson it was like a bomb going off in my head. It was so amazing to hear how he took everything that came before him and then did something seemingly magical to blues that completely transformed it.

thanks for the link and memories y2karl.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:53 PM on October 9, 2008

While compiling those Johnny Shines links, I came across this bizarre clip which is kind of like a car wreck, so awful you can't take your eyes off it. Someone has taken the two famous photos of Johnson and manipulated them so as to move. Well, anyway, if it gives you the creeps, you can always just shut your eyes and listen to some great Robert Johnson tunes!

Johnson fans might also want to check out this site. I haven't gone through every page or anything, so I can't guarantee it's not bullshit-free, but there may be a few things to learn there. And apologies in advance, y2karl, if you've already linked to the site in some previous Johnson-related post(s).
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:29 PM on October 9, 2008

That was a very interesting read. Thanks y2karl. I'll have to pass this along to my buddy who's into the blues, I'm sure that he'll get a kick out of it.
posted by friendlyjuan at 6:13 PM on October 9, 2008

Does anyone know, by the way, where I could go about selling my soul to the Devil in exchange for talent? I should probably post this on AskMe, come to think of it.
posted by Jon_Evil at 10:45 PM on October 9, 2008

And what comes out of the speakers? A music transformed. The sound of a man, first of all: this dark-toned voice would no longer lend credence to the youth of seventeen or eighteen that Don Law, the only person to record him, thought he might be. Now, especially in the dip of his voice at the end of a line, we can hear the follower of Son House, and the precursor of Muddy Waters. Hear him pronounce his name in ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’... – now he sounds like “Mr Johnson”, a man whose words are not half-swallowed, garbled or strangled, but clearly delivered, beautifully modulated; whose performances are not fleeting, harried or fragmented, but paced with the sense of space and drama that drew an audience in until people wept as they stood in the street around him... (The wordless last lines of ‘Love in Vain’... in this slowed form, are the work of one of the most heartbreaking and delicate of blues singers.) This is a Steady Rolling Man, whose tempos and tonalities are much like those of other Delta bluesmen. Full-speed Johnson always struck me as a disembodied sound – befitting his wraith-like persona, the reticent, drifting youth, barely more than a boy, that Don Law spoke of: the Rimbaud of the blues... Johnson slowed down sounds to me like the person in the recently discovered studio portrait: a big-boned man, self-assured and worldly-wise... It works for me, but listen for yourself.
Steady Rollin’ Man

English Dylanologist John GIbbens, in an essay from his The Nightingale’s Code puts forth the concept that Johnson's 78s were sped way up by Don Law and Columbia's enigineers for some reason and that the 'real' Robert Johnson sang in a register more like Son House's. The Real Audio examples at that first link in this comment do provide some spookiness to support this theory.

But I think not--it's too much like 9/11 conspiracy theories in that the whole why bother ? of it makes no sense. More likely is the concept that Johnson most likely tuned his guitar a whole step, to step and a half, higher, which would make the crazy capoing you need to play along not so crazy. Tuning up is not unheard of--Muddy Waters, for example, tuned up a half step for his bottleneck pieces in standard tuning, if I recall correctly.

My friend Jack Cook, to whom I will always give mad props for going down south in the 70s at the ripe age of 19 and meeting and playing with just about every pre-war--as in World War II, kids!--bluesman who was still alive. And man, does it ever show in his playing: he is one of those people who play old time music in the old time, which is much much harder than you would think. And then there is a whole Harvey Pekar's worth of comics in his adventures waiting to be illustrated--he saw and heard some crazy shit while visiting the likes of Sleepy John Estes and Furry Lewis, the stories about whom are just hilarious.

(I was lucky enough myself to see the likes of both Johnny Shines and Son House in concert, among others, in my own time, but, man, is my hat off to Jack--he met so many legends at home down south, in Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis and all. I suck in and saw Son House at the Wintonia tavern when I was 19--at the same age, Jack had already crashed at Yank Rachel's house in Chicago. I mean, like, Yank Rachel played with Sleepy John Estes and Hambone Willie Newbern, who recorded the original Rollin' and Tumblin'. If playing the blues involves a sort of laying on of hands as an analog to going down to the crossroads, Jack has had, in his time, the hands of a dozen blues Popes and a score of down home archbishops layed upon his head and hands. Gus Cannon, Sleepy John Estes, Booker White, Yank Rachel, Furry Lewis--oh, the list is much longer than that.)

