In his autobiography, Chronicles, Volume 1, Bob Dylan remembered the day, back in the early 1960s, when he first encountered the music of the Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. His memory went something like this:
I had the thick acetate of the Robert Johnson record in my hands and I asked Van Ronk if he ever heard of him. Dave said, nope, he hadn’t, and I put it on the record player so we could listen to it. From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard.
Dylan wasn’t alone in this thought. Ask Eric Clapton and he’ll tell you that Johnson is “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” And one Keith Richards summed things up rather nicely, saying, “You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.” With this kind of praise, you’d think that Robert Johnson had lived a long life, recording a long list of albums. But the opposite is true. Johnson died in 1938, when he was only 27 years old (which puts him, of course, in the 27 Club). And he left for posterity a mere 29 tracks, all recorded between 1936 and 1937. The details of Johnson’s life are sketchy at best. And the visual traces of his existence have almost entirely disappeared. In the closing pages of Chronicles, Bob Dylan makes reference to a video that briefly captures the image of Johnson:
More than thirty years later, I would see Johnson for myself in eight seconds’ worth of 8-millimeter film shot in Ruleville, Mississippi, on a brightly lit afternoon street by some Germans in the late ’30s. Some people questioned whether it was really him, but slowing the eight seconds down so it was more like eighty seconds, you can see that it really is Robert Johnson, has to be—couldn’t be anyone else.
It’s a tantalizing prospect. But, when professionals took a close look at the video, they figured out it was a fake (see below). So we’re left with this — two photographs of the musician. Two simple photos, which now thanks to Westside Media, have been manipulated to bring Johnson back to life, at least long enough to sing two songs: “Hell Hound on My Trail” and “Preaching Blues.” Watch above.