In 1968 Wardlow astonished the blues world by discovering a death certificate, a milestone in blues research that answered major questions about Mississipi's most controversial and historicaly obscure blues singer, Robert Johnson. In the following interview Gayle Dean Wardlow talks about the search for the Johnson death certificate, the Johnson legend, and the Delta Blues.
I've been a collector all my life. I started collecting Roy Acuff records in 1952. By 1959 I had an almost complete collection of Acuff records dating back to 1936. A collector in California that I had bought some records from told me, "look, you're living in the south. If you'll go out and find some old jazz and blues records you can swap 'em for a whole box of Roy Acuff records." So one day I went down to the black neighborhood behind my house and started knocking on doors, looking for records. I found two records that day, one by an artist named Chippy Hill with Louie Armstrong on trumpet. The other was a Champion label that came out in 1931. It turns out that the Champion record was the only one ever found of that record and I found it right there in my own neighborhood.
And that got you started collecting blues?
Not then because I intended to trade the blues stuff. Later, while I was going to college. I started to work for an exterminating company in Jackson, Mississippi. During my lunch hour I would knock on doors in the black neighborhoods and buy old Victrola records. I developed a pretty good selection of blues and I started listening to the records and really liked the music. That's when I got serioulsly into collecting blues. It became an obsession. I've got approximately 3000 records in my 78 collection. It's one of the stronger collections in the world of pre-war blues.
What would you estimate the dollar value is on your collection?
Years ago I was offered $60,000, but it would take a lot more for me to sell. Those records have been a part of my life for a long time and it would be impossible to rebuild a collection like that. We're talking about records that are only one or two known copies in the world, extremely rare records. I keep 300 of the rarest records in safe deposit boxes.
And you got most of these records by knocking on doors?
The bulk of the collection I bought knocking on doors in about five states. The rest I got by trading.
What do you consider to be the most valuable record in your collection?
I was offered $5,000 for one of my Charlie Patton records.
What about Robert Johnson. Has the value of his records increased since he's been "re-discovered" by the public?
Yea, l'm sure they have. I've got a copy of "Terraplane Blues" and "Me and the Devil Blues" and some others that are worth more than they were a few years ago. One collector reportedly paid $600 for Johnson's "Hell Hound On My Trail". The Son House records are the really rare ones. One of his records, "Preaching the Blues", a song that Johnson did a version of, only one known copy exists. Another Son House record that I have a copy of, "Dry Spell Blues" is one of only three known copies.
Was your research into blues an extension of your record collection?
Right. Because I found out that there was very little information about these early bluesmen, hardly anything. I became determined to learn where these guys came from and as much as I could about them. For example, very little was known about Charlie Patton. In the summer of 1963 I found a wife of Patton's outside of Vicksburg and she told me he came from Dockery's plantation in Sunflower county, Mississippi. She also confirmed. that he had died in Holly Ridge, Mississippi. That summer I found where he was buried and the plantation where he had lived.
Was it at this point that you began your research for the Charlie Patton biography?
Originally the idea was to do a book about all the Mississippi bluesmen. But, so much information was uncovered on Patton, the book evolved into the life and music of Charlie Patton, Founder of the Delta Blues. I was researching all the major Mississippi blues artists such as Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, and some of the lesser known guys like Garfield Akers and Joe Callicott. I thought, if I can find all this about Patton, l'm going find out about the rest of these guys nobody knows about. During the time I was going to college at Belhaven in Jackson, I was also working for the newspaper on weekends as a sports writer covering sports events. When they would send me up in the Delta area to cover a football game l'd knock on doors, buy records and ask people if they knew anything about Robert Johnson, Skip James, Son House or Charlie Patton.
This was 30 to 40 years after those guys had made records. Did you find anybody that knew who they were?
Most people had never heard of Robert Johnson, just about everyone had heard of Charlie Patton, and Skip James was like a non entity, nobody I talked to knew who he was.
Later, you made an extensive search for Skip James, didn't you?
