Fattening Frogs For Snakes

Stones In My Passway

 

“ I got stones in my passway
& my road seems dark as night
I have pains in my heart,
They have ta ken my appetite”
—Robert Johnson

“Robert Johnson was born,”
Peter Guralnick reports,
”probably May 8, 1911,
the 11th child

of Charles Dodds
& Julia Major Dodds,
& the only one
who was illegitimate. That,

according to Mack McCormick,
was the cause of the name confusion
& the cause of many
of [Robert] Johnson’s later problems.

”Charles Dodds & Julia Majors
married in Hazelhurst,
Mississippi, in 1889
when Dodds was 22 years old.

”Dodds,
who died in 1940,
was a wicker furniture maker
& landowner, & the family

was quite well off
until Dodds had a falling out
with the Marchetti brothers,
prominent local landowners,

& was forced
to leave Hazelhurst
around 1909,
according to McCormick,

with a lynch mob
in hot pursuit. Apparently
there was a family legend
about this escape, which took place

with Dodd disguised
in women’s clothes,
& over the next 2 years
Julia managed to send the children

one by one
to live with their father
in Memphis, where he had adopted
the name of [Charles] Spencer. Julia

meanwhile stayed in Hazelhurst
with 2 daughters,
Bessie & Carrie,
until she was evicted

for non-payment of taxes
by the intervention
of the Marchettis. By this time
Robert had been born to Julia

& a plantation worker
named Noah Johnson,
& Julia traveled around
from plantation to plantation

living in labor camps,
picking cotton,
with 8-year-old Carrie
taking care of the baby.

’Julia spent the next decade
trying to reunite the family,’
says McCormick,
’but because of Robert

failed. He
was the stumbling block.
This outside child
was very much resented

by Charlie Dodds,
& though he eventually
accepted Robert
he never accepted the mother back.’

”Through Julia’s persistence,”
Guralnick continues, “Charles Dodds Spencer
eventually took in Robert
around 1914,

into a family
that now included
all of his children by Julia
as well as his mistress

from Hazelhurst
& their two children. Robert
spent the next two years
in Memphis,

learned the rudiments of guitar
from his brother,
Charles Leroy,
& was not reunited with his mother

until she,
remarried now
to Willie ’Dusty’ Willis,
reappeared on Front Street.

’That’s Mama,’
exclaimed her daughter Carrie,
who had not seen their mother
for several years. It was at this point,

around 1918 or 1920,
that Robert Leroy Dodds Spencer
returned to the Delta,
to the area around Robinsonville,

where he was brought up
by his mother
& her husband,
’Dusty’ Willis.

”Evidently the confusion—
of roles & names—
persisted,” Guralnick continues.
”Robert is said

to have taken the name of Johnson
as a teenager,
when he learned
who his real father was,

but he didn’t get along
with his stepfather
in any case. According to Son House,
’His mother & stepfather

didn’t like for him to go out
to those Saturday night balls
because the guys were so rough.
He didn’t care anything

about working in the fields,
& his father was so tight on him
about slipping out
& coming where we were,

so he just got the idea
he’d run away from home.’”
& Mack McCormick adds:
”Robert’s stepfather

was called Dusty,
because he would walk so fast
he would swirl the dust up
all around him.

”He was a superb farmworker
from the boss’s point of view,
but he had no tolerance of music
whatsoever. He was a short,

stocky man,
a real workhorse,
& they just had
incessant battles.”

”Robert,” Guralnick speculates, “may or
may not have attended school
in Commerce
outside of Robinsonville

while he was living
on the Abbey & Leatherman plantation.
In any case, according to [Johnny] Shines,
he was definitely

’anti-education,’ & it seems clear
that music was his first interest. He started out
concentrating on jew’s harp
& harmonica,

& by 1930
had married
& seriously taken up guitar.
His wife died in childbirth

at the age of 15,
& some 2 months later
Son House arrived
in Robinsonville”

to show Robert Johnson the way
out of the cotton fields
& into the music
& his short life in the blues

— Oak Park, Michigan
May 14, 1984/
New Orleans
December 11, 1995 > March 6, 1998