The Devil’s Music – The Myth of Robert Johnson

November 23, 2016

“Robert Johnson - The root source for a whole generation of blues and rock and roll musicians”
“The most emotionally committed of all blues-singers”
“The greatest singer, the greatest writer”
“The greatest folk blues guitar player that ever lived”
“The most accomplished and certainly the most influential of all Bluesman"
“He is a visionary artist”
These are just some of the descriptions offered by musicians and writers that have been awed by the music of Robert Johnson. Little wonder then that the man’s life and work have become the stuff of legend.

Even the facts of his life are confusing. He was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi on or around 8 May 1911 and died 27 years later on 16 August 1938 at Three Forks, near Greenwood, Mississippi; even at a time when life expectancy was shorter, Johnson’s was a short life.

Robert’s mother, Julia, had ten children before Robert was born, all ten being born in wedlock, with her Sharecropper husband, Charles Dodds. Julia was probably around forty years old when Robert was born illegitimately; his father was a plantation worker called Noah Johnson. Charles Dodds had moved to Memphis as a result of problems he was having with some prominent Hazelhurst landowners. Robert was sent to live with him when he was around three or four years old, by which time all of Dodd’s children had moved to Memphis.

Robert Johnson grew up in Memphis and learned the basics of the guitar from a brother. Then, aged around eight or nine, Robert moved back to the Delta to live with his mother and her new husband Dusty Willis. He became known as Little Robert Dusty. By all accounts, Robert was more interested in music than he was on working in the fields, which put him at odds with his stepfather. By the time he was nineteen Robert had married Virginia Travis on February 17, 1929, in Penton, Mississippi; she was sixteen and died in April 1930 as she was giving birth. Around 1930, Son House, considered by many to be the most gifted of the Delta bluesmen of this time, moved to live in Robbinsville, which is when Robert first heard him play.

Son House recalled many years later “he blew a harmonica and he was pretty good with that, but he wanted to play guitar.” It was from House and his friend, Willie Brown that Robert learned. He would watch them play and when they took a break he would use one of their guitars, according to House he was not good at all, “...such a racket you never heard!...get that guitar away from that boy” people would say, ”...he’s running people crazy with it.”

In May 1931 Robert married Colleta Craft in Hazlehurst, Mississippi but continued to travel the Delta, improving his guitar playing and playing at Juke joints and picnics. By 1932 Robert played for Son and Willie; they were staggered by his improvement. “He was so good. When he finished, all our mouths were standing open.”

Robert resumed his Delta wanderings, as well as visiting Chicago, New York, Detroit and St Louis that we know of. The story goes that he would often concentrate his performance on just one woman in the audience; a risky business in a world where men were happy to fight when they felt aggrieved.

Johnson travelled and played with Johnny Shines, who later recalled that Robert was always neat and tidy, despite days spent travelling dusty Delta highways. Johnny also recalled that Robert was just as likely to perform other people’s songs, as he was his own. He sang songs by everyone from Bing Crosby to Blind Willie McTell and Jimmie Rodgers to Lonnie Johnson. Robert, like many others, performed the songs that earned him money, songs his audiences requested.

By the time he was in his mid-twenties Johnson's second wife had died without giving birth and sometime in 1935 he went to H.C. Speir’s store in Jackson Mississippi; like many of his contemporaries, he wanted to record. Speir was a scout for the ARC record label and by late November 1936, Robert was in San Antonio to record the first of his twenty-nine sides.

On Monday, November 23 he cut 'Kind Hearted Woman Blues', the first of thirteen takes of eight different songs. Three days later he was back and cut '32-20 Blues' and then the following day he cut nine more takes on seven different songs. He was paid possibly no more than $100 and Johnson was soon on a train back to Mississippi to resume the life of an itinerant musician, temporarily richer having pocketed money from his recording session.

His first release was 'Terraplane Blues' coupled with 'Kind Hearted Woman Blues'; it would be the only one that sold in reasonable numbers at the time. Next came '32-20 Blues' coupled with 'Last Fair Deal Gone Down', followed by 'I’ll Believe I’ll Dust My Broom' and 'Dead Shrimp Blues'. While his sales were not prolific they were clearly good enough for Johnson to be summoned back for some more recording. This time he went to Dallas and recorded three more sides on 19 June 1937, the following day he cut thirteen more takes of ten more songs.

