The image is from Wikipedia Commons
Studio portrait c. 1935, one of only three verified photographs of Johnson
|Birth name||Robert Leroy Johnson|
|Born||(1911-05-08)May 8, 1911
Hazlehurst, Mississippi, U.S.
|Died||August 16, 1938(1938-08-16) (aged 27)
|Occupation(s)||Musician, singer, songwriter|
|Instruments||Guitar, vocals, harmonica|
Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) was an American blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter. His landmark recordings in 1936 and 1937 display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that has influenced later generations of musicians. He is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly the Delta blues style.
As a traveling performer who played mostly on street corners, in juke joints, and at Saturday night dances, Johnson had little commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime. He participated in only two recording sessions, one in San Antonio in 1936, and one in Dallas in 1937, that produced 29 distinct songs (with 13 surviving alternate takes) recorded by famed Country Music Hall of Fame producer Don Law. These songs, recorded at low fidelity in improvised studios, were the totality of his recorded output. Most were released as 10-inch, 78 rpm singles from 1937–1938, with a few released after his death. Other than these recordings, very little was known of him during his life outside of the small musical circuit in the Mississippi Delta where he spent most of his life; much of his story has been reconstructed after his death by researchers. Johnson's poorly documented life and death have given rise to much legend. The one most closely associated with his life is that he sold his soul to the devil at a local crossroads to achieve musical success.
His music had a small, but influential, following during his life and in the two decades after his death. In late 1938 John Hammond sought him out for a concert at Carnegie Hall, From Spirituals to Swing, only to discover that Johnson had died. Brunswick Records, which owned the original recordings, was bought by Columbia Records, where Hammond was employed. Musicologist Alan Lomax went to Mississippi in 1941 to record Johnson, also not knowing of his death. Law, who by then worked for Columbia Records, assembled a collection of Johnson's recordings titled King of the Delta Blues Singers that was released by Columbia in 1961. It is widely credited with finally bringing Johnson's work to a wider audience. The album would become influential, especially on the nascent British blues movement; Eric Clapton has called Johnson "the most important blues singer that ever lived." Musicians such as Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and Robert Plant have cited both Johnson's lyrics and musicianship as key influences on their own work. Many of Johnson's songs have been covered over the years, becoming hits for other artists, and his guitar licks and lyrics have been borrowed by many later musicians.
Renewed interest in Johnson's work and life led to a burst of scholarship starting in the 1960s. Much of what is known about him was reconstructed by researchers such as Gayle Dean Wardlow and Bruce Conforth, especially in their 2019 award-winning biography of Johnson: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson (Chicago Review Press). Two films, the 1991 documentary The Search for Robert Johnson by John Hammond Jr., and a 1997 documentary, Can't You Hear the Wind Howl, the Life and Music of Robert Johnson, which included reconstructed scenes with Keb' Mo' as Johnson, were attempts to document his life, and demonstrated the difficulties arising from the scant historical record and conflicting oral accounts. Over the years, the significance of Johnson and his music has been recognized by numerous organizations and publications, including the Rock and Roll, Grammy, and Blues Halls of Fame; and the National Recording Preservation Board.
Life and career
Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, possibly on May 8, 1911, to Julia Major Dodds (born October 1874) and Noah Johnson (born December 1884). Julia was married to Charles Dodds (born February 1865), a relatively prosperous landowner and furniture maker, with whom she had ten children. Charles Dodds had been forced by a lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst following a dispute with white landowners. Julia left Hazlehurst with baby Robert, but in less than two years she brought the boy to Memphis to live with her husband, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer. Robert spent the next 8–9 years growing up in Memphis and attending the Carnes Avenue Colored School where he received lessons in arithmetic, reading, language, music, geography, and physical exercise. It was in Memphis that he acquired his love for, and knowledge of, the blues and popular music. His education and urban context placed him apart from most of his contemporary blues musicians.
Robert rejoined his mother around 1919/20 after she married an illiterate sharecropper named Will "Dusty" Willis. They originally settled on a plantation in Lucas Township, Crittenden County, Arkansas, but soon moved across the Mississippi River to Commerce in the Mississippi Delta, near Tunica and Robinsonville. They lived on the Abbay & Leatherman Plantation. Julia's new husband was 24 years her junior. Robert was remembered by some residents as "Little Robert Dusty", but he was registered at Tunica's Indian Creek School as Robert Spencer. In the 1920 census, he is listed as Robert Spencer, living in Lucas, Arkansas, with Will and Julia Willis. Robert was at school in 1924 and 1927. The quality of his signature on his marriage certificate suggests that he was relatively well educated for a boy of his background. A school friend, Willie Coffee, who was interviewed and filmed in later life, recalled that as a youth Robert was already noted for playing the harmonica and jaw harp. Coffee recalled that Robert was absent for long periods, which suggests that he may have been living and studying in Memphis.
Once Julia informed Robert about his biological father Robert adopted the surname Johnson, using it on the certificate of his marriage to sixteen-year-old Virginia Travis in February 1929. She died in childbirth shortly after. Surviving relatives of Virginia told the blues researcher Robert "Mack" McCormick that this was a divine punishment for Robert's decision to sing secular songs, known as "selling your soul to the Devil". McCormick believed that Johnson himself accepted the phrase as a description of his resolve to abandon the settled life of a husband and farmer to become a full-time blues musician.