I spent a year looking for him. The guys in the east who had record companies were also looking for Skip James at the time. This was 1964, nobody knew if he was still alive or anything about him. I found a fellow, Ishmon Bracey, who had recorded for Victor in 1928 and Paramount in 1930, a great blues singer and guitarist. He had become a minister, said he'd given up his wicked ways and didn't play the blues anymore. I asked him about Skip James and he told me he didn't know where he was or where he came from. Later I found out from another source that Skip James lived in Bentonia, Mississippi. I tracked him through Bentonia, all over the state, even into West Memphis with no results.
How was he finally discovered?
Well, meanwhile I had told Ishmon Bracey that I knew that James was from Bentonia and was still alive but I hadn't been able to locate him yet. He sold that information to a couple of guys from New York for $35 and they went to Bentonia, got some leads and found Skip James in a Tunica county hospital.
You had been looking all this time, how did they find him so guickly?
It was a matter of timing, I suppose. They hit the right people at the right time and I didn't.
When did you learn that he'd been found?
I picked up a TIME magazine one day and there it was: Skip James and Son House found! I was devastated. I had been looking for this man for over a year. Finding him was very important to me. I wanted to write about these guys, and I wanted credit for finding them.
Who were some of the other people you were looking for?
There were a lot of blues artists from the Mississippi Delta who made records in the twenties and I tracked almost all of them. Some I never found what happened to, they just disappeared.
How were all those bluesmen from a remote part of Mississippi getting on record?
Actually, one man is responsible for Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, Son House, Willie Brown, Skip James, Robert Johnson and most of the major Mississippi bluesmen being on record. His name was H.C. Speir and he owned a music store in Jackson, Mississippi. Speir had a recording machine upstairs and he would scout local talent, record them on acetate and send that off to the record companies. He was the first man in Mississippi to scout black musicians. He got two or three artists on RCA Victor, then he started working with Paramount. The Paramount people thought he was so good, they'd take anybody he sent.
Did Speir do a session with Robert Johnson?
No, not an actual session, just a one-song acetate. But he was responsible for getting Johnson his recording session in Texas. Robert Johnson came to the store in 1936, Speir told me he remembers Johnson singing "Kind Hearted Woman". About the time Johnson came to the store, Speir had just completed over 200 masters for ARC, that's the record company that predates Columbia. He was having problems with with the company about payment, so rather than do a session with Johnson himself, he contacted a fellow in New Orleans named Emie Oertle who was the ARC salesman for Mississippi and Louisiana. Oertle picked Johnson up and took him to San Antonio to record. But Speir was the man behind Robert Johnson getting to Texas to do those sessions. Speir deserves a lot of credit. If it had not been for him, many of the great bluesmen would possibly never have been recorded. An amazing fact is that by World War II, over forty artists from the state of Mississippi had made records with the major labels
And 1would guess almost as many after the war.
No, I doubt there's as many post-war. The post-war, Mississippi artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Jimmy Reed etc. turned out tons of records, they were just so prolific, but their number wasn't as big as the pre-war artists. A rough estimate would be around 20 to 30. The difference is the pre-war artists, in a lot of cases, would make just one session, four sides. You had to be much better in those days, if your records didn't sell you didn't record again.
I read somewhere that Johnny Shines said all Robert Johnson was paid for his sessions was $ 75 to $100. Was that the going rate in the thirties?
That's about right. I interviewed one of the original members of Roy Acuffs band and he told me that in 1936 they recorded in Chicago for ARC and were paid $250 for twenty sides. So, that's about $12 a side. You can figure Johnson, being black, didn't get that much. Larry Cohn, the guy that produced the Robert Johnson CD, was telling me that he found some contracts from 1933 where a fellow named Buddy Moss was paid $5 a side. You can figure, based on that, Johnson was paid between $5 and $10 per song. He recorded 16 sides that first session so he was paid $160 maximum.
And here it is, 55 years later, and those songs are still selling like crazy.
Yea, and he was real close to becoming famous in his day. He died about three months before he was scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall. If he had lived to make that performance he would have received tremendous recognition. l'm sure he'd be the man who started Chicago blues. Many people give him credit for Chicago blues anyway because so many of his songs were recorded by Chicago bluesmen after the war.
