Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) is among the most famous of Delta blues musicians. His landmark recordings from 1936–1937 display a remarkable combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced generations of musicians. Johnson's shadowy, poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend.
Considered by some to be the "Grandfather of Rock 'n' Roll", his vocal phrasing, original songs, and guitar style have influenced a broad range of musicians, including Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Jack White and Eric Clapton, who called Johnson "the most important blues musician who ever lived". He was also ranked fifth in Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
The success of the album led blues scholars and enthusiasts to question every veteran blues musician who might have known Johnson or seen him in performance. A relatively full account of Johnson's brief musical career emerged in the 1960s, largely from accounts by Son House, Johnny Shines, David Honeyboy Edwards and Robert Lockwood.
Still nothing was known of Johnson's early life. The noted blues researcher Mack McCormick began researching his family background, but he was never ready to publish. Eventually McCormick's research became as much a legend as Johnson himself. In 1982 McCormick permitted Peter Guralnick to publish a summary in Living Blues (1982), later reprinted in book form as Searching for Robert Johnson. Later research has sought to confirm this account or to add minor details. A revised summary acknowledging major informants was written by Stephen LaVere for the booklet accompanying the compilation album Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (1990), and is maintained with updates at the Delta Haze website. The documentary film "The Search for Robert Johnson" contains accounts by Mack McCormick and Gayle Dean Wardlow of what informants have told them, long interviews of David Honeyboy Edwards and Johnny Shines, and short interviews of surviving friends and family. These published biographical sketches achieve coherent narratives, partly by ignoring reminiscences and hearsay accounts which contradict or conflict with other accounts.
The two known images of Johnson were located in 1973, in the possession of the musician's half-sister Carrie Thompson, and were not widely published until the late 1980s. A third photo, purporting to show Johnson posing with fellow blues performer Johnny Shines was published in the November 2008 edition of Vanity Fair magazine.
The 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 recognised under law, and Claud Johnson has been recognised as Robert's natural son and sole living heir.
Five significant dates from his career are documented: Monday, Thursday and Friday, November 23, 26, and 27, 1936 at a recording session in San Antonio, Texas. Seven months later, on Saturday and Sunday, June 19–20, 1937, he was in Dallas, Texas at another session. His death certificate was discovered in 1968, and lists the date and location of his death. Two marriage licenses for Johnson have also been located in county records offices. The ages given in these certificates point to different birth dates, as do the entries showing his attendance at the Indian Creek School, Tunica, Mississippi. However, most of these dates can be discounted since Robert was not listed among his mother's children in the 1910 census. Carrie Thompson claimed that her mother, who was also Robert's mother, remembered his birth date as May 8, 1911.
Other facts about him are less well established. Director Martin Scorsese says in his foreword to Alan Greenberg's filmscript Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, "The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend."
Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi probably on May 8, 1911, to Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson. Julia was married to Charles Dodds, a relatively prosperous landowner and furniture maker to whom she had borne 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, and Robert was remembered by some informants as "Little Robert Dusty". However, he was registered at the Indian Creek School in Tunica as Robert Spencer. Robert was at school in 1924 and 1927 and the quality of his signature on his marriage certificate suggests that he studied continuously and was relatively well educated for a boy of his background. One school friend, Willie Coffee, has been discovered and filmed. He recalls that Robert was already noted for playing the harmonica and jaw harp.
After school, Robert adopted the surname of his natural father, signing himself as Robert Johnson on the certificate of his marriage to sixteen-year-old Virginia Travis in February 1929. She died shortly after in childbirth.
Around this time, the noted blues musician Son House moved to Robinsonville where his musical partner 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. He then left the Robbinsonville area, but later reappeared after a few months with a miraculous guitar technique. His boast is entirely credible. Johnson later recorded versions of "Preaching the Blues" and "Walking Blues" in House's vocal and guitar style. However, Son's chronology is questioned by Guralnick. When House moved to Robbinsville in 1930, Johnson was a young adult, already married and widowed. The following year, he was living near Hazelhurst, where he married for the second time. From this base Johnson began travelling up and down the Delta as an itinerant musician.
