Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

born on 8/5/1911 in Hazlehurst, MS, United States

died on 16/8/1938 in Greenwood, MS, United States

Robert Johnson (musician)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Robert Johnson
Born May 8 1911
Hazlehurst, Mississippi, USA
Died August 16 1938 (aged 27)
Greenwood, Mississippi, USA
Genres Delta blues, country blues
Occupations Musician, Songwriter
Instruments Guitar, Harmonica
Years active 1929-1938
Notable instruments
Gibson L-1

Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 August 16, 1938) was an American blues musician, 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.

Johnson's songs, vocal phrasing and guitar style have influenced a broad range of musicians, including Muddy Waters, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Winter, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton; Clapton has called Johnson "the most important blues singer that ever lived".[1][2] Johnson was among the first musicians to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "early influence" category in 1986.[3] He was ranked fifth in Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.[4]

Problems of biography

Johnson's records were greatly admired by many jazz record collectors from the time of their first release, and efforts were made to discover his biography, with virtually no success. In 1941, Alan Lomax learned from a very shy Muddy Waters that Johnson had performed in the Clarksdale, Mississippi area.[5] By 1959, Samuel Charters could only add that Will Shade of the Memphis Jug Band remembered Johnson had once briefly played with him in West Memphis, Arkansas.[6] 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 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.

For all this, 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. 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.[7] 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.[8] 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 confirmed 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.[9] 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 1920, 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.[10] 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.[11] Carrie Thompson claimed that her mother, who was also Robert's mother, remembered his birth date as May 8, 1911. The 1920 census suggests he was born in 1912.

Other facts about him are less well established. Director Martin Scorsese says in his foreword to Alan Greenberg's film script Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, "The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend."

Life and career

Early life

Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, probably on May 8, 1911 or 1912, 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 to whom she had borne ten children. Dodds had been forced by a lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst following a dispute with white landowners. Julia herself left Hazlehurst with baby Robert, but after some two years, sent him to live in Memphis with Dodds, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer.[12]

Around 1919, Robert rejoined his mother in the area around Tunica and Robinsonville, Mississippi. Julia's new husband was known as Dusty Willis, who was 24 years younger than she, and Robert was remembered by some residents as "Little Robert Dusty".[13] However, he was registered at the Indian Creek School in Tunica as Robert Spencer. He is listed as Robert Spencer in the 1920 census with Will and Julia Willis in Lucas, Arkansas, where they lived for a short time. Robert was at school in 1924 and 1927[11] and the quality of his signature on his marriage certificate[14] 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.[15]

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.[16]

Around this time, the noted blues musician Son House moved to Robinsonville where his musical partner, Willie Brown already lived. Late in life, House remembered Johnson as a boy who had followed him around and tried very unsuccessfully to copy him. Johnson then left the Robinsonville area, reappearing after a few months with a miraculous guitar technique.[17] His boast seems to be 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 Robinsonville 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.[18] From this base Johnson began travelling up and down the Delta as an itinerant musician.

Devil legend

According to a legend known to modern blues fans, Robert Johnson was a young black man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi. Branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician, he was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. After tuning the guitar, the Devil played a few songs and then returned it to Johnson, giving him mastery of the guitar. This was, in effect, a deal with the Devil; in exchange Robert 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,[19] Edward Komara[20] and Elijah Wald, though Wald sees the legend as largely dating from Johnson's rediscovery by white fans more than two decades after his death.[21] Folk tales of bargains with the Devil have long existed in African American and European 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. In the 1930s the folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt recorded many tales of banjo players, fiddlers, card sharps, and dice sharks selling their souls at 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".[22]

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.[23] 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[24] and Robert Palmer.[25] 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.[26] One version of Ledell Johnson's account was published in 1971 David Evans's biography of Tommy,[27] and was repeated in print in 1982 alongside Son House's story in the widely read Searching for Robert Johnson.[28]

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.[29] Recent research by blues scholar Bruce Conforth uncovered Ike Zinnerman's daughter and the story becomes much clearer, including the fact that Johnson and Zinnerman 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, Zinnerman, 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.[30]

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 fervor 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.

There are now tourist attractions claiming to be "The Crossroads" at Clarksdale and in Memphis.[31] 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 Johnson. In the CW TV series Supernatural, the season two episode "Crossroad Blues" was based on the legend.