Around this time, the blues musician Son House moved to Robinsonville, where his musical partner Willie Brown lived. Late in life, House remembered Johnson as a "little boy" who was a competent harmonica player but an embarrassingly bad guitarist. Soon after, Johnson left Robinsonville for the area around Martinsville, close to his birthplace, possibly searching for his natural father. Here he perfected the guitar style of House and learned other styles from Isaiah "Ike" Zimmerman. Zimmerman was rumored to have learned supernaturally to play guitar by visiting graveyards at midnight. When Johnson next appeared in Robinsonville, he seemed to have miraculously acquired a guitar technique. House was interviewed at a time when the legend of Johnson's pact with the devil was well known among blues researchers. He was asked whether he attributed Johnson's technique to this pact, and his equivocal answers have been taken as confirmation.
While living in Martinsville, Johnson fathered a child with Vergie Mae Smith. He married Caletta Craft in May 1931. In 1932, the couple settled for a while in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the Delta, but Johnson soon left for a career as a "walking" or itinerant musician, and Caletta died in early 1933.
From 1932 until his death in 1938, Johnson moved frequently between the cities of Memphis and Helena, and the smaller towns of the Mississippi Delta and neighboring regions of Mississippi and Arkansas. On occasion, he traveled much further. The blues musician Johnny Shines accompanied him to Chicago, Texas, New York, Canada, Kentucky, and Indiana. Henry Townsend shared a musical engagement with him in St. Louis. In many places he stayed with members of his large extended family or with female friends. He did not marry again but formed some long-term relationships with women to whom he would return periodically. In other places he stayed with whatever woman he was able to seduce at his performance. In each location, Johnson's hosts were largely ignorant of his life elsewhere. He used different names in different places, employing at least eight distinct surnames.
Biographers have looked for consistency from musicians who knew Johnson in different contexts: Shines, who traveled extensively with him; Robert Lockwood, Jr., who knew him as his mother's partner; David "Honeyboy" Edwards, whose cousin Willie Mae Powell had a relationship with Johnson. From a mass of partial, conflicting, and inconsistent eyewitness accounts, biographers have attempted to summarize Johnson's character. "He was well mannered, he was soft spoken, he was indecipherable". "As for his character, everyone seems to agree that, while he was pleasant and outgoing in public, in private he was reserved and liked to go his own way". "Musicians who knew Johnson testified that he was a nice guy and fairly average—except, of course, for his musical talent, his weakness for whiskey and women, and his commitment to the road."
When Johnson arrived in a new town, he would play for tips on street corners or in front of the local barbershop or a restaurant. Musical associates have said that in live performances Johnson often did not focus on his dark and complex original compositions, but instead pleased audiences by performing more well-known pop standards of the day – and not necessarily blues. With an ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, he had no trouble giving his audiences what they wanted, and certain of his contemporaries later remarked on his interest in jazz and country music. He also had an uncanny ability to establish a rapport with his audience; in every town in which he stopped, he would establish ties to the local community that would serve him well when he passed through again a month or a year later.
Shines was 20 when he met Johnson in 1936. He estimated Johnson was maybe a year older than himself (Johnson was actually 4 years older). Shines is quoted describing Johnson in Samuel Charters's Robert Johnson:
Robert was a very friendly person, even though he was sulky at times, you know. And I hung around Robert for quite a while. One evening he disappeared. He was kind of a peculiar fellow. Robert'd be standing up playing some place, playing like nobody's business. At about that time it was a hustle with him as well as a pleasure. And money'd be coming from all directions. But Robert'd just pick up and walk off and leave you standing there playing. And you wouldn't see Robert no more maybe in two or three weeks. ... So Robert and I, we began journeying off. I was just, matter of fact, tagging along.
During this time Johnson established what would be a relatively long-term relationship with Estella Coleman, a woman about 15 years his senior and the mother of the blues musician Robert Lockwood, Jr. Johnson reportedly cultivated a woman to look after him in each town he played in. He reputedly asked homely young women living in the country with their families whether he could go home with them, and in most cases, he was accepted, until a boyfriend arrived or Johnson was ready to move on.
In 1941, Alan Lomax learned from Muddy Waters that Johnson had performed in the area around Clarksdale, Mississippi. By 1959, the historian Samuel Charters could add only that Will Shade, of the Memphis Jug Band, remembered Johnson had once briefly played with him in West Memphis, Arkansas. In the last year of his life, Johnson is believed to have traveled to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and New York City. In 1938, Columbia Records producer John H. Hammond, who owned some of Johnson's records, directed record producer Don Law to seek out Johnson to book him for the first "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. On learning of Johnson's death, Hammond replaced him with Big Bill Broonzy, but he played two of Johnson's records from the stage.