This legend was developed over time, and has been chronicled by Gayle Dean Wardlow, Edward Komara and Elijah Wald. Folk tales of bargains with the Devil have long existed in African American and White traditions, and were adapted into literature by, amongst others, Washington Irving in "The Devil and Tom Walker" in 1824, and by Stephen Vincent Benet in "The Devil and Daniel Webster" in 1936. More recently, this legend was referenced with the Blues Devil in Metalocalypse, after the main characters meet a Robert Johnson lookalike. In the 1930s the folklorist Harry Middleton Hart recorded many tales of banjo players, violinists, card sharps and dice sharks selling their souls at the crossroads, along with guitarists and one accordionist. The folklorist Alan Lomax considered that every African American secular musician was "in the opinion of both himself and his peers, a child of the devil, a consequence of the black view of the European dance embrace as sinful in the extreme".
In recorded Blues, the theme first appeared in 1924 in the record by Clara Smith "Done Sold My Soul To The Devil (And My Heart's Done Turned To Stone)". There is no evidence that the song influenced any other African American performers. The only known cover was recorded in 1937 by the white Western Swing band named after their business manager Dave Edwards.
Johnson seems to have claimed occasionally that he had sold his soul to the Devil, but it is not clear that he meant it seriously. However, these claims are strongly disputed in Tom Graves' biography of Johnson, Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, published in 2008. Son House once told the story to Pete Welding as an explanation of Johnson's astonishingly rapid mastery of the guitar. Welding reported it as a serious belief in a widely read article in Down Beat in 1966. However, other interviewers failed to elicit any confirmation from House. Moreover, there were fully two years between House's observation of Robert as first a novice and then a master.
Further details were absorbed from the imaginative retellings by Greil Marcus and Robert Palmer. Most significantly, the detail was added that Johnson received his gift from a large black man at a crossroads. There is dispute as to how and when the crossroads detail was attached to the Robert Johnson story. All the published evidence, including a full chapter on the subject in the biography Crossroads by Tom Graves, suggests an origin in the story of Tommy Johnson. This story was collected from his musical associate Ishman Bracey and his elder brother Ledell in the 1960s. One version of Ledell Johnson's account was published in 1971 David Evans's biography of Tommy, and was repeated in print in 1982 alongside Son House's story in the widely read Searching for Robert Johnson.
In another version, Ledell placed the meeting not at a crossroads but in a graveyard. This resembles the story told to Steve LaVere that Ike Zinnerman of Hazelhurst, Mississippi learned to play the guitar at midnight while sitting on tombstones. Zinnerman is believed to have influenced the playing of the young Robert Johnson.
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 fervour are hard to explain as resulting from the mundane situation described, unsuccessful hitchhiking as night falls. The crossroads myth offers a simple literal explanation for both the religion and the anguish.
An alternative explanation (as expressed by musician and blues historian Scott Ainslie) is that the experience of "unsuccessful hitchhiking as night falls" --far from being a "mundane situation"-- was, in fact, likely to be an extremely dangerous predicament for a lone, young black man to find himself in the deep American south in the 1920s and 1930s. This is especially true if the individual in question was a stranger in the area and suspected of working at a nearby "juke joint". Rather than "religious fervour", the "high emotion" that Johnson exhibits while singing the song is more likely to recall the justifiable anxiety (or, indeed, terror) that he probably regularly experienced during his career as an itinerant musician, trying to reach the relative safety of a welcoming safe-house before evening fell.
The myth was established in mass consciousness in 1986 by the film Crossroads. There are now tourist attractions claiming to be "The Crossroads" at Clarksdale and in Memphis. The film O Brother Where Art Thou? by the Coen Brothers incorporates the crossroads legend and a young African American blues guitarist named "Tommy Johnson", with no other biographical similarity to the real Tommy Johnson or to Robert Johnson.
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. (Many giants of the blues, including Muddy Waters, were not averse to playing the hit songs of the day.) 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 yes—until a boyfriend arrived or Johnson was ready to move on.
Among the songs Johnson recorded in San Antonio were "Come On In My Kitchen," "Kind Hearted Woman Blues," "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," and "Cross Road Blues." "Come on in My Kitchen" included the lines: "The woman I love took from my best friend/Some joker got lucky, stole her back again/You better come on in my kitchen, it's going to be rainin' outdoors." In "Crossroad Blues," another of his songs, he sang: "I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees/I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees/I asked the Lord above, have mercy, save poor Bob if you please/Uumb, standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Ain't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by."
When his records began appearing, Johnson made the rounds to his relatives and the various children he had fathered to bring them the records himself. The first songs to appear were "Terraplane Blues" and "Last Fair Deal Gone Down," probably the only recordings of his that he would live to hear. "Terraplane Blues" became a moderate regional hit, selling 5,000 copies.