Blues musician and historian Elijah Wald generally sees the Devil legend as applied to Johnson as overblown. "[I]t is common for white scholars to remark on the dark passions and superstitious terrors expressed in lines that in a juke joint would have produced laughter," he writes.[32] While agreeing with other critics about the "tortured poetry" of "Hellhound on My Trail",[33] he sees, for example, "Me and the Devil Blues" as an entirely other matter,[34] "working within a well-established tradition of blues Devil songs, full of "tongue-in-cheek braggadocio".[35]

Professional career

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. He played what his audience asked for not necessarily his own compositions, and not necessarily blues. With an ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, Johnson had no trouble giving his audiences what they wanted, and certain of his contemporaries, most notably Johnny Shines, later remarked on Johnson's interest in jazz and country. Johnson also had an uncanny ability to establish a rapport with his audience in every town in which he stopped, Johnson would establish ties to the local community that would serve him well when he passed through again a month or a year later.

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 yesuntil a boyfriend arrived or Johnson was ready to move on.

Recording sessions

Around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi, who ran a general store and doubled as a talent scout. Speir, who helped the careers of many blues players, put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who offered to record the young musician in San Antonio, Texas. At the recording session, held on November 23, 1936 in rooms at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio.[36][37] which Brunswick Records had set up as a temporary studio, Johnson reportedly performed facing the wall. This has been cited as evidence he was a shy man and reserved performer, a conclusion played up in the inaccurate liner notes of the 1961 album King of the Delta Blues Singers. Johnson was probably nervous during his session in the makeshift recording studio (a new and alien environment for the musician), but he may simply have been focusing on the demands of his emotive performances. In addition, playing into the corner of a wall (referred to as "corner loading"[38]) was a sound-enhancing technique that simulated the acoustical booths of better-equipped studios. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played sixteen selections, and recorded alternate takes for most of these.

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 "Cross Road 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.[39] Eleven records from this session would be released within the following year. "Stones In My Passway" and "Me And The Devil" are both about betrayal, a recurring theme in country blues. "Hellhound On My Trail" utilizes another common theme: fear of the Devil. 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").

Because Johnson did two takes of most songs during these sessions, and recordings of those takes survived, for Johnson we have more opportunity to compare two different performances of a single song than we do for any other blues performer of his time and place.[40]

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 catch 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.[41] 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.[42]


In the last year of his life, Johnson is believed to have traveled to St. Louis and possibly Illinois, and then to some states in the East. He spent some time in Memphis and traveled through the Mississippi Delta and Arkansas. By the time he died, at least six of his records had been released in the South as race records.

Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, 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 his 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, and that she was unaware that the bottle of whiskey she gave to Johnson had been poisoned by her husband; in another version, she was a married woman unrelated to the juke joint owner.

Researcher Mack McCormick asserts that he interviewed Johnson's alleged poisoner in the 1970s and obtained a tacit admission of guilt from the man. Johnson was allegedly offered an open bottle of whiskey that was laced with strychnine. Fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson, whose often-fabricated stories and half-truths warrant taking any claims lightly at best, allegedly advised him never to drink from an offered bottle that had already been opened. According to Williamson, Johnson replied, "Don't ever knock a bottle out of my hand." Soon after, he was offered another open bottle of whiskey, also laced with strychnine, and accepted it. Honeyboy Edwards, another blues musician, claims to have been present as well and essentially confirms this account, though his statement is questionable.[43]

Johnson is reported to have begun feeling ill 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 painsymptoms which are consistent with strychnine poisoning. Strychnine was a common pesticide and thus was readily available at the time. Although it is very bitter-tasting and extremely toxic, a small quantity dissolved in a harsh-tasting solution such as whiskey could plausibly have gone unnoticed while still producing the symptoms (over a period of days due to the reduced dosage) and eventual death that Johnson experienced.

In his book Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, Tom Graves uses expert testimony from toxicologists to dispute the notion that Johnson died of strychnine poisoning. He states that strychnine has such a distinctive odor and taste that it cannot 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.[44] 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 H. 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.[45]

Robert Johnson has a son, Claude Johnson, and grandchildren who currently reside near Hazlehurst, Mississippi.


Main article: Robert Johnson discography

Eleven Johnson 78s were released on the Vocalion label during his lifetime, with a twelfth issued posthumously.[46] All songs are copyrighted to Robert Johnson, and his estate.

