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Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) is among the most famous of Delta blues musicians. His landmark recordings from 1936–1937 display a remarkable combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced generations of musicians. Johnson's shadowy, poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend.
Considered by some to be the "Grandfather of Rock 'n' Roll", his vocal phrasing, original songs, and guitar style have influenced a broad range of musicians, including Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Jack White and Eric Clapton, who called Johnson "the most important blues singer that ever lived". He was also ranked fifth in Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
He is an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Life and career
Problems of biography
The success of the album led blues scholars and enthusiasts to question every veteran blues musician who might have known Johnson or seen him in performance. 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.
Still nothing was known of Johnson's early life. The noted blues researcher Mack McCormick began researching his family background, but he was never ready to publish. Eventually McCormick's research 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 Mack McCormick and Gayle Dean Wardlow of what informants have told them, long interviews of David Honeyboy Edwards and Johnny Shines, and short interviews of surviving friends and family. These published biographical sketches achieve coherent narratives, partly by ignoring reminiscences and hearsay accounts which contradict or conflict with other accounts.
The two known images of Johnson were located in 1973, in the possession of the musician's half-sister Carrie Thompson, and were not widely published until the late 1980s. A third photo, purporting to show Johnson posing with fellow blues performer Johnny Shines was published in the November 2008 edition of Vanity Fair magazine. The same article claims that other photographs of Johnson, so far unpublished, may exist.
The first two photographs and the royalties from the Complete Recordings were so remunerative as to make Johnson's biography a cause for litigation. Carrie Thompson's claim to be Robert's half-sister has been recognized under law, and Claud Johnson has been recognized as Robert's natural son and sole living heir.
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. Seven months later, on Saturday and Sunday, June 19–20, 1937, he was in Dallas, Texas at another session. His death certificate was discovered in 1968, and lists the date and location of his death. Two marriage licenses for Johnson have also been located in county records offices. The ages given in these certificates point to different birth dates, as do the entries showing his attendance at the Indian Creek School, Tunica, Mississippi. However, most of these dates can be discounted since Robert was not listed among his mother's children in the 1910 census. Carrie Thompson claimed that her mother, who was also Robert's mother, remembered his birth date as May 8, 1911.
Other facts about him are less well established.
Director Martin Scorsese says in his foreword to Alan Greenberg's
filmscript Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, "The thing about
Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure
Around 1919, Robert rejoined his mother in the area around Tunica and Robinsonville, Mississippi. Julia's new husband was known as Dusty Willis, and Robert was remembered by some informants as "Little Robert Dusty". However, he was registered at the Indian Creek School in Tunica as Robert Spencer. Robert was at school in 1924 and 1927 and the quality of his signature on his marriage certificate suggests that he studied continuously and was relatively well educated for a boy of his background. One school friend, Willie Coffee, has been discovered and filmed. He recalls that Robert was already noted for playing the harmonica and jaw harp.
After school, Robert adopted the surname of his natural father, signing himself as Robert Johnson on the certificate of his marriage to sixteen-year-old Virginia Travis in February 1929. She died shortly after in childbirth.
Around this time, the noted blues musician Son House
moved to Robinsonville where his musical partner
lived. Late in life, House remembered Johnson as a boy who had followed
him around and tried very unsuccessfully to copy him. He then left the
Robbinsonville area, but later reappeared after a few months with a
miraculous guitar technique. His boast is entirely credible. Johnson
later recorded versions of "Preaching the Blues" and "Walking Blues" in
House's vocal and guitar style. However, Son's chronology is questioned
by Guralnick. When House moved to Robbinsville in 1930, Johnson was a
young adult, already married and widowed. The following year, he was
living near Hazelhurst, where he married for the second time. From this
base Johnson began travelling up and down the Delta as an itinerant
This legend was developed over time, and has been chronicled by Gayle Dean Wardlow, Edward Komara and Elijah Wald. Folk tales of bargains with the Devil have long existed in African American and White traditions, and were adapted into literature by, amongst others, Washington Irving in "The Devil and Tom Walker" in 1824, and by Stephen Vincent Benet in "The Devil and Daniel Webster" in 1936. More recently, this legend was referenced with the Blues Devil in Metalocalypse, after the main characters meet a Robert Johnson lookalike. In the 1930s the folklorist Harry Middleton Hart recorded many tales of banjo players, fiddlers, card sharps and dice sharks selling their souls at the crossroads, along with guitarists and one accordionist. The folklorist Alan Lomax considered that every African American secular musician 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".
