Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938)
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Robert Leroy Johnson was an American blues singer and musician. His landmark recordings from 1936–1937 display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced later generations of musicians. Johnson’s shadowy, poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend, including a Faustian myth. As an itinerant performer who played mostly on street corners, in juke joints, and at Saturday night dances, Johnson enjoyed little commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime.
His records sold poorly during his lifetime, and it was only after the first reissue of his recordings on LP in 1961 that his work reached a wider audience. Johnson is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly of the Delta blues style. He is credited by many rock musicians as an important influence; Eric Clapton has called Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived”.Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “Early Influence” in their first induction ceremony in 1986. He was ranked fifth in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
Life and career
Robert 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 gave birth to 10 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.
Around 1919, Robert rejoined his mother in the area around Tunica and Robinsonville, Mississippi. Julia’s new husband was known as Dusty Willis; he was 24 years her junior. Robert was remembered by some residents as “Little Robert Dusty.” 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 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. He also remembers that Robert was absent for long periods, which suggests that he may have been living and studying in Memphis. 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. 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 believes 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 noted blues musician Son House moved to Robinsonville where his musical partner, Willie Brown, already 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 Hazlehurst, possibly searching for his natural father. Here he perfected the guitar style of Son House and learned other styles from the brothers Ike and Herman Zimmerman. Ike Zimmerman was rumoured to have learned supernaturally to play guitar by visiting graveyards at midnight. When Johnson next appeared in Robinsonville, he had seemed to have acquired a miraculous 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 also married Caletta Craft in May 1931. In 1932, the couple moved to Clarksdale in the Delta. Here Caletta fell ill and Johnson abandoned her for a career as a ‘walking’ (itinerant) musician.
From 1932 to his death in 1938, Johnson lived his life in a manner that makes biography scarcely possible. He moved frequently between such large centers as Memphis and Helena, Arkansas and the smaller towns of the Mississippi Delta and neighboring regions of Mississippi and Arkansas. On occasion, he travelled much further. Fellow blues musician Johnny Shines accompanied him to Chicago, Texas, New York, Canada, Kentucky and Indiana. David “Honeyboy” Edwards shared a musical engagement with him in St Louis. In many places he stayed with members of his large extended family, or with women friends. He did not marry again but formed some long term relationships with women to whom he would return periodically. One was Estella Coleman, the mother of the blues musician Robert Lockwood Jr.. In other places he stayed with a woman seduced at his first performance. In each location, Johnson’s hosts were largely ignorant of his life elsewhere. He actually used different names in different places. Even those who traveled with him from place to place were granted only a limited insight into his life and personality. Shines and Lockwood traveled with him on numerous occasions, but their recollections are different and sometimes contradictory.
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 stated 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, Johnson had no trouble giving his audiences what they wanted, and certain of his contemporaries 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 Shines was 17 when he met Johnson in 1933. He estimated 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 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 fifteen years his elder and the mother of musician Robert Lockwood Jr. Johnson reportedly 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.
In 1941, Alan Lomax learned from Muddy Waters that Johnson had performed in the Clarksdale, Mississippi area. By 1959, Samuel Charters could only add 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 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.
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.
Main article: Robert Johnson’s 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 put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who offered to record the young musician in San Antonio, Texas. At the recording session, held November 23, 1936in room 414 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio 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.Ry Cooder speculates that Johnson played facing a corner to enhance the sound of the guitar, a technique he calls “corner loading”. 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”. 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. 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 Wald, it was “the most musically complex in the cycle” and stood apart from most rural blues as a through-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.
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. Because Johnson did two takes of most songs during these sessions, and recordings of those takes survived, more opportunity exists to compare different performances of a single song by Johnson than for any other blues performer of his time and place. By the time he died, at least six of his records had been released in the South as race records.
Playback issues in extant recordings
The accuracy of the pitch and speed of the extant recordings has been questioned. In The Guardian’s music blog from May 2010, Jon Wilde states that “the common consensus among musicologists is that we’ve been listening to [Robert] Johnson at least 20% too fast;” i.e., that “the recordings were accidentally speeded up when first committed to 78 [rpm records], or else were deliberately speeded up to make them sound more exciting.” He does not give a source for this statement. Former Sony music executive Lawrence Cohn, who won a Grammy for the label’s 1991 reissue of Johnson’s works, “acknowledges there’s a possibility Johnson’s 1936-37 recordings were sped up, since the OKeh/Vocalion family of labels, which originally issued the material, was ‘notorious’ for altering the speed of its releases. ‘Sometimes it was 78 rpms, sometimes it was 81 rpms,’ he says. It’s impossible to check the original sources, since the metal stampers used to duplicate the original 78 discs disappeared years ago.”