You're the man who found Robert Johnson's death certificate after he had been dead for almost 30 years. Was that the only clue left to solving the Johnson mystery?
Finding the death certificate would answer some important questions like how old he was, where he was buried, where he died, and how he died.
How long did you search for it?
I spent three years looking for that death certificate. One source I had told me he was killed in Eurdora, Mississippi and I tried to trace a death certificate from that county and found nothing. Then I tried Texas because there were rumors that he might have been murdered in San Antonio shortly after he recorded there, still nothing. Other sources told me he was killed in Helena, Arkansas. Another said Memphis. I tried both places with no results. At that point it seemed like a dead end. I was beginning to think that if he was murdered there was probably no death certificate.
How did you finally get the right lead?
In 1967 an article appeared in DownBeat magazine. A Mississippi bluesman named "Honey Boy" Edwards was quoted in that article that Johnson was killed around Greenwood, Mississippi. I immediately went and put in for a death certificate and there it was. I found it in Janurary 1968, and in 1971 it was published in Blues Unlimited magazine. That was the leading blues magazine at the time.
But, the death certificate didn't answer all the questions, did it?
It cleared up the some myths about where he was buried, his age, and how long he had been a musician. Up until that point it was thought that he was eighteen years old and fresh off the plantation when he recorded. Now we know he was 26 to 27 years old and had been playing for ten years. It didn't give any information about how he was killed. The certificate listed no attending doctor and no cause of death.
Did you try to uncover the details of his murder?
I did some research around Greenwood. There were sources that said they remembered him dying but no details beyond that. Who I was really looking for was the man the death certificate listed as informant, a guy named Jim Moore. He was responsible for all the information on the certificate. He knew Johnson's parents' names, his date and place of birth, and how long he had been a musician. He obviously knew Robert Johnson very well, and l'm sure he knew details about his death. If I could have found this Jim Moore person, all the questions could have been answered. But, to this day, nobody ever has.
The whole Robert Johnson thing probably wouldn't be nearly as fasinating if we knew all the facts.
The mystery is part of the charm. One story says he was stabbed to death. Another story says a jealous husband slipped some poison in his wiskey because Johnson was having an affair with his wife.
That would be the poetic way for a bluesman to die.
Yea, I guess so. The latest story claims Johnson was living with this woman, he beat her up and was later poisoned by the woman's angry father. I was talking to a black doctor who told me the possibility exists that Johnson could have died from internal bleeding caused by drinking moonshine over a long period of time. He said because Johnson lived for three days after he was said to have been poisoned showed that the poison itself was not lethal, if it had been deadly enough it would have killed him in a couple of hours. According to the death certificate he died on Tuesday and he was allegedly poisoned the Saturday night before, that's three days.
Based on what you've learned, was he stabbed or poisoned?
I believe Robert Johnson died from internal bleeding, what caused that I don't know, it could have been poison. I don't think he was stabbed to death. All we have is rumors. I seriously doubt the story about the woman's father poisoning him because I talked to the woman personally and I question her credibility.
During your reasearch on Charlie Patton and Willie Brown you interviewed quite a lot of people who knew or claimed to have known Robert Johnson personally. How did you qualify those people to tell if they were legitimate informants?
You know after you've talked to somebody for awhile if they're legitimate or not. For instance, this old couple I talked with, Willie and Elizabeth Moore, I've got eight rolls of tape where I've interviewed them over a period of time. And I always take a record player and records with me so they can comment on the music. You can tell if they're genuine by their reactions and comments.
Was Willie Moore a musician?