Selective awards and recognitions

Grammy Awards

Year Category Title Genre Label Results
1990 Best Historical Album The Complete Recordings Blues Sony/Columbia Legacy Winner

The Complete Recordings: A double-disc box set was released on August 28, 1990, containing almost everything Robert Johnson ever recorded, with all 29 recordings, and 12 alternate takes. (There is one further alternate, of "Traveling Riverside Blues," which was released on Sony's King of the Delta Blues Singers CD and also as an extra in early printings of the paperback edition of Elijah Wald's "Escaping the Delta."[47]

Grammy Hall of Fame

Year Recorded Title Genre Label Year Inducted
1936 Cross Road Blues Blues (Single) Vocalion 1998

National Recording Registry

The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson (1936-1937) was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2003.[48] The board selects songs in an annual basis that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included four songs by Robert Johnson in the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.[49]

Year Recorded Title
1936 Sweet Home Chicago
1936 Cross Road Blues
1937 Hellhound on My Trail
1937 Love in Vain

The Blues Foundation Awards

Robert Johnson: Blues Music Awards[50]
Year Category Title Result
1991 Vintage or Reissue Album The Complete Recordings Winner

Honors and inductions

On September 17, 1994 the U.S. Post Office issued a Robert Johnson 29-cent commemorative postage stamp.

Year Title Results Notes
2006 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award Winner accepted by son Claud Johnson[51]
2000 Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame[52] Inducted
1986 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inducted Early Influences
1980 Blues Hall of Fame Inducted

Tribute Albums

There have been a number of tribute albums by guitar virtuosi, including

Artist Album Year
Eric Clapton Me and Mr. Johnson 2004
Peter Green Splinter Group The Robert Johnson Songbook 1998
Peter Green Splinter Group Hot Foot Powder 2000
Peter Green Splinter Group Me and the Devil 2001 (A 3-CD set consisting of The Robert Johnson Songbook and Hot Foot Powder with 1 CD of original Robert Johnson recordings)
John Hammond At the Crossroads 2003

Performer and songwriter

In his book Escaping the Delta, Elijah Wald devotes several chapters to song-by-song analysis of Johnson's recordings, and attempts to place him in the context of other blues performers of the time. According to Wald, Johnson in his own time was most respected for his ability to play in such a wide variety of stylesfrom raw country slide guitar to jazz and pop licksand to pick up guitar parts almost instantly upon hearing a song.[53]

By the time Johnson recorded, he was already "an ambitious and experienced professional hoping to cut a hit record steeped in Delta juke music [but] aware of the current blues market"[54] The very first song he recorded"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 Wald, it was "the most musically complex in the cycle"[54] and stood apart from most rural blues as a through-composed lyric, rather than an arbitrary collection of more-or-less unrelated verses.[55] 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.[56] Similarly, in contrast to the prevailing Delta style of the time, but more resembling the style of Chicago or St. Louis, the piece had "a full-fledged, abundantly varied musical arrangement."[57]

With "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom", Johnson takes a Leroy Carr melody and some modified Kokomo Arnold verses, which he puts together in a more cohesive lyric than Arnold's.[58] According to Wald, it is hard for us now to tell what was so revolutionary about this song at the time it was recorded. The song's boogie bassline has now completely passed into the standard guitar repertoire, but at the time it would have been nearly brand new, a guitarist's version of something people would only ever have heard on a piano.[59] (One recorded precursor occurred less than a year before on a Johnnie Temple record, but it was not as "propulsive" a beat as Johnson's. There is a possibility that Temple actually learned the technique from Johnson, but recorded it first. In any event, Johnson was the first recording artist to make this technique a regular part of his repertoire.[60]) Other notable aspects of this arrangement are the way that Johnson sometimes sings over the triplets in his guitar playing and sometimes uses them as an instrumental break, and that his chord progression is not quite a standard 12-bar blues.[59]

Other Johnson pieces provide different fusions between approaches specific to Delta blues and from the larger music world. For example, 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, and is more like something out of minstrel show music or vaudeville.[61] Wald remarks that a bridge like this would have been unsuitable for dance music, and is another illustration that Johnson understood how the requirements of making records differed from those of playing in a juke joint.[62]