In recorded Blues, the theme first appeared in 1924 in the record by Clara Smith "Done Sold My Soul To The Devil (And My Heart's Done Turned To Stone)". An influential song, Smith's tune was covered during the following decade by blues artists Merline Johnson (the Yas Yas Girl), Casey Bill Weldon, and John D. Twitty. A cover was also recorded in 1937 by the white Western Swing band named after their business manager Dave Edwards.
Johnson seems to have claimed occasionally that he had sold his soul to the Devil, but it is not clear that he meant it seriously. However, these claims are strongly disputed in Tom Graves' biography of Johnson, Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, published in 2008. 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. However, other interviewers failed to elicit any confirmation from House. Moreover, there were fully two years between House's observation of Robert 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 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 1971 David Evans's biography of Tommy, and was repeated in print in 1982 alongside Son House's story in the widely read Searching for Robert Johnson.
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 Zinnerman of Hazelhurst, Mississippi learned to play the guitar at midnight while sitting on tombstones. Zinnerman is believed to have influenced the playing of the young Robert Johnson. Recent research by blues scholar Bruce Conforth uncovered Ike Zimmerman's daughter (note the difference in spelling... the daughter and Ike's own funeral program containing a photo of him all state that the correct spelling is "Zimmerman". LaVere allegedly came up with a document purportedly signed by Zimmerman dealing with his second wife's death in which the respondent signed it "Zinermon" yet Zimmerman's second wife outlived him and was responsible for burying him!) and the story becomes much clearer, including the fact that Johnson and Zimmerman did, in fact, practice in a graveyard at night (because it was quiet and no one would disturb them) but that it was not the Hazlehurst cemetery as had been believed. Johnson spent about a year living with, and learning from Zimmerman who ultimately accompanied Johnson back up to the Delta to look after him. Conforth's article in Living Blues magazine goes into much greater detail.
The crossroads detail was widely believed to come from Johnson himself, probably because it appeared to explain the discrepancy in "Cross Road Blues". Johnson's high emotion and religious fever are hard to explain as resulting from the mundane situation described, unsuccessful hitchhiking as night falls. The crossroads myth offers a simple literal explanation for both the religion and the anguish.
An alternative explanation (as expressed by musician and blues historian Scott Ainslie) is that the experience of "unsuccessful hitchhiking as night falls" --far from being a "mundane situation"-- was, in fact, likely to be an extremely dangerous predicament for a lone, young black man to find himself in the deep American south in the 1920s and 1930s. This is especially true if the individual in question was a stranger in the area and suspected of working at a nearby "juke joint". Rather than "religious fervor", the "high emotion" that Johnson exhibits while singing the song is more likely to recall the justifiable anxiety (or, indeed, terror) that he probably regularly experienced during his career as an itinerant musician, trying to reach the relative safety of a welcoming safe-house before evening fell.
The myth was established in mass consciousness in 1986
by the film Crossroads. There are now tourist attractions claiming to be
"The Crossroads" at Clarksdale and in Memphis. The film O Brother
Where Art Thou by the Coen Brothers incorporates the crossroads legend
and a young African American blues guitarist named "Tommy Johnson", with
no other biographical similarity to the real Tommy Johnson or to Robert
Fellow musician Johnny Shines was 17 when he met Johnson in 1933. He estimated that Johnson was maybe a year older than himself. In Samuel Charters' Robert Johnson, the author quotes Shines as saying:
"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 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 who was
about fifteen years his elder and the mother of musician Robert
Lockwood, Jr.. Johnson, however, reportedly also cultivated a woman to
look after him in each town he played in. Johnson supposedly asked
homely young women living in the country with their families whether he
could go home with them, and in most cases the answer was yes—until a
boyfriend arrived or Johnson was ready to move on.
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." "Come on in My Kitchen" included the lines: "The woman I love took from my best friend/Some joker got lucky, stole her back again/You better come on in my kitchen, it's going to be rainin' outdoors." In "Crossroad Blues," another of his songs, he sang: "I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees/I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees/I asked the Lord above, have mercy, save poor Bob if you please/Uumb, standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Ain't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by."
When his records began appearing, Johnson made the rounds to his relatives and the various children he had fathered to bring them the records himself. The first songs to appear 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 moderate regional hit, selling 5,000 copies.
