Robert Johnson 3rd Photo Controversy – not Johnny Shines and not Robert Johnson

On 3rd February The Observer newspaper ran a feature on a 3rd photograph purporting to be of blues singer and stuff of legend Robert Johnson (he that sold his soul to the devil ‘down at the crossroads’). Under the title ‘Robert Johnson : rare new photograph of delta blues king authenticated after eight years’ Vanessa Thorpe reported that Johnson and blues artist Johnny Shines had been identified in the photo by ‘forensic’ work on the photograph which began in 2007.

Click here to read the article and view the photograph. I have not reproduced it here as it is copyrighted by the ‘Johnson Family’ and Getty’s.

The photo has been circulating among the blues collecting fraternity since its discovery and I wrote to the Observer setting out just some of the reasons why the blues writers, experts, critics and record collectors doubt that the two people in the photo are indeed Johnson and Shines.

Hasse Andeasson a Swedish blues collector and writer told me that the biggest Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, also published this ‘third photo’ of Robert Johnson. And Record Collector mentioned the article in an e-bulletin.

As the Observer have not as yet published the letter here is what I sent:

Further to Vanessa Thorpe’s article in The Observer on February 3rd “Robert Johnson: rare new photograph of delta blues king authenticated after eight years”

This photo has been circulating among blues collectors and experts for some time. Many have argued strongly that the photo is not of either Robert Johnson or Johnny Shines.

When the photo first surfaced it was shown to two blues artists, Robert ‘Junior’ Lockwood and David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, who both traveled and worked with Johnson. Lockwood was Johnson’s stepson. 

Neither of them recognised the men in the photograph. US blues expert and author Elijah Wald is quoted on the Yahoo Post War Blues Group – on which I reposted your article – about the ‘forensic analysis’ referred to to ‘authenticate’ the photograph: “I told the photo’s owner long ago that if he was serious he would give a forensic analyst a half-dozen photos of similar-looking men, like a police line-up, and ask if any of them matched one of the known Johnson photos. Instead, he just showed this one, and she said it could reasonably match”

 Other correspondents to the same group have pointed out that both men are wearing what appear to be ‘zoot suits’. This style of ‘hipster’ clothing started to become fashionable around 1940, by which time Robert Johnson had died.

However, there is indeed a third picture of Robert Johnson, in the possession of US blues authority Mack McCormick. It shows Johnson with his nephew; the latter, who was shipping out from Norfolk, Virginia, is in US Navy uniform. In his song ‘From Four Until Late’ Johnson refers to a visit to Norfolk: “From Memphis to Norfolk is a thirty-six hours’ ride”.

The noted writer on blues and other popular music, Peter Guralnick, describes seeing this photo in his book “Searching for Robert Johnson: The Life and Legend of the “King of the Delta Blues Singers”

Alligator Records boss and long standing blues expert Bruce Iglauer said this of the ‘Johnson’ photograph: “The man in this picture who is supposed to be Johnny Shines is definitely, positively, not Johnny Shines. Is the other man Robert Johnson? I doubt it. Notice that one man has an expansion-band wristwatch on his hand on the full picture.

If an itinerant black musician had any watch at all (very unlikely), it would be an old pocket watch. Expansion watchbands were quite new at that time, and would have been expensive. I guess you can’t see that in the cropped copy appearing in newspapers.

This is a picture that somebody found at a garage sale – and decided that because the guitar was similar to the one pictured with Johnson, this was indeed Johnson.

They also came up with the idea that this picture was taken by a woman friend of theirs in (I think) Friar’s Point. Whereas this is a professionally shot photograph against a painted backdrop, which was not uncommon at social events for black and white people – where a professional photographer came to make money.

If Robert Johnson’s family wants to claim it is Johnson, fine! I don’t know who the darker man is. The lighter man is NOT Johnny Shines. I do agree that the darker man has a passing resemblance to published pictures of Robert Johnson. But all the other visual evidence argues against this being Johnson.”

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