In Jackson, Mississippi, around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir, who ran a general store and also acted as a talent scout. Speir put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who, as a salesman for the ARC group of labels, introduced Johnson to Don Law to record his first sessions in San Antonio, Texas. The recording session was held on November 23–25, 1936, in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, which Brunswick Records had set up to be a temporary recording studio. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played 16 selections and recorded alternate takes for most of them. He reportedly performed facing the wall, which has been cited as evidence he was a shy man and reserved performer. This conclusion was played up in the inaccurate liner notes of the 1961 album King of the Delta Blues Singers. The slide guitarist Ry Cooder had speculated that Johnson played facing a corner to enhance the sound of the guitar, a technique he called "corner loading". This idea has been thoroughly debunked, however, and there is no evidence that Johnson ever recorded facing into an corner. This false notion came about from a misreading of the original notes from the session and from Frank Driggs liner notes for the first Johnson reissue.
Among the songs Johnson recorded in San Antonio were "Come On in My Kitchen", "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" and "Cross Road Blues". The first to be released were "Terraplane Blues" and "Last Fair Deal Gone Down", probably the only recordings of his that he would live to hear. "Terraplane Blues" became a modest regional hit, selling 5,000 copies.
His first recorded song, "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", was part of a cycle of spin-offs and response songs that began with Leroy Carr's "Mean Mistreater Mama" (1934). According to Elijah Wald, it was "the most musically complex in the cycle" and stood apart from most rural blues as a thoroughly composed lyric, rather than an arbitrary collection of more or less unrelated verses. In contrast to most Delta players, Johnson had absorbed the idea of fitting a composed song into the three minutes of a 78-rpm side. Most of Johnson's "somber and introspective" songs and performances come from his second recording session.
Johnson traveled to Dallas, Texas, for another recording session with Don Law in a makeshift studio at the Vitagraph (Warner Bros.) Building, at 508 Park Avenue, on June 19–20, 1937 where Brunswick Record Corporation was located on the third floor. Eleven records from this session would be released within the following year. Johnson did two takes of most of these songs, and recordings of those takes survived. Because of this, there is more opportunity to compare different performances of a single song by Johnson than for any other blues performer of his time and place. Johnson recorded almost half of the 29 songs that make up his entire discography in Dallas.
Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, near Greenwood, Mississippi, of unknown causes. His death was not reported publicly; he merely disappeared from the historical record and it was not until almost 30 years later, when Gayle Dean Wardlow, a Mississippi-based musicologist researching Johnson's life, found his death certificate, which listed only the date and location, with no official cause of death. No formal autopsy was done, as a dead black man found by the side of the road near a farm, a pro forma examination was done to file the death certificate, and no immediate cause of death was determined. It is likely he had congenital syphilis and it was suspected later by medical professionals that may have been a contributing factor in his death. However, 30 years of local legend and oral tradition had, like the rest of his life story, built a legend which has filled in gaps in the scant historical record.
Several differing accounts have described the events preceding his death. Johnson had been playing for a few weeks at a country dance in a town about 15 miles (24 km) from Greenwood. According to one theory, Johnson was murdered by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he had flirted. In an account by the blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnson had been flirting with a married woman at a dance, and she gave him a bottle of whiskey poisoned by her husband. When Johnson took the bottle, Williamson knocked it out of his hand, admonishing him to never drink from a bottle that he had not personally seen opened. Johnson replied, "Don't ever knock a bottle out of my hand." Soon after, he was offered another (poisoned) bottle and accepted it. Johnson is reported to have begun feeling ill the evening after and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days his condition steadily worsened. Witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain. The musicologist Robert "Mack" McCormick claimed to have tracked down the man who murdered Johnson and to have obtained a confession from him in a personal interview, but he declined to reveal the man's name.
While strychnine has been suggested as the poison that killed Johnson, at least one scholar has disputed the notion. Tom Graves, in his book Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, relies on expert testimony from toxicologists to argue that strychnine has such a distinctive odor and taste that it cannot be disguised, even in strong liquor. Graves also claims that a significant amount of strychnine would have to be consumed in one sitting to be fatal, and that death from the poison would occur within hours, not days.
In their 2019 book Up Jumped the Devil, Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow suggest that the poison was naphthalene, from dissolved mothballs. This was "a common way of poisoning people in the rural South", but was rarely fatal. However, Johnson had been diagnosed with an ulcer and with esophageal varices, and the poison was sufficient to cause them to hemorrhage. He died after two days of severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and bleeding from the mouth.
The LeFlore County registrar, Cornelia Jordan, years later and after conducting an investigation into Johnson's death for the state director of vital statistics, R. N. Whitfield, wrote a clarifying note on the back of Johnson's death certificate:
I talked with the white man on whose place this negro died and I also talked with a negro woman on the place. The plantation owner said the negro man, seemingly about 26 years old, came from Tunica two or three weeks before he died to play banjo at a negro dance given there on the plantation. He stayed in the house with some of the negroes saying he wanted to pick cotton. The white man did not have a doctor for this negro as he had not worked for him. He was buried in a homemade coffin furnished by the county. The plantation owner said it was his opinion that the man died of syphilis.
In 2006, a medical practitioner, David Connell, suggested, on the basis of photographs showing Johnson's "unnaturally long fingers" and "one bad eye", that Johnson may have had Marfan syndrome, which could have both affected his guitar playing and contributed to his death due to aortic dissection.
