The third photograph of Robert Johnson

An old photograph comes to light — a reminder that mythology is real and the past is still alive

One of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th Century (and his influence extends into the 21st Century) is also one of the most mysterious.

Robert Johnson, 1911-1938, was an itinerant Blues musician, composer, entertainer and guitar player from Mississippi who roamed the American south. He died at 27 years of age, under mysterious circumstances — foul play suspected.

There is more legend and myth to his story than history, starting with, of course, the apocryphal saw that he went down to the Crossroads one night to meet the Devil, who tuned his guitar for him, thus ensuring he would become one of the greatest guitar players of all time. In exchange, of course …

There are stories of the townsfolk lining up around the block when he came to town to play the local juke joint. He is understood to have had a repertoire of many hundreds of songs — not just in the Blues, but popular genres of the day, like Ragtime and Country.

Even so, he would have remained largely unknown to posterity, except that almost by chance he was asked to participate in two recording sessions (in 1936 and 1937), resulting in 29 songs — which would remain his entire recorded output. All of these songs except one are12-bar Blues in the Mississippi Delta style (the other is a ragtime).

A surge in global enthusiasm for the Blues in the 1960s led to a rediscovery of Johnson and his music, and he became, posthumously, an enormous influence on Blues, Rock and Country. He is generally regarded as the most influential Blues musician who ever lived, and one of the great American composers and songwriters of all time (Hank Williams comes to mind as Johnson’s parallel in the world of Country music). He is now understood to have revolutionized the finger-picking style of Blues guitar.

Up until this month, only two confirmed photographs of Johnson were known to exist. A formal studio portrait of him in his suit, smiling into the camera, and a close-up “self-portrait” taken in a do-it-yourself photo booth, showing the musician brooding, cigarette in mouth.

And now, this month, a third photograph has come to light of this iconic musician. This is a great event in music history.

The third confirmed photo is from the same Beale Street, Memphis, photo booth as the other photo. It shows a relaxed Johnson, brandishing his guitar, flashing a brilliant smile that shows what an easy-going, joyous personality he must have had.

All these years this photo was in the possession of Johnson’s step-sister, Annye Anderson, 15 years younger than Johnson, who this month is releasing a memoir of her life with her brother — “Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson.”

How the world has changed over the past decades. Photographs, self-portraits, video and suchlike media are now so commonplace, accessible, and so easily created, distributed or published, that it strikes me that their individual and intrinsic value is lessened. Certainly, advances in digital and camera technology has greatly heightened what photography is capable of, and that it is more easily accessible to everyone is a good thing.

But I believe that because it is so easy, that our first instinct is to photograph or video a moment, 24 hours a day, means that photographs no longer have the the same ability to connect us to the past — especially the good old snapshot, that captured a moment of personal whimsy and gave it a magical life. An album of old family photographs, to me, has a lot more power than scrolling through one’s Facebook feed. It’s the analogue versus digital debate, I suppose. And time marches on.

Still, when an old crinkled photo is pulled out of a drawer, and suddenly a mythology is made real, it is a reminder that the past is still with us, that it is still very much alive, and it has a power we cannot ignore. Just like Robert Johnson’s music.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cranbrook Bucks add veteran blueliner to defensive corps

A veteran blueliner has joined the Cranbrook Bucks defensive corps. Carson Kurylo… Continue reading

Conservation officers rescue elk calf, take it to wildlife rehab centre

Members with the B.C. Conservation Officer Service recently rescued a dehydrated and… Continue reading

City of Cranbrook, WildSafeBC report uptick in aggressive deer

WildSafeBC says it’s important to ensure that deer don’t make your yard their home

Chernove set to take on epic 1,000 kilometre cycling challenge

A local Paralympian is taking on an epic cycling challenge. Tristen Chernove… Continue reading

From baseball stars to forest fires: Southeast Fire Centre water bomber has an interesting past

Tanker 489 is stationed in Castlegar this year, but in the 1960s it belonged to the L.A. Dodgers.

B.C. sees 25 new COVID-19 cases, community exposure tracked

One death, outbreaks remain in two long-term care facilities

VIDEO: Vancouver Island cat missing 18 months reunited with family

Blue the cat found at Victoria museum 17 kilometres from home

COVID-19 cases identified in Kelowna, after public gatherings

Those who were downtown or at the waterfront from June 25 to July 6 maybe have been exposed to COVID-19.

VIDEO: Alberta man rescues baby eagle believed to be drowning in East Kootenay lake

Brett Bacon was boating on a lake in Windermere when he spotted the baby eagle struggling in the water

Conservationists raise concerns over state of care for grizzly cubs transferred to B.C. zoo

‘Let them be assessed now before their fate is sealed,’ urges B.C. conservationist Barb Murray

B.C.’s COVID-19 job recovery led by tourism, finance minister says

Okanagan a bright spot for in-province visitor economy

National Kitten Day aka the ‘purrfect’ day to foster a new friend

July 10 marks National Kitten Day, a special day to celebrate all things kittens

Lower Mainland YouTubers claim to be Kelowna display toilet ‘poopers’

RCMP can not speak to legitimacy of video, will be investigating

Haida matriarchs occupy ancient villages as fishing lodges reopen to visitors

‘Daughters of the rivers’ say occupation follows two fishing lodges reopening without Haida consent

Most Read