Anyway, as I recall, Jack has described both Shines and Robert Jr. Lockwood as bemused to well embittered--in Lockwood's case--over being hit up all their lives by crazed Johson fans with the same lame questions about Johnson and the crossroads and all while being ignored as musicians in their own right at the same time.

(By the way, I would recommend anyone living in the Seattle area in keeping up with Jack's show schedule and catching his Jokermania show, which is a sort of downhome blues opera with inside old Seattle references galore. There really is no way to describe it. In fact, we should do a meet up around it, now that I think about it*...)

*Hmm, I see on Jack's splash page: October 25, 2008, Jack Cook & the Phantoms of Soul @ Marco Polo Bar & Grill, 5613 4th Ave S, Seattle, for example ... I am leaning towards promoting this idea later today. There is room for more than one Seattle meet up this month, I think....
posted by y2karl at 4:45 AM on October 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hey, y2k slide me a note!

I have a Yank Rachell model harmony Florentine 'lectric mando, have had it for years, it's my stage back up (or main, right now, bridge trouble on the Elliot).

So did that article mention a post-91 issue RJ box set? I was confused by that section.
posted by mwhybark at 9:01 AM on October 15, 2008

Yank at

Harmony at I think one of the Florentines on that page may actually be the one I have, probably the one at the top of the page.
posted by mwhybark at 9:08 AM on October 15, 2008

...If you’ve read the story, then you know that in the summer of 2007, John Kitchens, who represents the Johnson estate, submitted Zeke’s photo to Lois Gibson, a forensic artist who works out of the Houston Police Department, and is a graduate of the F.B.I. Academy Forensic Artist Course. Kitchens first heard of Gibson when the media carried reports that she’d determined the identity of the sailor kissing the nurse in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous Life-magazine photo of Times Square on the day World War II ended. But Gibson has also been featured in the 2005 and 2008 Editions of The Guinness Book of World Records as “The World’s Most Successful Forensic Artist” At last count, her sketches and facial reconstructions have helped catch more than 1,144 criminals. (Last year, Gibson published a manual called Forensic Art Essentials designed to aid other forensic artists in their work.)

After comparing Schein’s photo to the two known photos of Robert Johnson, Gibson produced a startling analysis. As she wrote in her report to Kitchens: “My only problem with this determination is the lack of certainty about the date of the questioned photo.” But, she continued, if Schein’s photo “was taken about the same time as, or a little earlier than,” the photo-booth self-portrait, “it appears the individual in [Schein’s photo] is Robert Johnson. All the features are consistent if not identical.” She added: “The only differences are due to the different angle of the camera on the face and/or the lighting.”

Since my story and Zeke’s photo were published, there’s been quite a bit of discourse about the image, particularly online, and in the interest of furthering that discussion I asked Gibson and the Johnson Estate, which had commissioned her report, if it would be possible to share the forensic artist’s analysis in a more detailed fashion. They agreed, so here are some excerpts from Gibson’s report and from recent e-mails that she sent me explaining her analysis.
Follow Up: A Disputed Robert Johnson Photo Gets the C.S.I. Treatment
posted by y2karl at 2:38 PM on October 30, 2008

Can't say I disagree with Jeff of Big Road Blues when he writes, in the latest post there:

"At this point more ink has been spilled on Robert Johnson than any other blues artist and while there has been plenty of quality research on the elusive bluesman it’s been largely buried in layers of hyperbole, mythology, speculation, romanticism and sheer nonsense. I have no idea if the new photo is Johnson, nor do I care all that much, and to be fair DiGiacomo’s articles are well written and don’t wallow in the kind of nonsense that usually makes the rounds. That’s not really the point. The point is the relentless scrutiny on Johnson at the expensive [sic] of so many other worthy blues artists that never get a mention - AKA the Eric Clapton mentality - “he is the most important blues musician who ever lived.” Who appointed Clapton the authority on such matters anyway? By the time the Complete Recordings was issued in 1990 (going gold and selling over a million copies by 1994) “mythology had consumed reality” as Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch wrote in Robert Johnson: Lost And Found."
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:46 PM on November 1, 2008

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