The exact location of Johnson's grave is officially unknown; three different markers have been erected at possible sites in church cemeteries outside Greenwood.
- Research in the 1980s and 1990s strongly suggests Johnson was buried in the graveyard of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City, Mississippi, not far from Greenwood, in an unmarked grave. A one-ton cenotaph in the shape of an obelisk, listing all of Johnson's song titles, with a central inscription by Peter Guralnick, was placed at this location in 1990, paid for by Columbia Records and numerous smaller contributions made through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund.
- In 1990, a small marker with the epitaph "Resting in the Blues" was placed in the cemetery of Payne Chapel, near Quito, Mississippi, by an Atlanta rock group named the Tombstones, after they saw a photograph in Living Blues magazine of an unmarked spot alleged by one of Johnson's ex-girlfriends to be Johnson's burial site.
- More recent research by Stephen LaVere (including statements from Rosie Eskridge, the wife of the supposed gravedigger, in 2000) indicates that the actual grave site is under a big pecan tree in the cemetery of the Little Zion Church, north of Greenwood along Money Road. Through LaVere, Sony Music placed a marker at this site, which bears LaVere's name as well as Johnson's.
John Hammond, Jr., in the documentary The Search for Robert Johnson (1991), suggests that owing to poverty and lack of transportation Johnson is most likely to have been buried in a pauper's grave (or "potter's field") very near where he died.
According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Johnson had a tremendous desire to become a great blues musician. One of the legends often told says that Johnson was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. (There are claims for at least a dozen other sites as the location of the crossroads.) There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. The Devil played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This story of a deal with the Devil at the crossroads mirrors the legend of Faust. In exchange for his soul, Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous.
This legend was developed over time and has been chronicled by Gayle Dean Wardlow, Edward Komara and Elijah Wald, who sees the legend as largely dating from Johnson's rediscovery by white fans more than two decades after his death. Son House once told the story to Pete Welding as an explanation of Johnson's astonishingly rapid mastery of the guitar. Welding reported it as a serious belief in a widely read article in Down Beat in 1966. Other interviewers failed to elicit any confirmation from House and there were fully two years between House's observation of Johnson as first a novice and then a master.
Further details were absorbed from the imaginative retellings by Greil Marcus and Robert Palmer. Most significantly, the detail was added that Johnson received his gift from a large black man at a crossroads. There is dispute as to how and when the crossroads detail was attached to the Robert Johnson story. All the published evidence, including a full chapter on the subject in the biography Crossroads, by Tom Graves, suggests an origin in the story of the blues musician Tommy Johnson. This story was collected from his musical associate Ishman Bracey and his elder brother Ledell in the 1960s. One version of Ledell Johnson's account was published in David Evans's 1971 biography of Tommy Johnson, and was repeated in print in 1982 alongside House's story in the widely read Searching for Robert Johnson, by Peter Guralnick.
In another version, Ledell placed the meeting not at a crossroads but in a graveyard. This resembles the story told to Steve LaVere that Ike Zimmerman of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, learned to play the guitar at midnight while sitting on tombstones. Zimmerman is believed to have influenced the playing of the young Johnson.
Recent research by the blues scholar Bruce Conforth, in Living Blues magazine, makes the story clearer. Johnson and Ike Zimmerman did practice in a graveyard at night, because it was quiet and no one would disturb them, but it was not the Hazlehurst cemetery as had been believed: Zimmerman was not from Hazlehurst but nearby Beauregard, and he did not practice in one graveyard, but in several in the area. Johnson spent about a year living with and learning from Zimmerman, who ultimately accompanied Johnson back to the Delta to look after him.
While Dockery, Hazlehurst and Beauregard have each been claimed as the locations of the mythical crossroads, there are also tourist attractions claiming to be "The Crossroads" in both Clarksdale and Memphis. Residents of Rosedale, Mississippi, claim Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the intersection of Highways 1 and 8 in their town, while the 1986 movie Crossroads was filmed in Beulah, Mississippi. The blues historian Steve Cheseborough wrote that it may be impossible to discover the exact location of the mythical crossroads, because "Robert Johnson was a rambling guy".
See generally "Crossroads" main article, "blues songs" section.
Some scholars have argued that the devil in these songs may refer not only to the Christian figure of Satan but also to the trickster god of African origin, Legba, himself associated with crossroads. Folklorist Harry M. Hyatt wrote that, during his research in the South from 1935 to 1939, when African-Americans born in the 19th or early 20th century said they or anyone else had "sold their soul to the devil at the crossroads," they had a different meaning in mind. Hyatt claimed there was evidence indicating African religious retentions surrounding Legba and the making of a "deal" (not selling the soul in the same sense as in the Faustian tradition cited by Graves) with the so-called devil at the crossroads.
The Blues and the Blues singer has really special powers over women, especially. It is said that the Blues singer could possess women and have any woman they wanted. And so when Robert Johnson came back, having left his community as an apparently mediocre musician, with a clear genius in his guitar style and lyrics, people said he must have sold his soul to the devil. And that fits in with this old African association with the crossroads where you find wisdom: you go down to the crossroads to learn, and in his case to learn in a Faustian pact, with the devil. You sell your soul to become the greatest musician in history.
