Mysteries & Legends: Django Reinhardt, Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, & the unidentified photo

Recently someone I know who works for a great program for up and coming musician kids, Grammy Camp, sent me an old photograph of a guitar player. It originated from the now defunct Museum of Rock Art in Hollywood. He wanted to know if I could identify the musician either just by knowing him or at least identify the guitar he was playing. I hadn’t a clue so I sent it out to some knowledgeable music folks on my twitter page and got a bevy on answers from some great people (by the way check them out on my twitter list called “music peeps“). Here’s the photograph:


In looking at the hat and the size of the guitar, I’m thinking the musician is Caribbean. Other ideas people had: Django Reinhardt, Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson. We all agreed he was none of the three, but I did find the commonality of the mystery and legend surrounding all these guitarists quite interesting.

Django Reinhart

Jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910 – 1953) has an aura of legend and awe rather than mystery, as his history is quite intense. Born of Belgium gypsy heritage, he grew up extremely poor in the gypsy encampments surrounding Paris, never having lived in an actual house until the age of twenty. He was a child prodigy with violin, banjo and guitar, astounding adults as he rapidly picked up fingering by watching those around him. At 18 years of age, he was in a devastating fire that threatened to have his leg amputated and paralyzed his fourth and fifth fingers. He refused the amputation and did walk again. Rather than stop his guitar playing, he developed his own unique style soloing with his index and middle fingers and went on to become a musical legend. Later during World War II, he survived the fate of many of his gypsy brethren, who were killed in Nazi concentration camps. His compositions went on to become jazz standards and influence on other jazz, swing, and rock guitarists is legendary. Here is a rare video of his finger work:

Tommy Johnson

The mysterious Tommy Johnson (1896 – 1956) was a talented guitarist and delta blues singer from Mississippi who was known for his vocal acrobatics; he would go from a growl to a high falsetto. He was also was a really bad alcoholic who wrote the song in 1928 “Canned Heat Blues,” from which the 60s blues-rock band, Canned Heat, took their name. Johnson wrote the song about drinking methanol from the cooking fuel Sterno. Johnson created a sinister persona by claiming, as told by his brother LeDell, that he made a pact with Ol’ Scratch at the crossroads, a story either attributed wrongly or also used by the more famous bluesman Robert Johnson (no relation).

In the movie, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? there is a character named Tommy Johnson who sold his soul to play guitar. I’ve read in various places that the character was based on Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, or a composite of Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, and Skip James; he sings the songs of Skip James throughout the film. He was portrayed by New Orleans musician, producer and actor Chris Thomas King, who subsequently put out an album inspired by the film, called The Legend of Tommy Johnson, Act 1. As a side note, Chris Thomas King also gave a haunting performance as Blind Willie Johnson in the Martin Scorsese produced PBS Blues documentary by Wim Wenders, “The Soul of Man.” Here is Tommy Johnson doing his song, “Cool Drink of Water Blues”:

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson (1911 – 1938) needs no introduction. He is one of the most famous blues legends in history yet one of the most mysterious. There are only two photographs of the man! He has a sparsely documented life and death at the young age of 27. Martin Scorsese said “The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend.” Eric Clapton, who recently did an album of all Robert Johnson songs, has called him the most important blues guitarist who has ever lived. He has influenced pretty much any blues or blues-rock musician since him. As far as his famous “deal with the devil” at the crossroads, that myth is murky. It could be just a widely told folk tale (used to describe many highly skilled folks in that era) or a tongue and cheek bravado to develop a persona. Even as recently as this week Robert Johnson continues to make stories. An article by the Associated Press five days ago, talks about finding and restoring Robert Johnson’s birthplace home. Movies are being developed and many books have been written searching for some answers about this man’s life and death. Here is “I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man”:

I’m so curious about Robert Johnson! I think I’ll pick up one of those many books written about him. Truly fascinating…a mystery and a legend… Meanwhile, that brings us back to the mystery that remains. Who is the man in the mystery photo playing the guitar? If anyone knows or at least has some ideas, please let me know!

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