Some Life and Work
It is not easy to write about Robert Johnson – he is a legend, but he also has a very poorly documented life, which ended with death at 27. He preferred street corners, juke joints and Saturday night dances to play; never achieved the public recognition he deserved while he was alive.
Today, he is known as a true master of the Blues, especially the Mississippi Delta Blues style. (This style is one of the earliest styles of Blues music, which originated in the Mississippi Delta.) Eric Clapton once said he is the “most important blues singer that ever lived”, and most rock musicians credit him as an important influence. There is also a myth about “how he sold his soul to Satan” to become successful at playing guitar. His life may be shadowy, but we know one thing for sure: Robert Johnson legend is real and it still goes on till this date.
Robert Johnson Biography
The tale begins in Hazlehurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911. He was the child of Noah Johnson and Julia Major Dodds. Details about his childhood are not that clear, but we know his mother married to a couple of guys and little Robert grew up in Tunica, Robinsonville, and Lucas – little towns of Mississippi and Arkansas. According to one of his school friends, he was playing the harmonica and jaw harp beautifully during that time. He finished the school in 1929 and married right after, with 16-year-old Virginia Travis. He was aiming to become a successful farmer; until his wife died in childbirth. After that, he decided to follow the path of the Blues music.
The Blues musicians Son House and Willie Brown tells us “he was a master at the harmonica, but very bad at playing guitar” during that time. Robert traveled a lot – Martinsville, Robinsonville, and Hazlehurst while mastering his guitar style. He especially followed the style of Isaiah “Ike” Zinnerman and learned a lot from him. Ironically enough, Zinnerman was also rumored that he sold his soul to Satan too. Robert returned to Robinsonville six months later – and he had seemed to acquire a unique guitar technique.
Again, Son House tells us Robert Johnson guitar technique was amazing, but there is no way that a normal human can learn to play this instrument this well in only six months. That statement was the source of all “Robert Johnson crossroads devil pact” legends. Some say Robert Johnson devil agreement made exactly on the crossroads at Clarksdale, Mississippi. The early death of Johnson flamed these rumors too: Satan came for collecting his soul. But when we check the historical facts, nearly all Blues musicians accused of making a deal with the devil in that era. If you were black and sing secular songs; you must be the servant of Hell. So “crossroads Robert Johnson legend” is just a myth and nothing to be taken seriously.
With his recently acquired technique, Robert started to travel the country. Memphis, Tennessee, Helena, Arkansas and all of the small towns of Mississippi and Arkansas. Sometimes he was with other Blues musicians, like Johnny Shines, Henry Townsend and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. And sometimes, he was alone in his travels. But not that alone: In each town, he always found a woman to spend the night with. He used different aliases and played almost anywhere: Street corners, little clubs, bus stations… But he never stayed in a town too long. His ambitions were whiskey, women and commitment to the road. He was a “walking” musician, literally.
He died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27. Death place was Greenwood, Mississippi. The cause of death is still unknown, but we know that he had been playing for a few weeks in Greenwood. All the women in the town admired him and some of the husbands got jealous. He started to feel ill after drinking from a whiskey bottle which a woman gave him. Sonny Boy Williamson, another Blues legend was with him when this happened and he thinks the bottle was poisoned by strychnine – a gift from the jealous husband. But some researchers think he died simply from syphilis; a common and deadly disease during that era. Nobody knows where his graveyard is – there are three different markers outside of Greenwood.
Robert Johnson Discography
Robert Johnson had only two recording sessions during his career – he was a man of the road, not the studios. First one happened in San Antonio, Texas, on November 23, 1936. Robert recorded 16 songs in this session. The second one happened in Dallas, Texas, in 1937. He recorded 11 songs during that one. We know his discography consists of more than that number, but to this date, only 27 of his songs are recorded.
His first album is called “Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues Singers”, released in 1961 on Columbia Records. (It is ranked number 27 on the list of Rolling Stones – The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.) The album contains titles such as Robert Johnson Me and the Devil Blues, Robert Johnson Hellhound on My Trail, and Robert Johnson Come on in My Kitchen. If you want to listen to other titles such as Robert Johnson Sweet Home Chicago and Robert Johnson Love in Vain, you should purchase the Robert Johnson the Complete Recordings album released by Sony Legacy. (We highly recommend listening to “Sweet Home Chicago Robert Johnson” title, the guitar technique used in the song is truly amazing.)
Robert Johnson Foundation
Robert Johnson music inspired almost everyone: Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers… Nearly all of his songs are considered as the anthems of the genre. Amazing vocals, unique and unmatched guitar technique – he had it all. As Keith Richard said, “Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself. Some of his best stuff is almost Bach-like in construction … a brilliant burst of inspiration.”Today, the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation dedicates itself to preserve the legend and memory of Robert Johnson musician and the Robert Johnson artist: inseparable from each other.
The more I grow in the Blues, the more I go deeper into it’s roots, the greater attachment is felt to this man’s work and legacy. Robert Johnson can be heard in almost all of those who made me want to play and learn more and his life might just be what we all want from ours deep inside. Always on the road, always in the new, always having hellhounds on our trail. At some point you stop and think that maybe you now want to sit down and rest, but 5-10 years later you begin to wonder if that freight train you looked at for so long, could have taken you to Chicago or Memphis or the Crossroads. I’m glad there are people like Johnson who will always remind me that nothing in this world is beyond reach.