An animated tribute for his birthday.
The style of Robert Johnson, the legendary Delta blues musician, has inspired generations of guitar players. His peculiar fingerpicking style and his high-pitched voice still look amazing today. When Brian Jones from Rolling Stones introduced Johnson’s music to his bandmate, Keith Richards asked «Who is the other guy playing with him?», because he thought there were two guitars playing on the record. He didn’t realize it was just Robert Johnson playing only one guitar!
Son House once remembered that Johnson wasn’t a very talented guitar player in the beginning but then he suddenly acquired his incredible guitar skills in a very short period of time. Son House’s explanation was that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at midnight in the middle of a crossroad near Dockery Plantation, Mississippi, in exchange for mastering guitar playing. This is probably the most famous legend in music history, known by every bluesman in the world. And probably has its roots in the fact that Johnson learned quite a bit from Ike Zimmerman, while they were spending time practicing together in quiet places such as graveyards at night so that nobody could disturb them.
Robert Johnson’s first recording session was held in San Antonio, Texas, on November 23, 1936, inside room 414 of the Gunter Hotel. He probably recorded the tracks while facing the wall, performing with a microphone placed in a corner of the room, to enhance the sound of his guitar, a technique called “corner loading” by Ry Cooder.
Someone has speculated that Johnson’s high-pitched voice was the result of a decision made by the sound engineer who speeded up the recording, maybe to fit on a three-minute disc, or because it just sounded more exciting that way. This theory occasionally faces out, and even though it has never be fully proven, the controversy seems to be still alive.
This animated GIF I made years ago is based on one of the only two photographs known of Robert Johnson until June 2005, when Steven “Zeke” Schein apparently discovered a third photo on eBay. The caption of the picture read “Old Snapshot Blues Guitar B.B. King???”, but no one of the two young guys portrayed looked like B.B. King. Schein, who had been inside the guitar business for years and had a passion for blues, studied the photo and convinced himself that the two boys were Robert Johnson with his friend Johnny Shines. The photo was then published on Vanity Fair in November 2008.
One of the problems with Schein’s old photograph is that, if you pay attention to a few details, it looks reversed. The buttons on the clothes (jacket, shirt and pants) of the one who is supposed to be Johnny Shines are on the wrong side for men’s clothing! This makes the guy who is holding the guitar (Robert Johnson) left-handed. But according to the people who knew him and the two confirmed photos, Johnson was right-handed.
Another picture appeared in December 2015, allegedly of Johnson with his wife Caletta Craft, and even if is believed to be authentic by someone, meany think it’s not. And it really doesn’t seem to be him.
In theory, there is one more portrait of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson: Peter Guralnick said blues archivist Mack McCormick showed him a photograph of Johnson with his nephew Louis, but the picture is still unpublished today.
So this GIF animation is my tribute to the King of Delta blues who was born on May 8, probably in 1911, and died on August 16, 1938, near Greenwood, Mississippi.