Robert Johnson Death shack

Three Forks

After his recording session, Robert played around Texas, accompanied by Johnny Shines. They played Jukes, parties and dances, just as they had always done before heading back to Mississippi via Arkansas. Details of the rest of this year are sketchy, although it is known that Robert spent some time in Memphis and Helena, Arkansas.

Gayle Dean Wardlow, a Mississippi journalist, went in search of Robert Johnson’s death certificate and found it in 1968. It confirmed that Robert had died in Greenwood on 16th August 1938 aged twenty-seven years old

Was it murder?
We have only hearsay as to precisely how he died. It is believed that Robert was playing a juke attached to The Three Forks Store near Greenwood, Mississippi. According to David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards he was poisoned at the store, He got so sick that he had to be taken the three miles into Greenwood where he died. The supposition is that Robert had an affair with the wife of the owner of the Three Forks, and it was he that poisoned Robert.

Through the research of Gayle Dean Wardlow it has come to light that on the back of the death certificate was information that points to the fact that Johnson may have been born with congenital syphilis. According to a Doctor, it is possible that he had an aneurysm caused by syphilis and his love of drinking moonshine.

Where is he buried?
Just where he is buried is just as confusing as how he died. There are three headstones erected in separate cemeteries around Greenwood. One has a headstone erected by Sony Music, at another location a headstone paid for by the members of ZZ Top. In the summer of 2000, an 85-year-old lady called Rosie Eksridge said that her husband helped to bury Johnson in a graveyard about 3 miles from Three Forks; this has now had a headstone placed in the graveyard.

Johnson composite_edited-1

Just how did he become such a brilliant guitarist?
The most famous myth surrounding Johnson’s life, one that has inspired, fascinated and taxed everyone, is the one that tells of him selling his soul to the Devil.

People living in the Delta today roll their eyes when asked by eager Blues tourists to tell them where they can find the crossroads. Others, of course, do not bother asking, they just go to the junction of Highway 61 and Highway 49 and have their photograph taken. The current crossroads of the two highways is at least half a mile from the one that would have existed in Johnson’s lifetime.

The point is there are no actual crossroads. In ‘Cross Road Blues’ Robert is singing of man’s need to make choices and the fundamental choice between good and evil.

"I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above “Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please”

Robert Johnson bluesman

There was long-standing Delta myth that talks of a Bluesman waiting by the side of a deserted country crossroads in the dark of a moonless night, for Satan himself would come and tune his guitar.

It’s a story made more relevant, in the construction of the Robert Johnson myth, when coupled with Johnson’s frequent references to the Devil. In his songs including, ‘Me And The Devil Blues’, in which he sings, “Me and the Devil, was walkin’ side by side”.

‘Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)’ and ‘Hell Hound on My Trail’ help mythologise Johnson’s supposed deal with the Devil. Johnson was far from the only bluesman who sang about the devil, Skip James, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson, Joe Williams and Peetie Wheatstraw all sang of Satan – the latter even nicknamed himself The Devil’s Son-in-law after one of his 1931 recordings.

Robert Johnson

Was Johnson a genius songwriter?
His music is brilliant, his delivery and his guitar playing were unique and rightly revered, but the songs he recorded are often derivative of other earlier recordings. These records are probably derivative of other blues songs that were passed around from one blues singer to another.

‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’ - Influenced by Leroy Carr
‘I’ll Believe I’ll Dust My B’oom’ - based on Kokomo Arnold’s ‘Sagefield Woman’ Blues and an even earlier recording by Carl Rafferty, ‘Mr. Carl’s Blues’
‘Sweet Home Chicago’ - based on Kokomo Arnold’s ‘Old Original Kokomo Blue’s
‘Come on in my Kitchen’ - melody based on ‘Sitting on Top of The World’ by The Mississippi Sheiks
‘Phonograph Blues’ - similar to Cliff Carlisle’s ‘That Nasty Swing’
‘32-20 Blues’ - based on Skip James ‘22-20 Blues’
‘If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day’ - based on Hambone Willie Newbern’s ‘Roll and Tumble Blues’
‘From Four Until Late’ - similar to ‘Four O’clock Blues’ by Skip James and ‘Tom Rushen Blues’ by Charley Patton
‘Hell Hound on My Trail - based on Skip James’s ‘Devil Got My Woman’
‘Malted Milk’ - inspired by Lonnie Johnson
‘Travelling Riverside Blues’ - based around ‘Roll and Tumble Blues’
‘Love in Vain’ - based on Leroy Carr’s ‘When the Sun Goes Down’
‘Milkcow’s Calf Blues’ - inspired by Kokomo Arnold’s ‘Milkcow Blues’

Robert Johnson has influenced just about everyone that picked up a guitar and played blues and rock. Eric Clapton has been one of the most vocal to pay tributes to the King of the Delta Blues, including recording a complete album in his name – 2004’s Sessions for Robert J.

Our playlist in honour of Mr Robert Johnson is the best way to pay tribute.

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16 comments

  1. Ray
    Reply

    There is no mention of Robert Lockwood Jr. It’s been noted for a long time that as Johnson taught Lockwood. Johnson for a time supposedly lived with Lockwoods mother, although only 4 years seperated the two, Johnson was a “father figure” too Lockwood.

    1. Ken
      Reply

      That’s the way I heard it also Ray. Later in life Lockwood moved to Cleveland, Ohio and continued recording. I was able to actually have a conversation with him and he told me all about Robert Johnson.

  2. robert randolph
    Reply

    Another book to balance the “history ” of this gentleman is Elijah Wald’s “Escape from the Delta “.
    His work is worthy, based on in- time study of what impact Johnson’s career had on his contemporaries and the public in his world at the time. Wald respects the man and his work, just leavens the mix with decent points posed outside the hyperbole.
    One point that’s bothered me for 40 years: where is the crossroads ?My theory is divergent and based on facts of the times . One , song is Crossroad Blues, not Crossroads. A crossroad is the junction of a country road and a railroad line . Look at the marker: a circular shape with words
    forming an X as they “cross”. railroad is one word and crossing is other. If you “read” the bottom two pieces they spell crossroad. Nuff said, people. I believe the whole bunch of you are full of corn on this matter. Trains were the mode of transportation for poor people , not a automobile in the 30’s. Roads were bad and the rich owned the autos in the deep South .

    1. John Conley
      Reply

      I agree I went their I I think I found the track s you are talking about . but who would no for sure. I do feel that highway 49&61 are not the real crossroads. I got an old town map and followed the real highways and the tracks I came across seems more believable. Thanks for listening

  3. David
    Reply

    I too have done a little research on the matter of the crossroads, and while in the end the mythology may well be larger than life itself, in my opinion, informed sources place the 61-49 crossroads just outside the small town of Lula, Mississippi. The 61 highway has since been stubbed off and routed southwest, but it originally followed the train track out to highway 49. Remote, lonely, dark, small swampy area, trees. On the way to the bridge that crosses over the Mississippi River to Helena. Just sayin’

  4. Celine Martinez
    Reply

    What no one mentions is his death at age 27. Didn’t Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison die at age 27? They were successful in music. Satan is said to be associated with music. It is a distraction to think of the crossroads as a physical place rather than a very important choice.

  5. Maureen Pastine
    Reply

    I noted that he played some of Jimmie Rodgers music (a musician that I listened to with my Grandma when I was quite young! Thanks for posting all of this information about R. Johnson!

    Maureen Pastine
    mdpastine@yahoo.com

  6. Eric Wright
    Reply

    Celebrating one of America’s most precious Art forms! The Blues Genre, “Nothing But The Blues” With Robert Johnson.

  7. Max
    Reply

    2 excellent DVDs are ‘The Search for Robert Johnson’ and ‘CAN’T YOU HEAR THE WIND HOWL? The Life & Music of Robert Johnson’.

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  9. Cole Winthorpe
    Reply

    This is not at all a good movie to learn about Robert Johnson but the movie crossroads goes into a little detail about him and Willie Brown, If you are a blues man then you will love this movie.

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