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 thoseÂ Mississippi crossroads has been retold ad infinitum (even somehow inspiring this), the legend of Johnson’s death hasn’t been dealt with nearly as muchâ€”that is until The Stone Foxes‘ â€œI Killed Robert Johnson.â€
â€œI Killed Robert Johnson,â€ 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 â€œkill your heroesâ€ 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:
Once the band developed the riff into a basic song structure, drummer Shannon Koehler attempted to write some lyrics. â€œI 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,â€ says Koehler. â€œBut 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’.â€
Luckily, bassist Avi Vinocur had written a poem a few years back about Johnson’s murder that fit the new song perfectly. â€œHe’s one of the last people that can ever live completely shrouded in mysteryâ€”now everything’s documented.