|Born||May 8 1911
Hazlehurst, Mississippi, U.S.
|Died||August 16 1938 (aged 27)
Greenwood, Mississippi, U.S.
|Years active||1929 - 1938|
Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) was a legendary American blues musician and, arguably, one of the most influential. Widely known as the "King of the Delta Blues," Johnson influenced a range of later musicians, including Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton, with his unique vocal style, haunting lyrics, and creative guitar techniques. Clapton in particular played a large role is the renewed interest in Johnson, calling him "the most important blues musician who ever lived." Contemporary artists and groups, such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Keb' Mo, and others, have also credited him as an important influence.
Johnson was also a significant figure in the transition of Delta blues from a purely folk idiom to a viable commercial style. While Johnson learned directly from mentors such as Son House, he also was exposed to the recordings of early blues artists such as Charlie Patton, Leroy Carr,and Tommy Johnson, as well as to other popular musical styles, through radio broadcasting, expanding his repertoire beyond traditional blues.
Johnson's mystique grew to mythic proportions because of his shadowy itinerant life, his violent death at the hands of a jealous husband, and, not least, his purported pact in which he traded his soul to the Devil in exchange for unsurpassed guitar prowess. The promiscuous, love-crossed vagabond existence of the blues musician, who "pays his dues" in order to sing the blues, was played out in Johnson's short life. His poignant artistry drew from his own inner turmoil, while evoking the collective sufferings of rural southern blacks and the anomie of modern life.
Records concerning Johnson's early life are sketchy, and the biographical information about his childhood remains tentative. Johnson was reportedly born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in 1911, to Julia Major Dodds. His ten older siblings were the children Julia's husband, Charles Dodds-Spencer, but Robert was the illegitimate son of a man named Noah Johnson. As a child, he played a makeshift instrument called a "diddley bow"—created by stretching a wire between two nails on the side of a house—as well as the Jew's harp and harmonica. A friend from his church recalls him playing a three-stringed version of the diddly bow and eventually buying a well worn, second-hand guitar.
Johnson married when he was a teenager, but his wife, Virginia Travis, died while giving birth at age 16, in 1930. It was probably shortly before this time that Johnson met his mentor, Son House, a pioneer of the slide guitar style that Johnson himself would come to epitomize. House did not think much of Johnson's musical ability at first, and described the teenage Robert as "mouthy, a chatterbox." House recalled the young Johnson leaving town for a few months and returning as a virtuoso: "Me and Willie (Brown) got up, and I gave Robert my seat. He set down… And when that boy started playing, and when he got through, all our mouths were standing open. All! He was gone!"
House, who had formerly been a Baptist minister, claims that he tried to warn Johnson against going back out on the road, because of the rough life of a traveling blues musician. Johnson, of course, did not listen. In his 20s, Johnson was known to be a womanizer, a drinker, and a rambler who often hopped trains for transportation. He traveled widely and is known to have performed in Chicago and New York, as well as in many southern towns, especially in Louisiana, Mississippi, and East Texas.
Companions recall him as a dark-skinned, thinly built man who appeared younger than his age. Johnson's "stepson," Robert Lockwood (actually the son of one of Johnson's regular girlfriends) said that Johnson "never had a beard, never shaved." Others reported that he managed to keep himself clean and tidy in appearance, even during times of hard traveling.
Johnson's skills as a guitarist were unquestioned. Son House, himself recognized as a slide guitar master, admitted Johnson's prodigious talent; and Johnson's sometime traveling companion, guitarist Johnny Shines, said of him: "Robert was about the greatest guitar player I'd ever heard. The things he was doing was things that I'd never heard nobody else do… especially his slide (guitar) stuff… His guitar seemed to talk."
Besides having an uncanny talent as a guitarist, Johnson was possessed of another trait necessary for success in the days before microphones and loudspeakers—a powerful voice that could be heard amidst the din of dancing and drinking. Shines recalled him as an immensely charismatic performer. "He was well liked by women and men, even though a lot of men resented his power or his influence over women-people," Shines said. "As for showmanship, he could just stop anywhere and draw a crowd of people." As a result, Johnson had no problem finding work in urban bars and back country "juke" joints wherever he went, commanding as much as six dollars a night while other players were happy with a dollar plus food.
Although he is known today strictly as a blues singer, Johnson also performed other types of music. His repertoire included ragtime numbers, ballads, and even cowboy songs. His favorites included "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," "My Blue Heaven," and "Drifting Along with the Tumbling Tumbleweeds." However, it was his blues playing that affected his audiences most deeply. Said Shines:
One time in St. Louis, we were playing "Come on in My Kitchen." He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we had quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realized they were crying—both men and women.
