The second session, probably recorded at the record company's warehouse (508 Park Avenue, Downtown Dallas) several months later had a darker side running through most songs, as if life was running out - There's A Hell Hound On My Trail; Preachin' Blues; Drunken Hearted Man; Me And The Devil Blues; Stop Breaking Down; Love In Vain.
Fourteen months later August 1938 in Greenwood he played for the last time at the Three Forks Store at the junction of Highways 49E and 82 on the outskirts of town. Playing with him that night was Dave 'Honey Boy' Edwards who still believes, amongst others, that it was a jealous husband who caused the death of Johnson.
He tells the story of how the husband, on hearing the rumour of Johnson's liaisons with his wife, pretended ignorance and turned up early to collect Johnson ahead of the rest of the musicians so he could ply him with poison or poisoned whiskey, so that when the others arrived he was already in a state. People had no money to summon a doctor so he died from lack of attention. Johnny Shine's son-in-law swore by the story that Johnson was poisoned, quoted as saying he was on his hands and knees, howling like a dog before he died. No-one has ever convincingly named the poisoner.
It is known that Johnson took three days to die. His death certificate states no doctor and the witness Jim Moore has never been found. Other theories include alcohol poisoning from crude moonshine or that the father of a girlfriend shot him. The story surrounding the period between when he fell ill on the Saturday night and when he died is left to Dave 'Honey Boy' Edwards, who stated that when they (the musicians) got to the juke, Johnson was sitting in a corner hunched over his guitar feeling unwell. People's opinion was that if he had a drink he would feel better, but the opposite occurred and he slowly deteriorated.
Years later, barely remembered outside of Mississippi, the legend and rediscovery of Robert Johnson began with the release of a collection of Johnson's songs, followed by homage by the likes of the Rolling Stones (who recorded Love in Vain) and Eric Clapton (Sweet Home Chicago). The release of the complete recordings in 1990 coincided with interest in the whereabouts of his grave.
Many have assumed the final resting place and been way off the mark (the monument is in Morgan City, Mississippi, another one west of Greenwood and Mt Zion, Mississippi). The most obvious place though was a little cemetery in Three Forks called Little Zion. This is explained by the lack of wealth amongst the black communities of the time coupled with the depression of the thirties and even less modes of transport owned by black families - it would be easier and quicker to perform burials as close to the place of death as possible.
Through just 29 songs and 41 recordings made in a couple of rough and ready sessions more than 50 years ago, Robert Lee Johnson, in this small body of work, left evocative stories taken from his experiences of black life in 1930s Mississippi that put an unmistakable mark on popular music. Johnson's music and brilliant creativity that flared his life have moved thousands of listeners including musicians and play-wrights on both sides of the Atlantic.
Contrary to what is often said, Robert Johnson was not a once in a lifetime original (a weak tag to bestow on anyone!) but a transitional artist who smoothed the rugged songs of his peers (Son House/Skip James) and reshaped them into a style that could be adapted and has been adapted by those influenced by him (Muddy Waters, Elmore James, The Stones, Clapton, Hendrix etc.) His songs were, and are, perfectly timed manoeuvres exercised with a finesse seldom crossing the same ground twice, stamped with ndividuality of personal importance, if not experiences in his life, his view of the world and time he lived in. When we talk about great guitarists in modern times, we generally mean great soloists. Johnson's reputation as a great blues guitarist is based on less showy, but vital qualities.
More versatile than many of his contemporaries, his favourite keys in a normal standard tuning were A and E. He also played a few in D but it was with open tunings he showed his most moving qualities as a guitarist. Using a bottle neck added another dimension to his sound. His spirit remains with us forever.