The lyrics of Johnson's "Terraplane Blues" fit a standard formula for the time (and not one that appears to have been much used by him), double entendre lyrics built around an inanimate object, in this case a car.[63] Again, though, Johnson brings an unusual touch to the song: his precise arrangement uses a slide only a few places in the song, which means that he has one less finger to work with on his left hand throughout the rest of the piece, just to have a slide available for those few notes.[64] (He would carry this even further in "Stop Breaking Down", where he uses the slide only for the last four notes of the song.[65]) His first take of "Cross Road Blues" uses a very similar arrangement, but makes more use of the slide.[66] It also features an very different vocal, his voice contending with the slide to convey the stark mood of the lyric.[67]

A measure of the distance between how we listen to Johnson today and how he was heard at the time can be found in Johnson's two recorded takes of "Come On in My Kitchen". The "moodily soulful" first take is now recognized as Johnson's "first unquestionable masterpiece,"[68] but at the time only the upbeat second take was released.[69] In that first take, Johnson took advantage of the unusually good recording equipment used by Brunswick to record a type of blues that could not have been played in a typical performing circumstance nor even with most recording equipment used to record Delta Bules at that time.[70] Wald sees "genius" in Johnson's fusion of Skip James's soulfulness and Tampa Red's "impeccable tone", but clearly the Brunswick record label was not ready to back this vision with their money.[69] They were more comfortable with his more straightforward Skip James cover "32-20 Blues", which was Johnson's second single after "Terraplane Blues",[71] or even with his Son House cover "Walkin' Blues".[72]

"Preachin' Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)" is complete lyrical reworking of another Son House song. Johnson's lyrics compare the blues to a series of ailments: a "shaking chill", "heart disease', and "consumption" (tuberculosis), but his performance seems to Wald to ignore the dark lyrics and be more of a showcase for guitar technique, demonstrating the excellence of Johnson's tone even when playing at a very high speed. The subtitle seems to have been tacked on for commercial reasons: there is nothing about the Devil in the song.[73]

Another cover from the first recording session, "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" was unreleased until 1961. It is a reworking of a 1929 song "Roll and Tumble" by medicine-show performer Willie Newbern; Wald counts both Johnson's lyrics and arrangement as improvements on the original, but is unsurprised that the song, which does not stick strictly to the usual [bar (music)|measure]] structure and would already have seemed "old-fashioned" at the time, went unreleased.[74] In Johnson's second recording session, a more calmly and sexily sung version of a song in a similar musical vein, "Traveling Riverside Blues", met with the same fate, unreleased until the 1960s.[75] Covers or reworkings of Peetie Wheatstraw tunessuch as "Little Queen of Spades", a reworking of Wheatstraw's "King of Spades"fared better with his record label.[76]

Most of Johnson's "somber and introspective" songs and performances come from his second recording session.[77] In at least one case, "Stones in my Passway," the lyrics of the first three verses are all about betrayal, but the melody remains of a piece with "Terraplane". The lyrics of the last verse take a hopeful turn more in accord with the music, and the song ends with the Johnson singing "I got three lanes to truck on, boys, please don't block my road!"[78]

"Hell Hound on My Trail," on the other hand, is, in Wald's words, "his darkest, most anguished performance on record."[79] As with the first take of "Come On In My Kitchen," the influence of Skip James is evident (in this case, 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 piece has a theatricality not found elsewhere in his work.[80]

Wald writes that comparison of the two takes of "Me and the Devil Blues", a piece showing the influence of Peetie Wheatstraw, calls into question the interpretation of this piece as "the spontaneous heart-cry of a demon-driven folk artist."[81] The two takes are nearly identical. For example, on both takes the spoken aside, "No, baby, you know you ain't doing me right" comes in exactly the same place with almost identical delivery.[82] A similar precision can be found in the complex vocal delivery of the last verse, in which "The range of tone he can pack into a few lines is astonishing."[83] Also, Wald writes, the song's "hip humor and sophistication" is often overlooked. "[G]enerations of blues writers in search of wild Delta primitivism," writes Wald, have been inclined to overlook or undervalue aspects that show Johnson as a polished professional performer.[81]

The sad and 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.[84] Nonetheless, Johnson's original verses and the emotional power of his vocals make this song his own.[85]

Johnson's last-ever recording, "Milkcow's Calf Blues" is his most direct tribute to Kokomo Arnold, who influenced Johnson's vocal style. Arnold wrote "Milkcow Blues". Again, as was typical of Johnson his is the more coherent and through-composed lyric.[86]