This view that the devil in Johnson's songs is derived from an African deity was disputed by the blues scholar David Evans in an essay published in 1999, "Demythologizing the Blues":
There are ... several serious problems with this crossroads myth. The devil imagery found in the blues is thoroughly familiar from western folklore, and nowhere do blues singers ever mention Legba or any other African deity in their songs or other lore. The actual African music connected with cults of Legba and similar trickster deities sounds nothing like the blues, but rather features polyrhythmic percussion and choral call-and-response singing.
The musicologist Alan Lomax dismissed the myth, stating, "In fact, every blues fiddler, banjo picker, harp blower, piano strummer and guitar framer was, in the opinion of both himself and his peers, a child of the Devil, a consequence of the black view of the European dance embrace as sinful in the extreme".
Johnson is considered a master of the blues, particularly of the Delta blues style. Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones, said in 1990, "You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it". But according to Elijah Wald, in his book Escaping the Delta, Johnson in his own time was most respected for his ability to play in a wide range of styles, from raw country slide guitar to jazz and pop licks, and for his ability to pick up guitar parts almost instantly upon hearing a song. His first recorded song, "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", in contrast to the prevailing Delta style of the time, more resembled the style of Chicago or St. Louis, with "a full-fledged, abundantly varied musical arrangement". Unusual for a Delta player of the time, a recording exhibits what Johnson could do entirely outside of a blues style. "They're Red Hot", from his first recording session, shows that he was also comfortable with an "uptown" swing or ragtime sound similar to that of the Harlem Hamfats, but as Wald remarked, "no record company was heading to Mississippi in search of a down-home Ink Spots ... [H]e could undoubtedly have come up with a lot more songs in this style if the producers had wanted them."
An important aspect of Johnson's singing was his use of microtonality. These subtle inflections of pitch help explain why his singing conveys such powerful emotion. Eric Clapton described Johnson's music as "the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice". In two takes of "Me and the Devil Blues" he shows a high degree of precision in the complex vocal delivery of the last verse: "The range of tone he can pack into a few lines is astonishing." The song's "hip humor and sophistication" is often overlooked. "[G]enerations of blues writers in search of wild Delta primitivism", wrote Wald, have been inclined to overlook or undervalue aspects that show Johnson as a polished professional performer.
Johnson is also known for using the guitar as "the other vocalist in the song", a technique later perfected by B.B. King and his personified guitar named Lucille: "In Africa and in Afro-American tradition, there is the tradition of the talking instrument, beginning with the drums ... the one-strand and then the six-strings with bottleneck-style performance; it becomes a competing voice ... or a complementary voice ... in the performance."
Johnson mastered the guitar, being considered today one of the all-time greats on the instrument. His approach was complex and musically advanced. When Keith Richards was first introduced to Johnson's music by his bandmate Brian Jones, he asked, "Who is the other guy playing with him?", not realizing it was Johnson playing one guitar. "I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realise he was doing it all by himself", said Richards, who later stated that "Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself". "As for his guitar technique, it's politely reedy but ambitiously eclectic—moving effortlessly from hen-picking and bottleneck slides to a full deck of chucka-chucka rhythm figures."
In The Story with Dick Gordon, Bill Ferris, of American Public Media, said, "Robert Johnson I think of in the same way I think of the British Romantic poets, Keats and Shelley, who burned out early, who were geniuses at wordsmithing poetry ... The Blues, if anything, are deeply sexual. You know, 'my car doesn't run, I'm gonna check my oil' ... 'if you don't like my apples, don't shake my tree'. Every verse has sexuality associated with it."
Playback speed hypothesis
In The Guardian's music blog from May 2010, Jon Wilde speculated without proof that Johnson's recordings may have been "accidentally speeded up when first committed to 78 [rpm records], or else were deliberately speeded up to make them sound more exciting". He did not give a source for this statement. Biographer Elijah Wald and other musicologists dispute this hypothesis on various grounds, including that Johnson's extant recordings were made on five different days, spread across two years at two different studios, making uniform speed changes or malfunctions highly improbable. In addition, fellow musicians, contemporaries and family who worked with or witnessed Johnson perform spoke of his recordings for more than 70 years preceding Wilde's hypothesis without ever suggesting that the speed of his performances had been altered.
Johnson fused approaches specific to Delta blues to those from the broader music world. The slide guitar work on "Rambling on My Mind" is pure Delta and Johnson's vocal there has "a touch of ... Son House rawness", but the train imitation on the bridge is not at all typical of Delta blues—it is more like something out of minstrel show music or vaudeville. Johnson did record versions of "Preaching the Blues" and "Walking Blues" in the older bluesman's vocal and guitar style (House's chronology has been questioned by Guralnick). As with the first take of "Come On in My Kitchen", the influence of Skip James is evident in James's "Devil Got My Woman", but the lyrics rise to the level of first-rate poetry, and Johnson sings with a strained voice found nowhere else in his recorded output.
The sad, romantic "Love in Vain" successfully blends several of Johnson's disparate influences. The form, including the wordless last verse, follows Leroy Carr's last hit "When the Sun Goes Down"; the words of the last sung verse come directly from a song Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded in 1926. Johnson's last recording, "Milkcow's Calf Blues" is his most direct tribute to Kokomo Arnold, who wrote "Milkcow Blues" and influenced Johnson's vocal style.
