“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 bluesmen.”
“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.
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 27 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.
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’ ”.
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.
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.