Another song from the second recording session, "From Four Until Late", shows Johnson's mastery of a blues style not usually associated with the Delta. He croons the lyrics in manner reminiscent of Lonnie Johnson, and his guitar style is more that of a ragtime-influenced player like Blind Blake. The lyrics, which Wald describes as "urbane and rather formal" also stand outside the usual Delta style.[87] Lonnie Johnson's influence on Robert Johnson 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".[88]

Unusually for a Delta player of the time, we have a recording that shows 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 closer to the Harlem Hamfats than to Delta blues but, as Wald remarks, "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."[89]


Elijah Wald feels that Johnson's major influence is on rock. He has made the controversial appraisal that "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."[90] Assessments such as Eric Clapton's of Johnson as "the most important blues musician who ever lived", says Wald, are perfectly appropriate, but relate to Johnson's reputation and influence after the appearance of the first LP of his work in 1961. Wald argues that Johnson, although well traveled and always admired in his performances, was little heard by the standards of his time and place, and his records even less so. ("Terraplane Blues", sometimes described as Johnson's only hit record, outsold his others but was still a minor success.) If one had asked black blues fans about Robert Johnson in the first twenty years after his death, writes Wald, "the response in the vast majority of cases would have been a puzzled 'Robert who?'" Musical associates such as Johnny Shines also stated 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.[1]

Although little known to the African American mass market, Johnson was known and admired by small but influential group of white record collectors and writers involved with the New Orleans Jazz Revival. This group included John Hammond, who attempted to book Johnson for his first Spirituals to Swing concert. Hammond loaned his Robert Johnson records to Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress, who included them in a published list of records of interest to folklore scholars. Johnson was quoted by jazz critic Rudi Blesh in 1946, and in 1959 the jazz writer Samuel Charters included a chapter on Johnson in his pioneering book The Country Blues, otherwise devoted to singers who had enjoyed more commercial success. Published with the "English Edition" (sic) of the book in 1960 was an album also titled The Country Blues (RBF 1), which included Johnson's "Preachin' Blues".

Thus there was already considerable interest in Johnson among white jazz and blues enthusiasts when Columbia Records issued the album King of the Delta Blues Singers compiled from Johnson's recordings. The album (and subsequent bootleg recordings) introduced his work to a much wider audience and kick-started a renewal of his influence, this time to a body of largely white fans in the US and in Britain. This new fan base included future rock stars such as Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton. When Keith Richards was first introduced to Johnson's music by his band mate Brian Jones, he replied, "Who is the other guy playing with him?", not realizing it was all Johnson playing on one guitar. Clapton described Johnson's music as "the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice." The song "Crossroads" by British psychedelic blues rock band Cream is a cover version of Johnson's "Cross Road Blues", about the legend of Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads, although Johnson's original lyrics ("Standin' at the crossroads, tried to flag a ride") suggest he was merely hitchhiking rather than signing away his soul to Lucifer in exchange for being a great blues musician.

Eric Clapton, a frequent proclaimant of the immeasurable significance of Robert Johnson to all music stemming from his generation, admits he "did not take to Robert Johnson immediately... He frightened me."

"Robert Johnson, to whom we all owed our existence, in some way."Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, on NPR's Fresh Air, recorded in 2004.

An important aspect of Johnson's singing, and indeed of all Delta Blues singing styles, and also of Chicago blues guitar playing, is the use of microtonalityhis subtle inflections of pitch are part of the reason why his singing conveys such powerful emotion.

In 1992 blues musician John P. Hammond (the son of the aforementioned John Hammond) produced and narrated a documentary called The Search for Robert Johnson.

In the summer of 2003, Rolling Stone magazine listed Johnson at number five in their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.[4]

