ROBERT JOHNSON

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Robert Johnson is probably the best known of all the blues musicians as a result of both his musical ability and the mystique surrounding his life and death. Legend has it that Robert Johnson, a seemingly mediocre talent, went out and met the devil. The devil took his guitar and tuned it and then gave it back to him, following which Johnson's prowess as a musician dramatically improved. There is no documentary evidence that the myth existed during Johnson's relatively short lifetime and the source may well have been Son House, a contemporary bluesman, via comments he made during an interview in the 1960's. He described how he was first of the opinion that the young Johnson's guitar playing amounted to no more than an unmusical racket but when he saw him perform a few years later he was so amazed with the way his abilities had improved that he said that Johnson must have sold his soul to the devil. Among Johnson's recordings are the songs "Crossroad Blues" and "Me and the Devil Blues" and it is easy to see how the lyrics of these songs could have been entwined and served to enhance the tale. Such a good story attracted much media hype over the following years and the myth became so cemented in reality that even today visitors to Mississippi ask to see the infamous crossroads! (There is also some anecdotal evidence that another bluesman, Tommy Johnson, {no relation}, may have at some time made reference to a meeting with the devil at a crossroads. To enhance his fame, Tommy Johnson is said to have cultivated a sinister persona and his brother LeDell Johnson later said that Tommy claimed to have made a pact with "Ol' Scratch" at the crossroads. It may be that the two stories became mixed up in the decades that followed.)

Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911. He was born illegitimately to Julie Ann Major and a farm worker named Noah Johnson. Robert didn't know his real father so he used the name of his mother's husband, namely Spencer. When Robert was in his teens he found out the identity of his real father and assumed his name. He left school in 1927, with little education and began working on the Leatherman plantation. Robert taught himself how to play the guitar and then learned guitar basics by observing legends such as Son House, Willie Brown, and Charlie Patton play at picnics and parties. Although Johnson was very influenced by these three, it is said that his main influence was a local man named Ike Zinneman, who liked to practice in the local graveyard at night,  with young Robert Johnson following him there. His goal was to become a blues musician and he pursued this with fervour, his antics in the graveyard possibly contributing to the mystique which grew up around him.

Robert Johnson married Virginia Travis in 1929 and settled into family life. A year later his wife and son, Claude Lee Johnson, both died in childbirth. Robert began to travel constantly and he "hobo'd" from town to town, eventually heading back to Hazlehurst in search of his father, (it is not known if the search was successful). He married again to a girl named Callie Craft and began playing jukes and small bars in the Delta and began to get attention as a new exciting player. On occasion he played with Howlin Wolf', Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Johnny Shines. Shines said of Johnson, "If a train came through in the middle of the night he would say let's catch it. He'd get himself ready, grab his guitar, and off he'd go, no matter who the woman was he was with. He just left, went anywhere the money and whiskey was".

In 1936, a Jackson, Mississippi music store owner named H.C. Spier (who owned a recording machine and frequently recorded Charlie Patton and Son House) contacted Columbia Records about a recording he had made with Robert Johnson called "Kind-Hearted Woman". As a result Johnson went to San Antonio where in a seven month period he recorded his entire output of songs, receiving between $75 and $100 for each of the sessions. The songs he recorded included classics such as "Me and the Devil Blues", "Preachin' the Blues", "There's a Hell Hound on My Trail", "Love in Vain", "Sweet Home Chicago", "Drunken Hearted Man", "Stop Breaking Down", "Cross Road Blues", "Terraplane Blues", "They're Red Hot", "You Got a Friend", and "Walking Blues".

Producer John Hammond sent scouts to find Robert Johnson in Mississippi as he wanted Johnson to play in his Spirituals to Swing program in 1938. The news came back that Robert Johnson was dead. Robert Johnson's short life came to an end when he played a joint in Three Forks, near Greenwood, Mississippi, sharing the bill with Honeyboy Edwards and Sonny Boy Williamson II. The most popular version of events that night is that Johnson was flirting with a woman and that her jealous husband, possibly the bar owner, poisoned Johnson's moonshine, maybe with strychnine. Rumours flew that Johnson began to howl like a dog and foam at the mouth, and he died in a boarding house several days later on August 16, 1938 at the age of 27. Among the stories and fables that grew up following Johnson's death is one from great storyteller Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) in which he claimed that he tried to knock the poisoned jug from Johnson's hand as he, Williamson, sensed that something might be amiss. Other less  glamorous causes of his death have been cited including the claim that he died from complications of congenital syphilis, exacerbated by the effects of moonshine. The true circumstances of his death will probably now never be known and as a result the myths will live on. Robert Johnson was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.