Johnson's expressiveness as a blues singer is evident from his recordings. His rendition of "Preachin' Blues," for example, conveys a sense of ultimate crisis:
Johnson recorded only 29 songs on a total of 41 tracks in two recording sessions: One in San Antonio, in November 1936, and one in Dallas in June 1937. Notable among these sides are "Terraplane Blues," "Love in Vain," "Sweet Home Chicago," "Cross Roads Blues," "Come on in My Kitchen," and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," all of which have been covered by other artists.
Two modern collections of these recordings have been particularly influential to contemporary audiences. King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961) helped popularize the blues for crossover audiences in the 1960s, and The Complete Recordings (1990) provided the entire body of his recorded work on one dual-CD set.
Rumors and mythology have surrounded Johnson, but it is an established fact that during his recording sessions, he performed with his face to the wall.
The most widely known legend surrounding Robert Johnson says that he sold his soul to the Devil at or near the crossroads of U.S. Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in exchange for prowess in playing the guitar. The story goes that if one would go to a crossroads just before midnight and begin to play the guitar, a large black man would come up to the aspiring guitarist, re-tune his guitar, and then hand it back. At this point the guitarist had traded his soul to become a virtuoso. (A similar legend even surrounded the European violinist Niccolò Paganini, a century before.)
A contributing factor to the legend is the fact that the older bluesman, Tommy Johnson (no known relation), reportedly claimed to have sold his soul to the Devil. The report, however, comes from Tommy's brother, LeDell, a Christian minister who likely considered the Blues to be the "Devil's music." Another source of the Johnson legend was his mentor, Son House, who also had been a preacher and who had been so impressed by Johnson's amazing progress as a guitarist. Johnson's childhood friend William Coffee comes the closest to a first hand account, reporting that Johnson indeed mentioned selling his soul to the Devil. Coffee added, however, that "I never did think he was serious, because he'd always… be crackin' jokes like that."
The song "Cross Roads Blues" is widely interpreted as describing Johnson's encounter with Satan. In fact, it opens with the singer calling out to God, not the Devil:
However, it also includes a verse expressing the fear that "dark goin' to catch me here," and it closes with an admission of despair:
Other of his songs indeed indicate that Johnson was haunted by demonic feelings and fears, although they fall short of confirming a formal pact with the Devil. For example, in "Me and the Devil Blues" he says:
In "Hellhound on My Trail," he complains of being hounded by demonic forces:
Finally, the concluding verse of "Me and Devil" expresses the fear that he will be doomed to wander as an evil spirit after his death:
Recollection survives that Johnson died after drinking whiskey poisoned with strychnine, allegedly given to him by the jealous husband of a lover. Fellow blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson II claimed to have been present the night of Johnson's poisoning. Williamson said that Johnson crawled on his hands and knees "howling and barking like a dog," later dying in Williamson's arms. Another, perhaps more credible, report was given by Johnson's temporary musical partner, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, who had teamed up with Johnson for a regular "gig" at the Three Forks juke joint near Greenwood, Mississipi. According to Edwards, the man who ran the juke joint became convinced that his wife had become involved with Johnson and determined to get rid of him. Johnson temporarily recovered from the initial poisoning, but soon died, on August 16, 1938, in Greenwood.
The precise cause of death remains unknown. His death certificate simply states "no doctor," but the official who filled out the form believed that Johnson had died of syphilis. Son House heard that Johnson had been both stabbed and shot. William Coffee reportedly heard that Johnson's family attended his funeral and said the cause of death had been pneumonia. Johnson's last words were reportedly, "I pray that my redeemer will come and take me from my grave."
There are very few images of Johnson; only two confirmed photographs exist.
Johnson is widely cited as "the greatest blues singer of all time," but listeners are sometimes disappointed by their first encounter with his work. This reaction may be due to unfamiliarity with the raw emotion and sparse form of the Delta style, to the thin tone of Johnson's high-pitched voice, or to the poor quality of his recordings when compared to modern music production standards. However, experts agree that Johnson's guitar work was extremely adroit for his time, that his singing was uniquely expressive, and his poetic imagery among the most evocative in the blues genre.
