Robert JohnsonJun 24th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1911?-1938 Robert Johnson combined a virtuosic talent with the legend of a bargain with the Devil to create a sound and a mythos that has infused the blues. His music influenced all subsequent developments in the blues, pop, and rock genres, as well as many notable musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Early Interest, Raw Talent
The year 1911 has been widely cited for Johnson’s birth, but records range from 1910 to 1912. He was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi to Noah and Julia Johnson. His mother remarried during Johnson’s childhood, and he went by the last name of his stepfather until adolescence, when he took the name of the natural father he’d never met. Johnson showed a strong interest in music from an early age, experimenting with the Jew’s harp and harmonica. His parents were most likely sharecroppers, and he grew up in an environment of rural hardscrabble poverty. He married Virginia Travis in 1929, who soon became pregnant, but she died in childbirth at the age of 16 in 1930.
At about this time, Johnson was exposed to one of the great guitarists of the Delta region, Son House. By this point Johnson had begun concentrating on the guitar, and was living in the city of Robinsonville. Johnson came to idolize House, Charlie Patton, and Willie Brown, among other accomplished musicians, and even tried to play for House who reported: “Such another racket you never heard! It’s make people mad, you know. They’d come out and say, ‘Why don’t y’all go in there and get that guitar from that boy?’ ”
Nevertheless, Johnson was determined to escape the sharecropper’s cycle of back-breaking poverty. He left Robinsonville for approximately one year, during which time he played and practiced diligently, performed at any “jook joint” or roadhouse that would have him, and secretly married an older woman named Calletta “Callie” Craft. Returning to Robinsonville, he astonished House and others with his sudden improvement. In House’s words: “When he finished [playing] all our mouths were standing open.” It wasn’t long before a rumor circulated: Johnson had been instructed to go to a crossroads at midnight. There he’d met a large black man (assumed to be the Devil), who took Johnson’s guitar and re-tuned it. When Johnson played the guitar again, he was a virtuoso, but one who had traded his immortal soul for this talent. The Robert Johnson legend was born.
Hellhound on His Trail
Legend aside, Johnson had developed a mature talent on his instrument and in the construction of his original songs. In addition to the influence of House and Patton, he’d been tutored by a little-known bluesman named Ike Zinneman (who reportedly practiced in a graveyard at night). But his greatest achievement was in his perfection of the Delta Blues. Building on the slide guitar style developed by House and others, Johnson perfected an original technique of sustaining a bass line on the lower strings while building melodic improvisations on the higher strings. He was, in effect, imitating a piano Boogie Blues. The effect was so accomplished that Keith Richards, lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones, said upon first hearing Johnson’s recordings: “Who is the other guy playing with him?”
In 1936, Johnson decided he was ready to record. Over a five-day period in a San Antonio, Texas studio, he captured over a dozen songs including the classic “Rambling on My Mind,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” and “Terraplane Blues.” Some of these, especially “Terraplane Blues,” became successful on the race records market and Johnson’s name became known. He continued recording in 1937, when in a Dallas studio he laid down takes of 10 additional songs, including “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Malted Milk,” and the inimitable “Love in Vain” which would be subsequently popularized by the Rolling Stones. By this time he was sufficiently established to perform in major cities, traveling to St. Louis, Memphis, Chicago, and Detroit.
From these trips, he would always return to the Delta. He did so in 1938, when on August 13th he played at a jook joint in Three Forks, Mississippi. Despite cautions from friends, he accepted an open jug of whiskey. By the end of the night, he was showing symptoms of poisoning, generally attributed to the husband of a woman with whom Johnson had been flirting. In keeping with his legendary Faustian bargain, many thought the Devil had come to collect his due; one account of Johnson’s last moments had him “…foaming at the mouth, crawling around on all fours, hissing and snapping like a dog.”
Johnson survived the poisoning, only to succumb to pneumonia three days later, on August 16, 1938. He was buried in a pine box and an unmarked grave in Morgan City, Mississippi. In a final irony, the music impresario John Hammond came looking for him only days later, to enlist his participation in the Carnegie Hall “From Spirituals to Swing” concert. A death certificate discovered in 1968 stated the cause of death as “No doctor.”
Johnson’s legacy lies in his seminal and continual influence, which can be traced as far back as the encouragement he gave to Muddy Waters, and his collaborations with Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson; to the Chicago electric blues of the 1950s; and on to early rock and roll, and modern blues and rock. His work has been recorded by such diverse luminaries as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton. In the words of contemporary bluesman Keb’ Mo’: “All blues seem to revolve around Robert Johnson.” Columbia Records released compilations of Johnson’s work in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by a boxed-set of complete recordings in 1990. This set has sold over one million copies, the first blues recording to achieve this level, ensuring the continued life of both the music and the legend.