The Blues Issue

–from the Editor’s note of the American Songwriter May/June 2015 edition

The story of the photo gracing the cover of The Blues Issue is as beguiling as its subject, Robert Johnson. 

The picture is considered to be the third verified photograph of Johnson, the Mississippi-born musician regarded as the King of the Delta Blues Singers. (Johnson is the man pictured on the left; on the right we see Johnny Shines, a Memphis-born bluesman who traveled and played with Johnson on and off throughout the ’30s.) 

Johnson is, of course, one of the more mysterious figures in American music. We know very little about his actual life; so little, in fact, that a Greek-sized myth took shape around him –namely, that he sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for guitar brilliance.  

In his short life, the man from Hazlehurst, Mississippi made just 29 recordings. But even so, his small body of work would go on to alter the course of American folk and popular music. Johnson died at age 27, after being poisoned at the hands of a jealous husband whom he allegedly cuckolded, or so the story goes. 

The history of the “third Johnson photo”unfolds like detective fiction. Zeke Schein, a Robert Johnson enthusiast and guitar merchant who works at Matt Umanov Guitars in New York City’s West Village, stumbled on it back in 2005 while looking at vintage guitars on eBay. The photo was advertised as “Old Snapshot Blues Guitar B.B King???”.  

Schein soon realized that neither of the gentlemen in the photo was King. The asymmetrical left eye and long, bony fingers of the figure on the left were tell-tale signs. This could very well be Robert Johnson, he thought to himself. Schein placed a bid on the photo and ended up acquiring it for $2,200. He still owns it to this day, though he assigned the copyright to the Johnson estate. “It’s their family and I thought it was the right thing to do,”he says.   

Over the last decade, there has been much dispute as to whether this is in fact Johnson pictured. Lois Gibson, one of the world’s leading forensic experts, issued a sworn affidavit in recent years attesting that it is the famous bluesman. Claud Johnson, Robert’s son, has always maintained that it is his father.  And even if this isn’t Johnson or Shines, the photo itself is an undisputed masterpiece, a pictorial tomb of the unknowns for the bluesmen of old. 

Based on his research, Schein now believes the photo was taken circa 1935, which would put it close to the time of the Johnson “cigarette photo.”Schein says the type of suit sported by Johnny Shines in this picture –a style similar to the “zoot suits”that became popular in the African-American community in the 1940s –was around much earlier than he previously thought. We do not know who took the photo or where it was taken and likely never will. Before he died in 1992, Shines said a woman named Johnnie Mae Crowder took a photo of him and Johnson in Arkansas, but that tidbit of trivia has not been corroborated.  

Johnson has been called the best of all blues guitarists by more than one authority, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton among them. Schein thinks the hype is well justified. “He was, in my opinion, the Jimi Hendrix of his time period,”he says. “I feel like Robert Johnson definitely borrowed heavily from people who came before him, but he put it out in a way that was his own voice, in my opinion …and it was the origins of what we came to accept as rock music.” In this issue, we look at the legacy of Robert Johnson and the work of the foundation. Robert’s grandson, Steven, is calling on today’s musicians to help carry the mantle of Johnson’s legacy. “We want those people that he inspired and those that talk so highly of him to reach out and become a part of what we’re doing now,”he says. 

Elsewhere in this issue, we take a liberal definition of the blues. In addition to profiling hardcore bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont region of Carolinas, and Texas and Chicago, we look at a few New Orleans jazz cats as well as singers like Billie Holiday, all of whom played the blues in one way or another.  

Today, the blues can be read as a living, breathing document of the plight of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South. It’s “folk music”in the strictest sense of the term. But the blues is much more than that. It’s dance music, it’s jukebox music, and for contemporary blues artists like ‘Keb ‘Mo, it’s a vehicle for positive expression. So it’s not always about being down and out.

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