Looking back though almost a century of hazy myth-making, every part of famed delta bluesman Robert Johnson’s life has become the stuff of legend. With no birth certificate, a mere 29 recorded songs and only two surviving photographs, all we really have of the man whose infamous deal with the devil is effectively rock and roll’s creation myth is a handful of half-remembered stories, passed down from one generation to the next through song, film and Wikipedia. While what may or may not have happened at those  Mississippi crossroads has been retold ad infinitum (even somehow inspiring this), the legend of Johnson’s death hasn’t been dealt with nearly as much—that is until The Stone Foxes‘ “I Killed Robert Johnson.”

The Stone Foxes – “I Killed Robert Johnson”

“I Killed Robert Johnson,” a song off of the band’s sophomore album Bears & Bulls, uses a swaggering blues stomp to tell a tale just as shrouded in mystery as the one for which Johnson is famous. As the story goes, the bluesman was playing a series of shows at a bar near Greenwood, Mississippi in 1938. Johnson got a little too friendly with the owner’s wife so, in retribution, the owner slipped strychnine into his whiskey. Three days later, Johnson was six feet underground and the devil was collecting his due.

The song, told from the perspective of the bar-owning murderer, is alternately a mea culpa, the final exculpation of a guilt-ridden soul nearly 75 years after the fact, and an exploration of rock and roll’s simultaneous impulses toward an influences-on-your-sleeve idol worship and a sort of “kill your heroes” rebellion against everything that’s come before.

The genesis of the song was a bluesy, Jack White-esque riff written by guitarist Spence Koehler. This recording of Koehler working the riff out on his guitar is literally the first time it was ever played:

The Stone Foxes – “I Killed Robert Johnson (Early Riff Demo)”

Once the band developed the riff into a basic song structure, drummer Shannon Koehler attempted to write some lyrics. “I had a bunch of lyrics stored up because I had just broken up with this lady and was really pissed off about it. So I wrote all these songs,” says Koehler. “But the problem is when I write songs about ladies, for some reason, what comes out is really bad. They were like ‘She was once my rock/now she’s another man’s roll’.”

Luckily, bassist Avi Vinocur had written a poem a few years back about Johnson’s murder that fit the new song perfectly. “He’s one of the last people that can ever live completely shrouded in mystery—now everything’s documented.

[For Johnson,] it was all just stories and the stories ended up becoming bigger than the man,” says Vinocur. “You really can’t be that way anymore, at least not when you’re famous. Bob Dylan, when he was first coming up, tried to pretend he was from New Mexico and made up all these stories about himself and then everyone found out he was just Robert Zimmerman from Minnesota.”

Spence’s first thought upon hearing Vinocur’s lyrics: “Did you really write these? Because they’re really good.”

The interesting thing about the song is that while it is about Johnson’s mythological statue, the song doesn’t even mention his deal at the crossroads out of Vinocur’s desire to keep the song’s narrator a reliable one. “This guy didn’t really care about who Johnson was; he was just mad the guy was hitting on his wife,” he says.

As soon as the band knew what the song was about, it immediately became exponentially heavier and infinitely more cutthroat. Even so, they see it as more of a mood-setter than an out-and-out rocker because the lyrics paint such a vivid picture of a very specific time and place. So they often use it to open sets, like they did when they played the Independent last year opening for The Mother Hips:

At the same time, the strength of the tune is really in the song itself more than simply in the performance. Vinocur says he gets just as strong of a reaction when he plays it on solo acoustic guitar as he does when he has a full band thrashing away behind him. “I feel that I can just do a lot with it and I don’t have to really try. The words seem to get people’s attention, they just follow the story.”

Like the rest of the material on Bears & Bulls and on their eponymous debut album, the band recorded the song in their rehearsal space in the basement of a nondescript house in the Outer Sunset, only a few blocks from Ocean Beach. The band members are avid home-recorders and have a bevy of tricks at their disposal. To get the distorted guitar sound that Spence uses on his solo near the end of the song, they double mic’d his guitar, with one close to the amp at a reasonable volume and the other placed on the other side of the room and turned up almost as loud as it could go. The blending of the two tones gives the guitar a full, throaty sound that still retains its natural warmth.

Along with the concluding guitar solo, the song’s other standout section is its shout-along choruses—although getting them in their final shape wasn’t without its challenges. “When we were recording it, we were all doing the backup vocals and all I could think about was not saying ‘I killed Rubber Johnson’,” says Shannon. “It can actually be substituted for anyone whose name has four syllables, like ‘I killed Huey Lewis’ or ‘I killed Michael Jackson’. We’ve been thinking a lot about [how] promotional items and condoms with “I Killed Rubber Johnson” on them would be hilarious.”

Admissions of complicity in the murder of Huey Lewis withstanding (it turns out that the new drug he wanted might not have been strychnine), having the chorus a communal chant rather than a deliberate harmonization gives an interesting effect. It makes the admission of guilt sound universal instead of simply individual. It’s as if, in a way, we’re all responsible for killing Johnson because our culture’s grand, mysterious conception of him is something that likely has little to do with who the man really was. An anonymous Mississippi bar owner may be guilty of poisoning his whiskey but, with this song, The Stone Foxes are saying that we’re all guilty of ripping out the reality of whoever Johnson really was and, in its place, installing the founding spirit of rock and roll. Is this necessarily this a bad thing? Well, it’s three-quarters of a century later and The Stone Foxes are playing the blues, aren’t they?