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. Differing accounts and theories attempt to shed light on theevents preceding his death. A story often told is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance, the wife of the juke joint owner, according to rumor, 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. Johnson was allegedly offered an open bottle of whiskey that was laced with strychnine. Fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson II 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. 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 pain—symptoms which are consistent with strychnine poisoning.
Musicologist Robert “Mack” McCormick claims to have tracked down the man who murdered Johnson, and to have obtained a confession from him in a personal interview. McCormick has declined to reveal the man’s name, however. 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. However, according to the CDC, strychnine is bitter but odorless. 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. This observation was also noted in a recent Guitar World comment from contemporary David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who said that it couldn’t have been strychnine, since he would have died much sooner than the three days he suffered.
The exact location of his grave is officially unknown; three different markers have been erected at possible church cemetery 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 one-ton cenotaph memorial 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 the cemetery’s owner. This alleged burial site, in an apparent attempt to strengthen a claim, happens to be located in the center of Richard Johnson’s family plot.
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.
An interviewee in the documentary The Search for Robert Johnson (1991) suggests that due 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 perished.
According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Robert Johnson was 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. The “Devil” played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This was in effect, a deal with the Devil mirroring the legend of Faust. In exchange for his soul, 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, 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 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 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 Zinnerman’s daughter and the story becomes much clearer, including the fact that Johnson and Zinnerman did 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.
The legendary “Crossroads” at Clarksdale, Mississippi.
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. There are now tourist attractions claiming to be “The Crossroads” at Clarksdale and in Memphis.
His own account
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, and these claims are strongly disputed in Tom Graves’ biography of Johnson, Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, published in 2008. The crossroads detail was widely believed to come from Johnson himself, as it would explain his high emotions and religious fervor in “Cross Road Blues” when simply hitchhiking at night; the myth offers a literal explanation.
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.”
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.
The Devil in these songs may not solely refer to the Christian story of Satan, but equally to the African trickster god, Legba, himself associated with crossroads—though author Tom Graves deems the connection to African deities tenuous. 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 said they or anyone else had “sold their soul to the devil at the crossroads,” they had a different meaning in mind. Ample evidence indicates 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.
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, Hyatt recorded many tales of banjo players, fiddlers, card sharks, and dice sharks selling their souls at crossroads, along with guitarists and one accordionist. Another 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”.
Robert Johnson is today 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 such a wide variety of styles—from raw country slide guitar to jazz and pop licks—and 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 the Harlem Hamfats but, as Wald remarks, “no record company was heading to Mississippiin 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.”
“To the uninitiated, Johnson’s recordings may sound like just another dusty Delta blues musician wailing away. But a careful listen reveals that Johnson was a revisionist in his time . Johnson’s tortured soul vocals and anxiety-ridden guitar playing aren’t found in the cotton-field blues of his contemporaries.” Marc Myers, Wall Street Journal.
An important aspect of Johnson’s singing was his use of micro tonality. 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,” writes Wald, have been inclined to overlook or undervalue aspects that show Johnson as a polished professional performer.
Johnson mastered the guitar, being considered today one of the all-time greats on the instrument. His approach was highly complex and extremely advanced musically. 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 Johnson playing on one guitar. “I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realize he was doing it all by himself,” said Richards, who would later add “Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself.”
Johnson would sometimes sing over the triplets in his guitar playing, using them as an instrumental break; his chord progression not being quite a standard Twelve-bar blues.” 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.”—Marc Myers, Wall Street Journal
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, and 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 is 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 as trained 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-ever recording, “Milkcow’s Calf Blues” is his most direct tribute to Kokomo Arnold, who wrote “Milkcow Blues” and who 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 manner reminiscent of Lonnie Johnson, and his guitar style is more that of a ragtime-influenced player like Blind Blake.
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”. 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.”
Robert Johnson has had enormous impact on music and musicians that came after him. His influence on his contemporaries was much smaller, due in part to the fact that 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, and who died young after recording only a handful of songs. Johnson, though well-traveled and admired in his performances, was little noted in his own time and place; his records even less so. “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 Robert Johnson in the first twenty 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.”
With the album King of the Delta Blues Singers, a compilation of Johnson’s recordings released in 1961, Columbia Records introduced his work to a much wider audience—fame and recognition he only received long after his death.