Yes, he played second guitar with Charlie Patton and Willie Brown. He was also thrown in jail with Robert Johnson because they were singing on the street corner in Robinsonville about the town's "high sheriff'. Elizabeth Moore ran a juke house in Friar's Point where Robert Johnson used to come. The Moore's knew Johnson even before he learned to play guitar, he was playing harmonica at the time and would come to Elizabeth's first husband for guitar lessons. He went by the name Robert Sax at that time. What made Robert Johnson so difficult to track was that he used four or five different names. Up in Robinsonville, where he grew up he was known as Robert Sax and Robert Saxton. He used the name Robert Dusty more than Robert Johnson. He later told Elizabeth Moore the reason he used different names was for protection. He said he worried that he'd be playing in some town and somebody would kill somebody and use his name and the police would start looking for him. He would come through Jackson using the name R.L. according to a another bluesman I talked to named Johnny Temple. Temple played a walking boogie style of guitar like Robert Johnson. He told me he got the style from a guy named R.L. I said,"You mean Robert Johnson?" He said, "No, his name was R.L." He told me that in the early thirties R.L. would ride a freight train into Jackson on Friday afternoons and Temple and Johnson would play the juke joints. I played Temple a Robert Johnson record and he said that the voice didn't sound like R.L. but the guitar playing definitly was. So, l'm pretty sure it was Johnson because he had used those initals in other places. You have to remember, Robert Johnson was not that well known, he was just another guitar player at the time. He didn't have anywhere close to the reputation that Charlie Patton, or even Son House, had.
Do you think, given Ihe right conditions, he could have been a prominent musician in any form of music.
I think he would have, he had incredible natural ability. He told Elizabeth Moore early on that someday he was going to be a professional musician and was going to New York to make records. According to the Moore's he got a lot of encouragement from the people there in Robinsonville. Because, you see, musicians were looked up to in the black community. The preacher was very big in the social structure, he was number one. There were no black doctors, or lawyers so number two was the musician. The musician attracted a lot of attention.
But the blues musician would be the preacher's natura! counterpart.
Right, the evil counterpart. Remember, now, black people in the church back then believed that if you played the blues you were playing the devil's music because of all the things associated with it, the whiskey, the women, the gambling, the violence, and so forth. If you played blues you were going to hell. And the legend was in those days that you could sell your soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to do whatever you wanted. I think Son House was partly responsible for this story about Robert Johnson's deal with the devil. Son House said he heard Johnson play one time and he couldn't do much, then he heard him six months later and he was a polished entertainer. Implying that he had made the "deal at the crossroads" to get so good so quick. I think Son House got his memory mixed up and instead of six months it was probably a couple of years. There were a few Johnson songs that no doubt perpetuated the myth like "Me And The Devil Blues"," Stones In My Passway", and "Hell Hound On My Trail". Lines such as "me and the devil walkin' side by side, gonna beat my woman 'till I get satisfied" were pretty strong statements. When people heard that they said "my gosh! he wouldn't be singing a line like that unless he belonged to the devil". Robert Johnson was an excellent song writer, he was very diverse with Iyrics and sometimes those Iyrics were a little unusual. The fact that he died a violent death added to the overall mystisism.
How much was Robert Johnson influenced Iyrically and musically by Charlie Patton, Son House and Skip James? Didn't a good bit of his stuff come from them?
He borrowed from Skip James a good bit. The song "32-20 Blues" is a Skip James song. James called it "22-20 Blues", it's word for word the same song except the ending where Johnson sings,"...doctors in Hot Springs sho can't help her none". The original says "doctors in Wisconsin". Skip James was in Wisconsin when he first recorded the song in 1 931 . "Hell Hound On My Trail" is another thing Johnson got from a Skip James song called "Devil Got My Woman", same melody, same feel. Charlie Patton did a song called "When Your Way Gets Dark", with the bottle neck. You can hear shades of that in Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen."
Would you say that Charlie Patton and Skip James were the original Delta blues singers and everybody else was patterned after their styles?
Charlie Patton founded the Delta blues style. I don't consider Skip James Delta blues, he has his own little school of blues, his own style based around an open E minor tuning. The Blues evolved somewhere between 1900 and 1920, we don't know exactly where it came from it just sprang up in the Mississippi Delta and different places across the South.
Some believe the Blues were rooted in New Orleans.
A city type of piano and horn blues maybe, but not a guitar blues. The New Orleans blues was, in most cases, female singers backed by piano or a jazz band. The Delta blues was all male, guitar oriented blues. An interesting point is that the guitar was first introduced to the black field-hands by Mexican laborers who came to the Mississippi Delta to build railroads and work on plantations.