Films & other media

  • Crossroads (1986) which is loosely based on the theme of a blues artist selling his soul to the devil and, more specifically, about a young white blues guitarist's search for Johnson's "missing" thirtieth song (there are only 29 individual songs in Johnson's recorded repertoire). Johnson is played by Tim Russ, while Joe Seneca plays Willie Brown (a contemporary of Johnson's mentioned in the song "Cross Road Blues"). Some scenes in the movie are meant to portray moments in Johnson's career as flashbacks, e.g. a recording session at the very start of the movie, and a portrayal of the "selling his soul to the devil"events which are part of the legend about him. Johnson's music for the film was played & orchestrated by Ry Cooder and Steve Vai, and in some cases Johnson's actual recordings are heard in the film. While the film is almost entirely a fictitious creation based on the crossroads myth associated with Robert Johnson, those associated with it especially director Walter Hill have remarked that it was made with complete respect and admiration for the legend of the real performer.
  • The Search for Robert Johnson (1992)
  • Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life and Music of Robert Johnson (1997)
  • Hellhounds On My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson (2000, directed by Robert Mugge)
  • Eric Clapton Sessions for Robert Johnson (2004, documentary)
  • Supernatural "Crossroad Blues" (2006)
  • Me and the Devil Blues: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson (published in 2008) is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Akira Hiramoto. It is a phantasmagoric reimagining of the life of Johnson.


See also

  • 27 Club


  1. 2006-07-16, The 50 albums that changed music, The Observer
  2. Booklet accompanying the Complete Recordings box set, Stephen LaVere, Sony Music Entertainment, 1990, Clapton quote on p. 26
  3. Robert Johnson's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame entry
  4. 4.0 4.1 The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time : Rolling Stone. Retrieved on 2008-07-27.
  5. Lomax (1993)
  6. Charters (1959)
  7. Guralnick
  8. Robert Johnson - Bio. Retrieved on 2008-07-15.
  9. Frank Digiacomo, "Searching for Robert Johnson", Vanity Fair, November, 2008
  10. Wardlow and Komara, 1998, p. 87
  11. 11.0 11.1 Freeland (2000)
  12. Guralnik pp. 1011
  13. Guralnik p.11
  14. Wardlow (1998) p. 201
  15. Hellhounds on my Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson quoted in Wald (2004) p.107
  16. Wald (2004) p. 108
  17. Guralnick p.15
  18. Guralnick p.1617.
  19. Wardlow pp. 196201
  20. Wardlow pp 2034
  21. Wald. pp 265276
  22. Lomax p. 365.
  23. Whelan
  24. Marcus (1975)
  25. Palmer (1981)
  26. Wardlow (1998)
  27. Evans (1971)
  28. Guralnik (1982)
  29. Wardlow (1998) p. 197
  30. Living Blues: Issue #194, Vol. 39. #1, February 2008 pp. 6873
  31. Wardlow (1998) p. 200
  32. Wald (2004), p. 178.
  33. Wald (2004), p. 171.
  34. Wald (2004), p. 175179.
  35. Wald (2004), p. 178.
  36. San Antonio Express-News, 30 November 1986, "Blues wizard's S.A. Legacy", p. 1-J
  38. Wald (2004) p. 120.
  39. Eric Clapton - Sessions for Robert Johnson, 2004 documentary
  40. Wald (2004), p. 130.
  41. Bhesham S. Sharma, Poetic devices in the Songs of Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Transcultural Music Review #3 (1997).
  42. Hyatt, Harry. Hoodoo--Conjuration--Witchcraft--Rootwork, Beliefs Accepted By Many Negroes and White Persons. Western Publications 1973
  43. interview All Things Considered, NPR, broadcast 19 July 2008.
  45. Jazz by Mail - Various Artists (From Spirituals to Swing)
  46. Komarma (2007) pp. 6368
  47. Grammy Award list
  48. 2003 National Recording Registry choices
  49. 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll
  50. The Blues Foundation Database
  51. Claud Johnson (son) accepts Lifetime Grammy
  52. Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame
  53. Wald (2004), p. 127
  54. 54.0 54.1 Wald (2004), p. 131.
  55. Wald (2004), p. 132, 176.
  56. Wald (2004), p. 132.
  57. Wald (2004), p. 133.
  58. Wald (2004), p. 1356.
  59. 59.0 59.1 Wald (2004), p. 136.
  60. Wald (2004), p. 136137.
  61. Wald (2004), p. 139.
  62. Wald (2004), p. 140.
  63. Wald (2004), p. 145146.
  64. Wald (2004), p. 147, 180.
  65. Wald (2004), p. 180.
  66. Wald (2004), p. 155.
  67. Wald (2004), p. 155156.
  68. Wald (2004), p. 142.
  69. 69.0 69.1 Wald (2004), p. 144145.
  70. Wald (2004), p. 145.
  71. Wald (2004), p. 149152.
  72. Wald (2004), p. 158159.
  73. Wald (2004), p. 161163.
  74. Wald (2004), p. 163164, 180.
  75. Wald (2004), p. 180182.
  76. Wald (2004), passim., especialy p. 173.
  77. Wald (2004), p. 167.
  78. Wald (2004), p. 167170.
  79. Wald (2004), p. 171.
  80. Wald (2004), p. 171172.
  81. 81.0 81.1 Wald (2004), p. 177.
  82. Wald (2004), p. 176177.
  83. Wald (2004), p. 178179.
  84. Wald (2004), p. 183.
  85. Wald (2004), p. 183184.
  86. Wald (2004), p. 184.
  87. Wald (2004), p. 170171, 174.
  88. Wald (2004), p. 175.
  89. Wald (2004), p. 152154.
  90. Wald, 2004