"From Four Until Late" shows Johnson's mastery of a blues style not usually associated with the Delta. He croons the lyrics in a manner reminiscent of Lonnie Johnson, and his guitar style is more that of a ragtime-influenced player like Blind Blake. Lonnie Johnson's influence is even clearer in two other departures from the usual Delta style: "Malted Milk" and "Drunken Hearted Man". Both copy the arrangement of Lonnie Johnson's "Life Saver Blues". The two takes of "Me and the Devil Blues" show the influence of Peetie Wheatstraw, calling into question the interpretation of this piece as "the spontaneous heart-cry of a demon-driven folk artist".
Johnson has had enormous impact on music and musicians, but outside his own time and place and even the genre for which he was famous. His influence on contemporaries was much smaller, in part because he was an itinerant performer—playing mostly on street corners, in juke joints, and at Saturday night dances—who worked in a then undervalued style of music. He also died young after recording only a handful of songs. Johnson, though well-traveled and admired in his performances, was little noted in his lifetime, and his records were even less appreciated. "Terraplane Blues", sometimes described as Johnson's only hit record, outsold his others, but was still only a minor success.
If one had asked black blues fans about Johnson in the first 20 years after his death, writes Elijah Wald, "the response in the vast majority of cases would have been a puzzled 'Robert who?'" This lack of recognition extended to black musicians: "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". Columbia Records released the album King of the Delta Blues Singers, a compilation of Johnson's recordings, in 1961, which introduced his work to a much wider audience—fame and recognition he received only long after his death.
Rock and roll
Johnson's greatest influence has been on genres of music that developed after his death: rock and roll and rock. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included four of his songs in a set of 500 they deemed to have shaped the genre:
- "Sweet Home Chicago" (1936)
- "Cross Road Blues" (1936)
- "Hellhound on My Trail" (1937)
- "Love in Vain" (1937)
Johnson recorded these songs a decade and a half before the advent of rock and roll, dying a year or two later. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted him as an early influence in its first induction ceremony, in 1986, almost a half century after his death. Marc Meyers, of the Wall Street Journal, wrote that "His 'Stop Breakin' Down Blues' from 1937 is so far ahead of its time that the song could easily have been a rock demo cut in 1954."
Many of the artists who claim to have been influenced by Johnson the most, injecting his revolutionary stylings into their work and recording tribute songs and collections, are prominent rock musicians from the United Kingdom. His impact on these musicians, who contributed to and helped to define rock and roll and rock music, came from the compilation of his works released in 1961 by Columbia Records (King of the Delta Blues Singers).
Among the artists who cite Johnson as an influence:
- Brian Jones, of the Rolling Stones, introduced his bandmate Keith Richards to this album by Johnson. The blues master's recordings would have as much impact on him as on Mick Jagger. The group performed his "Walkin' Blues" at The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in 1968. They arranged their own version of "Love in Vain" for their album Let It Bleed and recorded "Stop Breakin' Down Blues" for Exile on Main Street. Jagger, in the role of Turner in the 1970 film Performance, performed excerpts from "Come On in My Kitchen" and "Me and the Devil Blues".
- Eric Clapton considers Johnson "the most important blues musician who ever lived". He recorded enough of his songs to make Me and Mr. Johnson, a blues-rock album released in 2004 as a tribute to the legendary bluesman (it was also used in the film Sessions for Robert J). He earlier recorded "Crossroads", an arrangement of "Cross Road Blues", with Cream in 1968, leading some to consider him "the man largely responsible for making Robert Johnson a household name."
- Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin, referred to Johnson on the NPR radio program Fresh Air (recorded in 2004) as "Robert Johnson, to whom we all owed our existence, in some way." His group recorded "Traveling Riverside Blues", a song that drew from Johnson's original and quoted a number of his songs; the accompanying music video showed images from the Delta, which Johnson often wrote about.
- Fleetwood Mac was strongly influenced by Johnson in the group's early years as a British blues band. Guitarist Jeremy Spencer contributed two covers of Johnson-derived songs to the group's early albums, and lead guitarist Peter Green later recorded Johnson's entire catalogue in two albums, The Robert Johnson Songbook and Hot Foot Powder.
- Sam Dunn's documentary Metal Evolution cites Johnson as the "great grandfather to all things heavy metal", with members of the bands Rush and Slipknot agreeing that he played a major role in the development of rock music.
- Bob Dylan wrote of Johnson in his 2004 autobiography Chronicles: Volume One, "If I hadn't heard the 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."
- Alexis Korner, who has been called "the Founding Father of British Blues", co-wrote and recorded a song entitled "Robert Johnson" for The Party Album, released in 1978.
Johnson's revolutionary guitar playing has led contemporary critics, assessing his talents through the handful of old recordings available, to rate him among the greatest guitar players of all time:
- In 1990, Spin magazine rated him first in its list of "35 Guitar Gods"—on the 52nd anniversary of his death.
- In 2003, Rolling Stone's David Fricke ranked him fifth on his list of "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time"
- In 2010, Guitar.com ranked him ninth in its list of "Top 50 Guitarists of All Time"—72 years after he died.