So when the guitar was introduced the Delta style started with Charlie Patton?
Nobody was doing it before Patton that we know of. There was an old man that lived on the same plantation with Patton that played guitar, mostly just chords. Patton was the first to do the intricate rhythms and open tunings. Patton was already playing blues in 1909, before phonograph records were available, so he developed his style without hearing a lot of other musicians on records. Robert Johnson listened to many different kinds of music on records and was influenced by other musicians. According to Johnny Shines, Johnson sang all kinds of music from Bing Crosby to Jimmie Rodgers. Johnson took the guitar styles from the 20's, guys like Patton, James, and House and molded that into a highly emotional style of his own. There were a lot of guitarists that influenced Johnson. Many people don't realize that. However, Robert Johnson had a tremendous affect on the styles of other bluesmen. Elmore James and Muddy Waters were heavily influenced by Johnson. Both of those guys were limited guitarists compared to Johnson. Robert Johnson was a great guitar player. His playing was much stronger than his singing even. He didn't have a strong voice. Now, if you listen to Son House or Charlie Patton you'll hear some singing. They had strong, powerful voices.
You would think that Johnson would have a very strong voice to be heard at those rowdy house parties he played.
Compared to Patton and House, his voice was weak. People that I've talked to that heard Robert Johnson live told me this. That may surprise a lot of people who've listened to his recordings. I think the recording process did a lot to emphasize his voice. I think the guitar was his strong suit.
Speaking ofguitars, you're also a vintage guitar collector.
Yes, especially resophonic guitars, Nationals and Dobros. I've got a 1928 tricone National, style two; a 1928 style one square neck; and a 1935 style 0 National. And, I have a National Duolion and a National banjo. Unfortunately, l'm having to keep most of the collection in a bank vault at the present time.
What have you done lately in blues research?
Last year a friend of mine, Walter Liniger from the Blues Archives at Ole Miss, and I followed up on some leads I had on a Mississippi blues artist named Blind Roosevelt Graves. 1'11 be doing an article for 78 Ouarterly on that. Recently, I was asked to work on a Robert Johnson documentary that was being filmed for the BBC in Great Britain. We just finished ten days working on that and made some major discoveries, things that have not been known about Robert Johnson. I can't talk about what we found until the program is aired. It's going to be an excellent program, all musicians and blues fans should see this.
When will it be broadcast?
It's called "The Search for Robert Johnson" and it'll be on channel 4, BBC in Great Britain within six months. I understand the program will eventually be shown on PBS in the United States. Blues singer John Hammond has a big part in the program. Interviews were done with Johnny Shines and "Honey Boy" Edwards, two guys that knew Johnson personally. The film crew shot over ten hours of film; plantations, graveyards and the San Antonio hotel where Johnson recorded. We even uncovered Robert Johnson's signature on a 1931 marriage application, proving that he could write - this is interesting because most of the blues artists from that era were illiterate. His handwriting was graceful and fluid, not the signature of an illiterate man. But, as I said, l'm not at liberty to talk much more about the film at this point. I'll just stress that no fan of the blues should miss it.
So, what else you got cookin'?
In December I have tentative plans with blues guitarist Stefan Grossman to go to Jacksonville, Florida and try to find out what happened to Blind Blake. Blind Blake was a prominent artist for Paramount, a great ragtime guitarist during the 1920's to 1930's perhaps the best ragtime player of all time. He disappeared and no one knows where he died or when. He deserves to be researched and that'll probably be the last research I'll do.
Why wou!d you stop after that?
Because the days of research are over, you can't find primary sources anymore, they're all dead. It's time to do the writing instead of the researching and I'll be doing a lot of that. Researching the blues has been rewarding and something I've had a great time doing. l'm proud of what I've done with Mississippi blues and I'm proud of Mississippi for producing the greatest blues players in the world, their impact has been phenomenal. It's time for me to sit back with my record collection and enjoy the blues.
Several more interviews with Gayle Dean Wardlow will appear in BLUES WORLD in the coming months.