Rock and roll
Johnson’s major influence has been on genres of music that weren’t recognized as such until long 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 recognized advent of rock and roll, dying a year or two later. The Museum inducted him as an “Early Influence” in their first induction ceremony in 1986, almost a half century after his death. As a contemporary music critic states: “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 . .”—Marc Myers, Wall Street Journal
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, came from a land many thousands of miles from his homeland—and one he’d never visited. His impact and influence on these future star musicians from England—who would then come to develop and define both the rock and roll and rock music eras—resulted not from personal appearances or direct fraternization. Instead, the artistic power of his exceptional talents and original compositions would be relayed across the Atlantic many years after his death through the compilation of his works released in 1961 by Columbia Records (King of the Delta Blues Singers). Examples of the influence he had on major English musicians include: Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin referred to him on NPR’s 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 Johnson’s songs in the lyrics.
ToEric Clapton, founder and member of many legendary groups, Johnson was “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 (also made into the film Sessions for Robert J). He also recorded “Crossroads”, an arrangement of “Cross Road Blues”, with Cream.
Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones introduced bandmate Keith Richards to his first Robert Johnson album. The blues master’s recordings would have as much impact on him as on Mick Jagger. The group would perform his “Walkin’ Blues” at the Rock and Roll Circus in 1968. They arranged their own version of “Love in Vain” for their album Let It Bleed; recording “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” for Exile on Main Street.
He was a strong influence on Fleetwood Mac 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 would later go on to record Johnson’s entire catalog over the course of two albums, The Robert Johnson Songbook and Hot Foot Powder.
Alexis Korner, referred to as “the Founding Father of British Blues”, co-wrote and recorded a song entitled “Robert Johnson” on his The Party Album released in 1978.
His revolutionary guitar playing has led contemporary experts, 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 1st in its 35 Guitar Gods listing—on the 52nd anniversary of his death.In 2008 Rolling Stone magazine ranked him 5th on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time—70 years after he died. In 2010 Guitar.com ranked him 9th in its list of Gibson.com’s Top 50 Guitarists of All Time—72 years after he died.
Musicians who proclaim his profound impact on them, i.e., 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 only ever have heard on a piano.
The Complete Recordings, a double-disc box set released by Sony/Columbia Legacy on August 28, 1990, containing almost everything Robert Johnson ever recorded, with all 29 recordings (and 12 alternate takes) won a Grammy Award for “Best Historical Album” that year. In 2006 he was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (accepted by his son).
Problems of biography
“The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend.”
—Martin Scorsese, Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson
Very little is known of Johnson’s early life with any certainty. Two marriage licenses for Johnson have 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 Indian Creek School, Tunica, Mississippi. That he was not listed among his mother’s children in the 1910 census casts further doubt on these dates. 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. 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 at another session. His death certificate was discovered in 1968, and lists the date and location of his death.
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. The same article claims that other photographs of Johnson, so far unpublished, may exist.
Johnson’s records were greatly admired by record collectors from the time of their first release and efforts were made to discover his biography, with virtually no success. Noted blues researcher Mack McCormick began researching his family background, but 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. 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.
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 Jr.. 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.
Main article: Robert Johnson discography
Traveling Riverside Blues
Cross Road Blues
Eleven Johnson 78s were released on the Vocalion label during his lifetime, with a twelfth issued posthumously. All songs are copyrighted to Robert Johnson, and his estate.
Awards and recognitions
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.”
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.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.
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
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
2000 Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame Inducted
1986 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inducted Early Influences
1980 Blues Hall of Fame Inducted
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
Todd Rundgren Todd Rundgren’s Johnson 2010
Big Head Blues Club 100 Years of Robert Johnson 2011
Films and other media
The 1986 film Crossroads is about a young white blues guitarist’s search for Johnson’s “missing” 30th song and the theme of blues artists selling their souls to the devil.
Stones in my Passway: The Robert Johnson Story (1990), a biopic by filmmaker Martin Spottl.
The Search for Robert Johnson (1991),UK documentary hosted by Blues musician John Hammond Jr. , son of John H. Hammond.
Sherman Alexie’s novel Reservation Blues (1995) centers on the myth of the crossroads.
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)
The 2000 Coen Brother’s film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, set in theDeep South, features a blues guitarist called “Tommy Johnson”. In the story, Tommy sells his soul to the devil in exchange for teaching him “how to play this here geetar reeeal good.”
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 Johnson’s life.
Celebration of the music and legend of Robert Johnson: Show 502 WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Rory Block and Scott
Ainslie discuss Johnson and play his music. Taped 2008-09-29; 60 minutes audio (WMA, MP3), 88 minutes video (WMV).
To commemorate Johnson’s 100th birthday, Dogfish Head Brewery released “Hellhound on My Ale”, a limited edition beer, in collaboration with Sony’s Legacy Recordings division.