In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas, Texas, for another recording session in a makeshift studio at the Brunswick Record Building, 508 Park Avenue. Eleven records from this session would be released within the following year. Among them were the three songs that would largely contribute to Johnson's posthumous fame: "Stones in My Passway," "Me and the Devil," and "Hellhound On My Trail." "Stones In My Passway" and "Me And The Devil" are both about betrayal, a recurrent theme in country blues. The terrifying "Hell Hound On My Trail"—utilising another common theme of fear of the Devil—is often considered to be the crowning achievement of blues-style music. Other themes in Johnson's music include impotence ("Dead Shrimp Blues" and "Phonograph Blues") and infidelity ("Terraplane Blues," "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day" and "Love in Vain").
Six of Johnson's blues songs mention the devil or some form of the supernatural. In "Me And The Devil" he began, "Early this morning when you knocked upon my door/Early this morning, umb, when you knocked upon my door/And I said, 'Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go,'" before leading into "You may bury my body down by the highway side/You may bury my body, uumh, down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit can get on a Greyhound bus and ride."
It has been suggested that the Devil in these songs does not solely refer to the Christian model of Satan, but equally to the African trickster god (himself associated with crossroads), Legba, although author Tom Graves claims the connection to African deities is tenuous at best.
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.
His death occurred on August 16, 1938, at the age of twenty-seven at a country crossroads near Greenwood, Mississippi. He had been playing for a few weeks at a country dance in a town about from Greenwood.
There are a number of accounts and theories regarding the events preceding Johnson's death. One of these is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance. One version of this rumor says she was the wife of the juke joint owner who unknowingly provided Johnson with a bottle of poisoned whiskey from her husband, while another suggests she was a married woman he had been secretly seeing. Researcher Mack McCormick claims to have interviewed Johnson's alleged poisoner in the 1970s, and obtained a tacit admission of guilt from the man. When Johnson was offered an open bottle of whiskey, his friend and fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson knocked the bottle out of his hand, informing him that he should never drink from an offered bottle that has already been opened. Johnson allegedly said, "don't ever knock a bottle out of my hand." Soon after, he was offered another open bottle of whiskey and accepted it, and it was that bottle that was laced with strychnine. Honey Boy Edwards, another blues musician was present, and essentially confirms this account. Johnson is reported to have started to feel ill into the evening after drinking from the bottle and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days, his condition steadily worsened and witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain—symptoms which are consistent with strychnine poisoning. Strychnine was readily available at the time as it was a common pesticide and, although it is very bitter-tasting and extremely toxic, a small quantity dissolved in a harsh-tasting solution such as whiskey could possibly have gone unnoticed but still produced the symptoms (over a period of days due to the reduced dosage) and eventual death that Johnson experienced. Tom Graves in his biography Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson convincingly deconstructs the possibility of death by strychnine and using expert testimony from toxicologists disputes the notion. He claims that strychnine has such a distinctive odor and taste that it 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. Research in the 1980s and 1990s strongly suggests Johnson was buried in the graveyard of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist church near Morgan City, Mississippi, not far from Greenwood, in an unmarked grave. A cenotaph memorial was placed at this location in 1990 paid for by Columbia Records and numerous smaller contributions made through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund. More recent research by Stephen LaVere (including statements from Rosie Eskridge, the wife of the supposed gravedigger) indicates that the actual grave site is under a big pecan tree in the cemetery of the Little Zion Church north of Greenwood along Money Road. Sony Music has placed a marker at this site.
In 1938, Columbia Records producer John Hammond, who owned some of Johnson's records, sought him out to book him for the first "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. On learning of Johnson's death, Hammond replaced him with Big Bill Broonzy, but still played two of Johnson's records from the stage. In 1992 Hammond's son, blues musician John P. Hammond, narrated a documentary called The Search for Robert Johnson.