Nevertheless, Johnson's originality has sometimes been overstated. His most important musical influence was Son House, a pioneer of the Delta blues style whose searing slide guitar riffs Johnson clearly imitated and developed. Johnson's singing style shows the influence of the keen whimsy of the then-obscure blues singer, Skip James. He also emulated Lonnie Johnson and had listened carefully to Leroy Carr, probably the most popular male blues singer of the time. He based some songs on the records of the urban blues recording stars, Kokomo Arnold (the source for both "Sweet Home Chicago" and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom") and Peetie Wheatstraw.
What Johnson did with these and other influences was to create a new sound that was both more immediate and more artful than that of his predecessors. His pioneering use of the bass strings to create a steady, rolling rhythm can be heard on songs like "Sweet Home Chicago," "When You've Got a Good Friend," and many others. Johnson's work also featured snatches of creative melodic invention on the upper strings, mingled with a contrasting vocal line. An important aspect of his singing, and indeed of all Blues singing styles, is the use of microtonality—subtle inflections of pitch that are part of the reason why Jonson's performances convey such powerful emotion.
Johnson's influence on other Delta blues players is not easily documented. He clearly learned from Son House, but the master in turn may have picked up new ideas from his one-time student. Johnson also played with the young Howlin' Wolf and may have influenced his guitar style. Robert's "stepson," Robert "Junior" Lockwood, claimed to have been taught by Johnson. B.B. King, in turn, partnered with Lockwood in his early years. Muddy Waters lived near Johnson in Mississippi, and recalled being influenced by his recordings. Elmore James, Waters, and other Chicago blues greats covered Johnson's songs.
Johnson's impact on Rock and Roll is significant, but again it is not always easy to trace. Early rock stars probably had never heard his music but inherited some of his stylistic innovations from other performers whose music was widely played on the Negro-oriented radio stations of the 40s and 50s. Nearly all rock musicians—from Chuck Berry to the great rock guitarists of the late twentieth century to today's garage band prodigies—constantly use the rhythm riffs that Johnson was the first to record, usually with no knowledge that he may have originated them.
Until the early 60s, Robert Johnson remained a relatively obscure blues musician whose premature death prevented him from attaining great fame. Then, in 1961, Johnson's recordings saw a wide release and a fan base grew around them, including stars such as Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton. When Richards was first introduced to Johnson's music by his band-mate Brian Jones, he commented, "Who is the other guy playing with him?" not realizing it was Johnson playing on one guitar. Clapton said, "His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice." Bob Dylan was strongly impressed by a pre-release copy of Johnson's first Columbia album in 1961. In his autobiography, Chronicles, Dylan said:
I listened to it repeatedly, cut after cut, one song after another, sitting and staring at the record player. Wherever I did, it felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fearsome apparition… Johnson's words made my nerves quiver like piano wires… If I hadn't heard that Robert Johnson record when I did, there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down—that I wouldn't have felt free enough or upraised enough to write.
Johnson's recordings have remained continuously available since John H. Hammond convinced Columbia Records to compile the first Johnson LP, King of the Delta Blues Singers, in 1961. A sequel LP, assembling the rest of what could be found of Johnson's recordings, was issued in 1970. An omnibus two-CD set (The Complete Recordings) was released in 1990.
Ralph Maccio starred in a popular 1986 Hollywood movie, Crossroads, in which Maccio plays an aspiring young blues musician who links up with Robert Johnson's old buddy, Willie Brown, to retrace Johnson's footsteps. The movie features impressive recreations of Johnson's guitar work by Ry Cooder, as well as a powerful musical finale in which the Devil attempts to claim the soul of Maccio's character.
In the summer of 2003, Rolling Stone magazine listed Johnson at number five in their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.
Some scholars believe that Johnson's influence as a blues musician is overstated. Blues historian Elijah Wald, in Escaping the Delta, wrote a controversial reappraisal to the effect that:
As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note.
Wald claims that Johnson's influence came mainly through the later white rock musicians and fans who became enamored of Johnson, perhaps unconsciously exaggerating his impact. According to Ward, Johnson, although well traveled and always admired in his performances, was little heard by the standards of his time and place, and his records even less so. Terraplane Blues, sometimes described as Johnson's only hit record, outsold his others but was still a very minor success at best. If one had asked black blues fans about Robert Johnson in the first twenty years after his death, writes Wald, "the response in the vast majority of cases would have been a puzzled 'Robert who?'"
Many artists have recorded Johnson's songs. The following musicians have been heavily influenced by him, as evidenced by recording several of his songs:
All links retrieved July 28, 2019.
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