  • Blues World - Booklet No.1 - Robert Johnson - Four Editions, First published 1967
  • Blesh, Rudi (1946) "Jazz Begins" quoted in Marybeth Hamilton (below).
  • Charters, Samuel B (1959). The Country Blues. Rinehart.
  • Charters, Samuel B (1967). The Bluesman. The story of the music of the men who made the Blues Oak Publications.
  • Charters, Samuel B (1973). Robert Johnson. Oak Publication. ISBN 0-8256-0059-6
  • Evans, David (1971). Tommy Johnson. Studio Vista. SBN 289 70150
  • Freeland, Tom (2000). Robert Johnson: Some Witnesses to a Short Life in Living Blues no. 150 March/April 200 p. 49
  • Graves, Tom (2008). Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson. DeMers Books, ISBN 978-0-9816002-1-5
  • Greenberg, Alan (1983). Love in Vain: The Life and Legend of Robert Johnson. Doubleday Books, ISBN 0-385-15679-0
    • 1994 revised edition retitled Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, with foreword by Martin Scorsese, Da Capo Press, ISBN 0-306-80557-X
  • Guralnick, Peter (1989). Searching for Robert Johnson (1989). E. P. Dutton hardcover: ISBN 0-525-24801-3, Plume 1998 paperback: ISBN 0-452-27949-6
  • Komara, Edward (2007). The Road to Robert Johnson, The genesis and evolution of blues in the Delta from the late 1800s through 1938. Hal Leonard. ISBN 0-634-009079
  • Marcus, Greil (1975). Mystery Train. E.P. Dutton.
  • Hamilton, Marybeth (2007). In Search of the Blues. Black Voices, White Visions. Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-06018-X
  • Lomax, Alan (1993). The Land Where the Blues Began. Methuen. ISBN 0-413-67850-4
  • Palmer, Robert (1982) paperback edition. Deep Blues. Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-34039-6
  • Pearson, Barry Lee; McCulloch, Bill (2003). Robert Johnson: Lost and Found. University of Illinois Press, ISBN 0-252-02835-X
  • Schroeder, Patricia R. (2004). Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture. University of Illinois Press, ISBN 0-252-02915-1
  • Russell, Tony (2004). Country Music records, A Discography, 1921-1942. Oxford. ISBN 0-19-513989-5
  • Wald, Elijah (2004). Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Amistad. ISBN 0-06-052423-5
  • Wardlow, G., & Komara, E. M. (1998). Chasin' that devil music: searching for the blues. San Francisco, Calif: Miller Freeman Books. ISBN 0879306521
  • Welding, Pete (1966). Robert Johnson. Hell hound on his trail. In Down Beat Music '66: 7376, 103
  • Wolf, Robert (2004) Hellhound on My Trail: The Life of Robert Johnson, Bluesman Extraordinaire. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions. ISBN 1-56846-146-1

External links

  • Robert Johnson death certificate - State of Mississippi
  • Los Angeles Times article regarding Johnson's life and legacy, and the legal battle over it
  • Vanity Fair article (November 2008 edition) on a purported new photograph of Robert Johnson with Johnny Shines
  • Article about pitch speed
  • Website at the University of Virginia
  • Site for "Escaping the Delta" with links to related material
  • Delta Guitar Player Robert Johnson
  • Robert Johnson at Find-A-Grave
  • Deal with the Devil: Understanding Robert Johnson, His Music and His Impact by the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll
  • 1980 Blues Foundation Hall of Fame induction
  • The Robert Johnson Blues Foundation
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This page was last modified 13.11.2009 17:04:48

This article uses material from the article Robert Johnson (musician) from the free encyclopedia Wikipedia and it is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.