Robert Johnson has a son, Claud Johnson, and grandchildren who currently reside in a town near Hazlehurst, Mississippi.
|1.||11/23/36||Vocalion 3416||1937||Kind Hearted Woman Blues||2:29|
|2.||11/23/36||Vocalion 3416||Terraplane Blues||3:01|
|3.||11/26/36||Vocalion 3445||32-20 Blues||2:50|
|4.||11/27/36||Vocalion 3445||Last Fair Deal Gone Down||2:39|
|5.||11/23/36||Vocalion 3475||I Believe I'll Dust My Broom||2:57|
|6.||11/27/36||Vocalion 3475||Dead Shrimp Blues||2:29|
|7.||11/23/36||Vocalion 3519||Ramblin' On My Mind||2:57|
|8.||11/27/36||Vocalion 3519||Cross Road Blues||2:29|
|9.||11/23/36||Vocalion 3563||Come On In My Kitchen||2:52|
|10.||11/27/36||Vocalion 3563||They're Red Hot||2:56|
|11.||11/27/36||Vocalion 3601||Walkin' Blues||2:30|
|12.||11/23/36||Vocalion 3601||Sweet Home Chicago||2:57|
|13.||6/19/37||Vocalion 3623||From Four Until Late||2:22|
|14.||6/20/37||Vocalion 3623||Hellhound On My Trail||2:37|
|15.||6/20/37||Vocalion 3665||Malted Milk||2:20|
|16.||6/20/37||Vocalion 3665||Milkcow's Calf Blues||2:17|
|17.||6/19/37||Vocalion 3723||Stones In My Passway||2:28|
|18.||6/19/37||Vocalion 3723||I'm A Steady Rollin' Man||2:35|
|19.||6/20/37||Vocalion 4002||1938||Stop Breakin' Down Blues||2:21|
|20.||6/20/37||Vocalion 4002||Honeymoon Blues||2:16|
|21.||6/20/37||Vocalion 4108||Little Queen Of Spades||2:16|
|22.||6/20/37||Vocalion 4108||Me And The Devil Blues||2:34|
|23.||11/27/36||Vocalion 4630||1939||Preachin' Blues||2:52|
|24.||6/20/37||Vocalion 4630||Love In Vain||2:20|
The following takes were issued after 1939:
|11/23/36||SA-2584-1||1961||When You Got A Good Friend take ♯1||2:37|
|11/23/36||SA-2584-2||When You Got A Good Friend take ♯2||2:50|
|11/23/36||SA-2585-1||1961||Come On In My Kitchen take ♯1||2:47|
|11/23/36||SA-2587-1||Phonograph Blues take ♯1||2:37|
|11/23/36||SA-2587-2||Phonograph Blues take ♯2||2:32|
|11/27/36||SA-2629-2||1961||Cross Road Blues take ♯2||2:29|
|11/27/36||SA-2633-1||1961||If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day||2:34|
|6/20/37||DAL-397-1||1961||Drunken Hearted Man take ♯ 1||2:24|
|6/20/37||DAL-397-2||Drunken Hearted Man take ♯ 2||2:19|
|6/20/37||DAL-400-1||1961||Travelin' Riverside Blues take ♯ 1||2:47|
|6/20/37||DAL-400-2||Travelin' Riverside Blues take ♯ 2||2:47|
|6/20/37||DAL-402-2||Love In Vain take ♯ 1||2:28|
On September 15, 1998, Columbia/Legacy reissued King of the Delta Blues Singers remastered for compact disc, with the second volume appearing on August 10, 2004. They reproduce the original albums, without the alternates and false starts found on the box set Complete collection. The first volume includes an alternate take of "Traveling Riverside Blues" heretofore undiscovered and previously unissued, which brings the number of known Johnson recordings to forty-two. In Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson author Tom Graves states that Johnson originally made 59 recordings that were shipped to New York. In the book he also lists several "lost" songs that were composed by Robert Johnson but not recorded by him that were recorded by others, including blues artists Johnny Shines and Robert Jr. Lockwood.
|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."
|Year Recorded||Title||Genre||Label||Year Inducted|
|1936||Cross Road Blues||Blues (Single)||Vocalion||1998|
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."
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included four songs by Robert Johnson in the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.
|1936||Sweet Home Chicago|
|1936||Cross Road Blues|
|1937||Hellhound on My Trail|
|1937||Love in Vain|
|Robert Johnson: Blues Music Awards|
|1991||Vintage or Reissue Album||The Complete Recordings||Winner|
|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|
|Eric Clapton||Me and Mr. Johnson||2004|
|Peter Green Splinter Group||The Robert Johnson Songbook||1998|
|Peter Green Splinter Group||Me and the Devil||2001|
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."
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 microtonality—his subtle inflections of pitch are part of the reason why his singing conveys such powerful emotion.
John P. Hammond (the son of the aforementioned John Hammond) produced a documentary in the early 1990s about Johnson's life in the Delta area.
In the summer of 2003, Rolling Stone magazine listed Johnson at number five in their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.