CLEVELAND, Miss.--Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson's life is shrouded in mystery. But, one of those mysteries is now solved. This weekend a third photograph was authenticated after years of forensic work.
Until now, there have been only two known photos of Johnson in circulation. One shows Johnson posing in a suit and hat, guitar in hand, and was taken in a Memphis photo studio. The other was taken in a photo booth and shows Johnson, dressed more casually, smoking a cigarette. The pic was just postage stamp size.
The third photo was found eight years ago when a classical guitarist Steven Schein was browsing ebay and came across a thumbnail of the pic that said "Old Snapshot Blues Guitar BB King??". Schein knew the picture wasn't King and thought he'd better snap it up. So, he bought it for $2,000. He recognized the long fingers and in 2007 submitted it for foresnsic work by Lois Gibson of the Houston Police Dept., famous for finding the identity of the famous WWII soldier kissing girl photo.
She concluded that the person in the picture was most likely Robert Johnson.
Johnson's compositions represent some of the most emotional and soulful writing and performance ever recorded in America, according to most rock scholars. His music has been studied, but his sound never quite duplicated. Artists such as Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and John Hammond, Jr. are students of Johnson's work.
In addition to the performance side, Johnson's life has been studied because of the few details that exist. One assertion is that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at a rural crossroads in exchange for his skill. While blues artist Tommy Johnson made this claim for himself, Johnson never told anyone that was the reason he played horribly one year, but left and returned able to pull of some of the most amazing country-blues riffs ever put to record.
Johnson's lyrics seemed sometimes to make such a claim. Songs like "Hellhounds on My Trail" seem to tell the tale of a man who is haunted, running from some unseen force. He roamed the Delta, cutting heads in Helena, playing with Charley Patton at Dockery and even farming for a short time in Robinsonville.
Indeed, even Johnson's 1938 death at the age of 27 is shrouded in mystery. The death certificate on file with the state lists "no doctor" as the cause of death. Many believe he was poisoned by a jealous husband, given tainted moonshine at a gig near Greenwood.
And even with that lies another mystery-where he is buried. There are three possible sites and three markers, one of which was paid for in part by rocker John Fogerty.