New Robert Johnson Photo Found?
In the seven decades since his mysterious death, bluesman Robert Johnson’s legend has grown—the tragically short life, the “crossroads” tale of supernatural talent, the genuine gift that inspired Dylan, Clapton, and other greats—but his image remains elusive: only two photos of Johnson have ever been seen by the public. In 2005, on eBay, guitar maven Zeke Schein thought he’d found a third. Schein’s quest to authenticate the picture only led to more questions, both about Johnson himself and about who controls his valuable legacy.
by Frank DiGiacomo November 2008
The photograph bought on eBay by Zeke Schein, who believes it depicts Robert Johnson, left, and fellow bluesman Johnny Shines. © 2007 Claud Johnson.
Schein enjoyed this aspect of the business, and when he had nothing better to do, he would sometimes log on to eBay to test his knowledge against the sellers who were advertising vintage guitars on the Web site. At the very least, he found it amusing that some people had no idea what they were selling.
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.
If there was one thing that Schein was as passionate about as guitars, it was the blues, particularly the Delta blues, that acoustic, guitar-driven form of country blues that started in the Mississippi Delta and thrived on records from the late 1920s to almost 1940. Not long after he’d begun working at Matt Umanov, Schein’s customers and co-workers had turned him on to this powerful music form, and, once hooked, he had studied the genre—its music and its history—with the same obsessive attention to detail that he brought to his work. And the longer Schein looked at the photograph on his computer monitor, 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.
If his hunch was correct, he’d made quite a find. Johnson is the Delta-blues guitarist who on one dark Mississippi night “went to the crossroad,” as he wrote in one of his most famous songs, to barter his soul to the Devil for otherworldly talent. At least that’s how the legend that’s become ingrained in popular culture has it. (In the song, “Cross Road Blues,” Johnson is actually pleading with God for mercy, not bargaining with the Devil.) A short life, a death under murky circumstances, and a body of recorded work consisting of but 29 songs only added to that legend. So did the preternatural quality of his guitar playing, the bone-deep sadness of some of his music and lyrics, the haunting quaver of his smooth, high voice, and the dark symbolism of his songs. In some respects, you could say that Johnson is the James Dean of the blues, an artist whose tragically foreshortened life and small if brilliant body of work make him a figure of great romantic allure. This was especially true in the 60s and early 70s, when little was known about Johnson, and his music was being taken up by the likes of Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. By the early 1990s, 50 years after his death, he was a platinum-selling artist, and since then he has influenced a whole new generation of guitar players, among them John Mayer and Jack White.
Defiant and Haunted
While popular culture loves a mystery, its most obsessive fans abhor a vacuum; thus there are vast archives of bootleg album outtakes and Ph.D. dissertations on forgotten record labels. The lives of poor, itinerant black musicians in the rural South of the late 1920s and 30s aren’t the most well-documented of lives, but over the past 35 years, blues researchers and historians have done a pretty good job of revealing the man behind the Johnson myth, from his birth in Hazlehurst, Mississippi (May 8, 1911, is often cited as Johnson’s birth date, though his birth certificate has yet to be found), to his death, which probably occurred in the Baptist Town section of Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1938. According to Elijah Wald’s 2004 book, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, there is currently more information available about Johnson “than about almost any of the bigger blues stars of his day.” Still, in the field of Johnson research, attempting to separate fact from fiction from politics can be maddening. As Wald writes, “So much research has been done [on Johnson] that I have to assume the overall picture is fairly accurate. Still, this picture has been pieced together from so many tattered and flimsy scraps that almost any one of them must to some extent be taken on faith.”
The biggest hole in this patchwork is the one thing that would establish Johnson’s humanity in a society hooked on visual media: photographs. In the years since he died, only two known photographs of Johnson have ever been seen by the public. The first of those images is believed to have been taken in the early 1930s and has been described as Johnson’s “photo-booth self-portrait.” The size of a postage stamp, it provided the public its first real glimpse of Johnson when it was published, more than a dozen years after it was found, in Rolling Stone magazine in 1986, the year that Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the photo, Johnson, wearing a button-down shirt with thin suspenders and holding a guitar, stares at the lens with eyes that look both defiant and haunted. A cigarette dangles from his lips, and although the guitar is only partially visible, his long left-hand fingers can be seen forming an indeterminate chord on the guitar’s neck.
If the photo-booth shot was a low-budget affair, the second image had production values. Taken by Hooks Bros., a photographic studio located in Memphis, it shows Johnson once again holding his guitar as he sits cross-legged on what appears to be a tapestry-covered stool. But this time, the bluesman is resplendent in a pin-striped suit, a striped tie, shiny dress shoes, and a narrow-brimmed fedora cocked over his right eye. He is smiling in the photo, but his eyes make him look like a deer caught in the headlights.
The Hooks Bros. photo was first widely seen in 1990, when it was featured on the cover of Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, the two-CD boxed set issued by Columbia Records that collected what, at the time, was Johnson’s entire surviving canon. The set sold more than a million copies, establishing Johnson as the biggest-selling pre-war blues artist of all time.
Schein had bought the boxed set about a year after it came out and had spent numerous hours immersing himself in the music and studying Johnson’s life story. The crossroads legend held little magic for him. After all, Schein dealt with professional musicians every day and knew plenty of talented guitarists and songwriters who toiled in obscurity or struggled for recognition, and even some who had died just as their careers were taking off. For Schein, Johnson’s appeal wasn’t any aura of mystery but rather his humanness. Born illegitimate, Johnson had lived a life freighted with alienation and misfortune. In 1930 he lost his first wife and their baby in childbirth, and yet, in the wake of this tragedy, Johnson managed to become a guitar virtuoso who still influences musicians today. He was “one guy with a guitar standing to [make] his peace,” Schein says. As far as he was concerned, Johnson’s story needed no embellishment.
With the eBay photo still on his computer monitor, Schein dug up his copy of the Johnson boxed set and took another look. Not only was he more confident than ever that he had found a photo of Robert Johnson, he had a hunch who the other man in the photo was, too: Johnny Shines, a respected Delta-blues artist in his own right, and one of the handful of musicians who, in the early 1930s and again in the months before Johnson’s death, had traveled with him from town to town to look for gigs or stand on busy street corners and engage in a competitive practice known as “cuttin’ heads,” whereby one blues musician tries to draw away the crowd (and their money) gathered around another musician by standing on a nearby corner and outplaying him.