Musicians who proclaim Johnson's profound impact on them—including Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton—all rated in the top ten with him on each of these lists. The boogie bass line he fashioned for "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" has now passed into the standard guitar repertoire. At the time it was completely new, a guitarist's version of something people would otherwise have heard only from a piano. Reggie Ugwu in the New York Times said that Johnson, "imitating the boogie-woogie style of piano playing, used his guitar to play rhythm, bass and slide simultaneously, all while singing."
Problems of biography
Until the 2019 publication of Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow's biography, Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, little of Johnson's early life was known. Two marriage licenses for Johnson have been located in county records offices. The ages given in these certificates point to different birth dates, but Conforth and Wardlow suggest that Johnson lied about his age in order to obtain a marriage licence. Carrie Thompson claimed that her mother, who was also Robert's mother, remembered his birth date as May 8, 1911. He was not listed among his mother's children in the 1910 census giving further credence to a 1911 birthdate. Although the 1920 census gives his age as 7, suggesting he was born in 1912 or 1913, the entry showing his attendance at Indian Creek School, in Tunica, Mississippi more accurately listed him as being 14 years old.
Five significant dates from his career are documented: Monday, Thursday and Friday, November 23, 26, and 27, 1936, at a recording session in San Antonio, Texas; and Saturday and Sunday, June 19 and 20, 1937, at a recording session in Dallas. His death certificate, discovered in 1968, lists the date and location of his death.
Johnson's records were admired by record collectors from the time of their first release, and efforts were made to discover his biography, with virtually no success. A relatively full account of Johnson's brief musical career emerged in the 1960s, largely from accounts by Son House, Johnny Shines, David Honeyboy Edwards and Robert Lockwood. In 1961, the sleeve notes to the album King of the Delta Blues Singers included reminiscences of Don Law who had recorded Johnson in 1936. Law added to the mystique surrounding Johnson, representing him as very young and extraordinarily shy.
The blues researcher Mack McCormick began researching his family background in 1972, but died in 2015 without ever publishing his findings. McCormick's research eventually became as much a legend as Johnson himself. In 1982, McCormick permitted Peter Guralnick to publish a summary in Living Blues (1982), later reprinted in book form as Searching for Robert Johnson. Later research has sought to confirm this account or to add minor details. A revised summary acknowledging major informants was written by Stephen LaVere for the booklet accompanying the compilation album Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (1990), and is maintained with updates at the Delta Haze website. The documentary film The Search for Robert Johnson contains accounts by McCormick and Wardlow of what informants have told them: long interviews of David "Honeyboy" Edwards and Johnny Shines and short interviews of surviving friends and family. Another film, Can't You Hear the Wind Howl: The Life and Music of Robert Johnson, combines documentary segments with recreated scenes featuring Keb' Mo' as Johnson with narration by Danny Glover. Shines, Edwards and Robert Lockwood contribute interviews. These published biographical sketches achieve coherent narratives, partly by ignoring reminiscences and hearsay accounts which contradict or conflict with other accounts.
Until the 1980s, it was believed that no images of Johnson had survived. However, three images of Johnson were located in 1972 and 1973, in the possession of his half-sister Carrie Thompson. Two of these, known as the "dime-store photo" (December 1937 or January 1938) and the "studio portrait" (summer 1936), were copyrighted by Stephen LaVere (who had obtained them from the Thompson family) in 1986 and 1989, respectively, with an agreement to share any ensuing royalties 50% with the Johnson estate, at that time administered by Thompson. The "dime-store photo" was first published, almost in passing, in an issue of Rolling Stone magazine in 1986, and the studio portrait in a 1989 article by Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow in 78 Quarterly. Both were subsequently featured prominently in the printed materials associated with the 1990 CBS box set of the "complete" Johnson recordings, as well as being widely republished since that time. Because Mississippi courts in 1998 determined that Robert Johnson's heir was Claud Johnson, a son born out of wedlock, the "estate share" of all monies paid to LaVere by CBS and others ended up going to Claud Johnson, and attempts by the heirs of Carrie Thompson to obtain a ruling that the photographs were her personal property and not part of the estate were dismissed. In his book Searching for Robert Johnson, Peter Guralnick stated that the blues archivist Mack McCormick showed him a photograph of Johnson with his nephew Louis, taken at the same time as the famous "pinstripe suit" photograph, showing Louis dressed in his United States Navy uniform; this picture, along with the "studio portrait", were both lent by Carrie Thompson to McCormick in 1972. This photograph has never been made public.
Another photograph, purporting to show Johnson posing with the blues musician Johnny Shines, was published in the November 2008 issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Its authenticity was claimed by the forensic artist Lois Gibson and by Johnson's estate in 2013, but has been disputed by some music historians, including Elijah Wald, Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, who considered that the clothing suggests a date after Johnson's death and that the photograph may have been reversed and retouched. Further, both David "Honeyboy" Edwards and Robert Lockwood failed to identify either man in the photo. Facial recognition software concluded that neither man was Johnson or Shines. Finally, Gibson claimed the photo was from 1933-34 while it is now known that Johnson did not meet Shines until early 1937. In December 2015, a fourth photograph was published, purportedly showing Johnson, his wife Calletta Craft, Estella Coleman, and Robert Lockwood Jr. This photograph was also declared authentic by Lois Gibson, but her identification of Johnson has been dismissed by other facial recognition experts and blues historians. There are a number of glaring errors in this photo: it has been proven that Craft died before Johnson met Coleman, the clothing could not be prior to the late 1940s, the furniture is from the 1950s, the Coca-Cola bottle cannot be from prior to 1950, etc..