In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas, Texas, for another recording session in a makeshift studio at the Brunswick Record Building, 508 Park Avenue. Eleven records from this session would be released within the following year. Among them were the three songs that would largely contribute to Johnson's posthumous fame: "Stones in My Passway," "Me and the Devil," and "Hellhound On My Trail." "Stones In My Passway" and "Me And The Devil" are both about betrayal, a recurrent theme in country blues. The terrifying "Hell Hound On My Trail"—utilising another common theme of fear of the Devil—is often considered to be the crowning achievement of blues-style music. Other themes in Johnson's music include impotence ("Dead Shrimp Blues" and "Phonograph Blues") and infidelity ("Terraplane Blues," "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day" and "Love in Vain").
Six of Johnson's blues songs mention the devil or some form of the supernatural. In "Me And The Devil" he began, "Early this morning when you knocked upon my door/Early this morning, umb, when you knocked upon my door/And I said, 'Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go,'" before leading into "You may bury my body down by the highway side/You may bury my body, uumh, down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit can get on a Greyhound bus and ride."
It has been suggested that the Devil in these songs
does not solely refer to the Christian model of Satan, but equally to
the African trickster god (himself associated with crossroads), Legba,
although author Tom Graves claims the connection to African deities is
tenuous at best. Graves' contention, however, probably stems from a
lack of familiarity with the pervasive retention of African religious
roots among Southern Blacks early in the 20th century. As folklorist
Harry M Hyatt discovered during his research in the South from 1935-1939
when African-Americans born in the 19th or early 20th century told
interviewers that they or anyone they knew had "sold their soul to the
devil at the crossroads," they did not intend to convey thereby that the
person in question was an evil, hell-bound anti-Christian. The confusion
arises in the eyes of white interpreters who don't understand that the
crossroads deity is a survival from polytheistic African religions and
that he has been assigned the only name he can be given in a
monotheistic religion. There is ample evidence supporting the 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 this so-called "devil" at the crossroads.
His death occurred on August 16, 1938, at the age of twenty-seven at a country crossroads near Greenwood, Mississippi. He had been playing for a few weeks at a country dance in a town about 15 miles (24 km) from Greenwood.
There are a number of accounts and theories regarding the events preceding Johnson's death. One of these is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance. One version of this rumor says she was the wife of the juke joint owner who unknowingly provided Johnson with a bottle of poisoned whiskey from her husband, while another suggests she was a married woman he had been secretly seeing. Researcher Mack McCormick claims to have interviewed Johnson's alleged poisoner in the 1970s, and obtained a tacit admission of guilt from the man. When Johnson was offered an open bottle of whiskey, his friend and fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson knocked the bottle out of his hand, informing him that he should never drink from an offered bottle that has already been opened. Johnson allegedly said, "don't ever knock a bottle out of my hand." Soon after, he was offered another open bottle of whiskey and accepted it, and it was that bottle that was laced with strychnine. Honey Boy Edwards, another blues musician was present, and essentially confirms this account. Johnson is reported to have started to feel ill into the evening after drinking from the bottle and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days, his condition steadily worsened and witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain—symptoms which are consistent with strychnine poisoning. Strychnine was readily available at the time as it was a common pesticide and, although it is very bitter-tasting and extremely toxic, a small quantity dissolved in a harsh-tasting solution such as whiskey could possibly have gone unnoticed but still produced the symptoms (over a period of days due to the reduced dosage) and eventual death that Johnson experienced. Tom Graves in his biography Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson convincingly deconstructs the possibility of death by strychnine and using expert testimony from toxicologists disputes the notion. He claims that strychnine has such a distinctive odor and taste that it can not be disguised even in strong liquor. He 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.
The precise location of his grave remains a source of ongoing controversy, and three different markers have been erected at supposed burial sites outside of 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 cenotaph memorial was placed at this location in 1990 paid for by Columbia Records and numerous smaller contributions made through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund. More recent research by Stephen LaVere (including statements from Rosie Eskridge, the wife of the supposed gravedigger) 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. Sony Music has placed a marker at this site.
In 1938, Columbia Records producer John Hammond, who owned some of Johnson's records, sought him out 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 still played two of Johnson's records from the stage. In 1992 Hammond's son, blues musician John P. Hammond, narrated a documentary called The Search for Robert Johnson.
Robert Johnson has a son, Claud Johnson, and grandchildren who currently reside in a town near Hazlehurst, Mississippi