More myths and legends are attached to the life of Robert Johnson (1911 – 1938) than surround any other American blues artist. It’s said that he sold his soul to the devil down at a Mississippi crossroads in return for the ability to play guitar with a technique that musicians like Eric Clapton are still trying to replicate. It’s said that his death at age 27 established a precedent for other great American musicians who also died at that same age, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Al “Blind Owl” Wilson. And it is said that Johnson was poisoned with strychnine in Greenwood, Mississippi after making advances on another man’s wife. This has never been proven.
The story of Robert Johnson has fascinated other musicians from the time of his death up through the present. This song, by The Stone Foxes, is from the Bears & Bulls disc. It is the imagined confession of a club owner who poisoned the musician:
Now I’m not saying he deserved it, oh for crossing the line
But I killed Robert Johnson, with strychnine
There is some dispute as to whether, if Johnson was in fact poisoned, the agent was strychnine. Some argue that the smell and taste of nux vomica is so strong and distinct that it could be hidden even if combined with whiskey. In addition, it apparently took Johnson 3 days to die after the presumed exposure. Strychnine would have acted much more rapidly.
Here is Johnson’s recording of “Sweet Home Chicago“:
And here is Eric Clapton’s cover of “Love in Vain“: