Barry Smith: Talking blues with a plumber
February 15, 2004
Blues musician Robert Johnson was one of the most influential artists of the last century, and also one of the most mysterious. A contemporary of other Delta blues greats like Son House, Charley Patton and Muddy Waters, he died in 1938 at the age of 27.
Or did he?
There are many conflicting versions of his death, though at this point most blues scholars agree that it was due to poisoning by a jealous husband. This, combined with the lore that Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical abilities, leads many to believe that he never actually died.
As a blues fan, I occasionally publish a little blues ‘zine called “One, Four, Five.” It is in the capacity as editor of that publication that I have made the most significant discovery in the history of music since the invention of the washboard.
The following is a verbatim transcript of my phone interview with blues legend Robert Johnson.
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Robert Johnson: Hello?
Barry Smith: Robert Johnson?
RJ: Speaking. Who is this?
BS: I’m calling from “One, Four, Five” blues magazine. Are you available for an interview, sir?
RJ: Blues? Like the music?
BS: Yes, sir.
RJ: I don’t really know much about blues.
BS: Ha ha. You’re so humble. So, Mr. Johnson, what do you remember about your time playing with Son House?
RJ: Whose house?
BS: Is it true that he used to kick you off stage when you were a teenager because your guitar playing was so awful at that point?
RJ: Guitar? I don’t even have a guitar. I have a sun house, though. We can grow tomatoes in it year-round.
BS: Ah, ha ha ha. I get it. I never thought of that before, but I suppose you’ve had plenty of time to reflect.
RJ: Reflect on what? Who is this again?
BS: I’m sure you must be sick of talking about this, but could we spend a moment on the topic of you selling your soul to the devil?
RJ: Excuse me?
BS: Most people assume it was a rumor that you never bothered to quell, though others think it was an intentional, well, publicity stunt, on your part in order to …
RJ: How did you get this number?
BS: In the phone book. I realize that you have listed yourself under “Robert Johnson’s Plumbing and Heating” in order to avoid calls like this one, and again I apologize for the intrusion, but I think your fans will appreciate knowing that you are still …
RJ: Is this one of those radio crank calls or something? Are you trying to make fun of me because I’m a plumber?
BS: You’re not a plumber.
RJ: Yes I am.
BS: No, you’re not. You’re Robert Johnson, blues legend, one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, and I will forever be credited with your rediscovery.
RJ: No, I’m Robert Johnson, most influential plumber in the tricounty area, and you will be forever credited with wasting my time.
BS: I understand completely ” you wanted to leave the rugged life of a bluesman behind and try a different career.
BS: So, did you have to sell your soul in order to become a plumber?
RJ: Don’t call this number again.
BS: Wait! If I come over will you teach me “Terraplane Blues?”
– click –
Next time: Blues great Furry Lewis rediscovered in Nebraska, posing as a rodeo clown. Barry Smith’s column appears in The Aspen Times every Monday.