Robert Johnson: the case of the missing cigarette

We don’t know much about the life of legendary Delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson, beyond his 29 recorded songs and a couple of grainy black and white photographs. When reading an earlier article on guitar-list I was surprised to see a difference between the main picture and one in an advert at the bottom of the page. The ad was for a Robert Johnson tablature book by Hal Leonard, and you can plainly see that they have airbrushed Johnson’s cigarette out of the book cover.

The picture is a photo booth self portrait, so Johnson himself composed the shot, deciding to be portrayed holding his guitar and smoking a cigarette. By changing the photograph, the publishers are subtly revising history. Did they do it out of concern for the health of future guitarists or perhaps they thought a more wholesome image would increase sales. Joseph Stalin used to have photographs retouched for propaganda purposes, editing out his rivals Trotsky and Yezhov in print before deleting them in real life.

This is not the first time the photograph has been edited. It also happened in 1994, when the US Postal Service honoured Johnson on a stamp, unveiled at the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival in Greenville, Mississippi. They deleted the cigarette because the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee did not want the stamps to be seen as promoting cigarettes.

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