A third photograph of Johnson, this time smiling, was published in 2020. It is believed to have been taken in Memphis on the same occasion as the verified photograph of him with a guitar and cigarette (part of the "dime-store" set), and is in the possession of Annye Anderson, Johnson's step-sister (Anderson is the daughter of Charles Dodds, later Spencer, who was married to Robert's mother but was not his father). As a child, Anderson grew up in the same family as Johnson and has claimed to have been present, aged 10 or 11, on the occasion the photograph was taken. This photograph was published in Vanity Fair in May 2020, as the cover image for a book, Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson, written by Anderson in collaboration with author Preston Lauterbach, and is considered to be authentic by Johnson scholar Elijah Wald.
Johnson left no will. In 1998, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that Claud Johnson, a retired truck driver living in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, was the son of Robert Johnson and his only heir. The court heard that he had been born to Virgie Jane Smith (later Virgie Jane Cain), who had a relationship with Robert Johnson in 1931. The relationship was attested to by a friend, Eula Mae Williams, but other relatives descended from Robert Johnson's half-sister, Carrie Harris Thompson, contested Claud Johnson's claim. The effect of the judgment was to allow Claud Johnson to receive over $1 million in royalties. Claud Johnson died, aged 83, on June 30, 2015, leaving six children.
Other Robert Johnsons
The Radiolab podcast "Crossroads", broadcast initially April 16, 2012, on NPR, raises the possibility that more than one Robert Johnson was traveling around the region making music at the time of the subject's life — perhaps confusing related biographical information. This would not be surprising, however, since blues musicians from this time often claimed they were someone else. Robert Johnson even occasionally claimed to be Lonnie Johnson.
In 1961, Columbia Records released King of the Delta Blues Singers on vinyl, the album representing the first modern-era release of Johnson's performances, which started the "re-discovery" of Johnson as blues artist.
Columbia Records issued a second volume, King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II, in 1970.
The Complete Recordings, a two-disc set, released on August 28, 1990, contains almost everything Johnson recorded, with all 29 recordings, and 12 alternate takes. (Another alternate take of "Traveling Riverside Blues" which was released by Sony on the CD King of the Delta Blues Singers and was included in early printings of the paperback edition of Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta.)
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Johnson's birth, May 8, 2011, Sony Legacy released Robert Johnson: The Centennial Collection, a re-mastered 2-CD set of all 42 of his recordings and two brief fragments, one of Johnson practicing a guitar figure and the other of Johnson saying, presumably to engineer Don Law, "I wanna go on with our next one myself." Reviewers commented that the sound quality of the 2011 release was a substantial improvement on the 1990 release.
Awards and recognition
- 1980 – Blues Hall of Fame: performer
- 1986 – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: early influence
- 1990 – Grammy Award: best historical album (The Complete Recordings)
- 1991 – Blues Music Award: reissue album (The Complete Recordings)
- 1994 – U.S. Postal Service: commemorative stamp
- 1995 – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll": "Sweet Home Chicago", "Cross Road Blues", "Hellhound on My Trail", "Love in Vain"
- 1998 – Grammy Hall of Fame: "Cross Road Blues"
- 2000 – Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame: blues pioneer
- 2003 – National Recording Registry: The Complete Recordings
- 2006 – Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award: performer
- 2015 – Rolling Stone "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time": number 71 (down from No. 5 on its 2003 list chosen by David Fricke)
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- Guralnik, pp. 10–11.
- Conforth and Wardlow 2019, p. 45.
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- Mugge, Robert (2000). Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson. Quoted in Wald 2004, p. 107.
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- The Search for Robert Johnson, 1992 film.
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- Gioia, p. 172.
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- Guralnik, p. 28.
- Guralnik, p. 24.
- Gioia, p. 175.
- Gioia, pp. 172–173.
- Edwards, p. 100.
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- Pearson and McCulloch, p. 111.
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- Lomax 1993
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- Ry Cooder quoted in Guitar Player magazine, September 1990, p69, in article "The Real Robert Johnson" by Jas Obrecht
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Graves, Tom; LaVere, Steve (2008). Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson. Demers Books. pp. 39–43. ISBN 978-0-9816002-0-8.
The tale most often told about how Johnson met his fate is that he was poisoned by a jealous husband who put strychnine in his whiskey.
- Conforth and Wardlow 2019, pp. 253-255.
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- Wald, pp. 265–276.
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- Hyatt, Harry (1973). Hoodoo–Conjuration–Witchcraft–Rootwork, Beliefs Accepted by Many Negroes and White Persons. Western Publications.
- Ferris, Bill. The Story with Dick Gordon. American Public Media.
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- Lomax, p. 365.
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