Blues Musician. He represents the pinnacle of acoustic Delta Blues, which he opened up to outside influences. Although he was little known while he was alive, Johnson's posthumous impact was so pervasive he is sometimes called "The Grandfather of Rock and Roll". His powerful, haunting music, shadowy life and mysterious death at the rock star age of 27 have made him a much mythologized figure. The 1990 release of "Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings" became the best-selling album of pre-World War II material of any kind. Among his classic songs are "Cross Road Blues", "Sweet Home Chicago", "Love in Vain", "Hellhound on My Trail", "Stones in My Passway", "Stop Breakin' Down Blues", "Walkin' Blues", and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom". Robert Leroy Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi to unmarried parents, and raised partly in the Delta town of Robinsonville. There he saw Charley Patton perform and hung around Son House and Willie Brown, annoying House in particular with his clumsy beginner's attempts at guitar playing. At 17 he returned to the Hazlehurst area and married 16-year-old Virginia Travis in February 1929. She died in childbirth in April 1930, and the following year he married Caletta Craft, who was 10 years older and doted on him like a son. By that time a local musician named Isaiah "Ike" Zimmerman was helping him master the guitar, often giving him lessons in cemeteries where they could practice undisturbed. Little is known about Zimmerman but his evidently sympathetic instruction unleashed a genius. In 1932 Johnson abandoned Caletta to begin a new life as an itinerant entertainer. Son House recalled him showing up out of the blue at a Robinsonville party and astonishing everyone with his newfound skills: "He was so good. When he finished all our mouths were standing open". Soon he had protégés of his own, notably Johnny Shines, Robert "Jr." Lockwood, and Honeyboy Edwards. With the Delta as his home base, he toured Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Missouri, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and possibly Ontario, Canada. It was a rough life of hitchhiking or riding the rails hobo-style, sometimes finding accommodations with women he seduced along the way, and with the threat of violence from police and bigots ever present. (He was beaten and arrested for vagrancy on at least one occasion). But the experience enriched his artistry. He could play any song by heart after hearing it just once, and through his travels built an eclectic repertory that took in country, pop, and folk, for black and white audiences. Shines claimed he even played polkas and Jewish dance music on demand. His dazzling six-string technique likewise showed the breadth of his influences, assimilating Delta slide and rhythmic attack, East Coast fingerstyle, and innovative boogie bass lines derived from urban blues piano. If he had any musical idols they were Lonnie Johnson and Skip James, both idiosyncratic originals. "Most exceptional of all are his lyrics", wrote Barry Hansen (radio's Dr. Demento). "He unerringly adopted the very best of the Delta's catalog of floating blues lines, while contributing many apparently original verses that rank among the blues' most profound and poetic creations". He sang them in a high tenor voice alive with ache and attitude. In 1936, Johnson felt ready to realize his life's ambition of making records. He went to Jackson, Mississippi and contacted talent scout H.C. Speir, the "discoverer" of many Delta Blues greats (including Charley Patton); Speir was impressed enough to recommend him to the American Record Corporation. He recorded 29 songs (plus alternate takes) for ARC's Vocalion label in two groups of sessions: in San Antonio, Texas (November 23 to 27, 1936) and Dallas (June 19 and 20, 1937). For a studio novice he had a remarkable grasp of the medium, carefully restructuring his songs to fit the limits of three-minute takes while adding subtle touches that would have been lost on a street corner or in a dance hall. Eleven sides were released in his lifetime but only his first single, "Terraplane Blues" (1937), scored a modest regional hit. This was a sign of the times: thanks to the Depression, the market for country guitar blues had all but dried up from its peak in the late 1920s. Back on the road, Johnson spent his last weeks playing gigs in the area of Greenwood, Mississippi. On the night of August 13, 1938, he fell violently ill after performing at a juke joint; he was taken back to Greenwood, where he died without receiving medical attention three days later. It is commonly believed the juke joint owner served Johnson poisoned whiskey for paying too much attention to his wife, though it is just as possible he may have overindulged in bad moonshine. (Mississippi was a "dry state" in the 1930s, and potentially deadly homemade corn liquor was all that was available to poorer folks. And Johnson liked to drink, not wisely but too well). Whatever the cause, death snatched him from the brink of national fame. In the Fall of 1938, music producer John H. Hammond was eager to have Johnson participate in his historic "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at New York's Carnegie Hall. When Hammond learned of Johnson's demise he chose Big Bill Broonzy instead, while two of the late bluesman's records were played onstage as a tribute. During the next two decades Muddy Waters and Elmore James kept Johnson's flame burning by covering his songs ("Dust My Broom" was James' signature tune), and blues record collectors coveted his out-of-print 78s. But overall he was forgotten until Samuel Charters devoted a worshipful chapter to him in his seminal book "The Country Blues" (1959). The accompanying Folkways LP featured the wild "Preachin' Blues", the first reissue of a Johnson recording, and fans of the new blues revival began to take notice. John H. Hammond - by then an executive at Columbia Records, owners of the Johnson catalog - seized this opportunity and pushed through the 16-track compilation LP "Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers" (1961). The album profoundly affected young musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. A big part of its mystique was the lack of information about the artist; historians had yet to research his life and there were no known photographs of him at the time. Martin Scorsese observed, "The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend". This made it easy for enthusiasts to paint him into whatever they wanted him to be, using rumor and perceived "autobiography" in his lyrics. The seed of the most enduring Johnson myth was planted in Peter Welding's 1966 article "Hellhound on his Trail". Basing his piece on interviews with those who knew the man, Welding wrote of how "Son House suggested in all seriousness that Johnson, in his months away from home, had 'sold his soul to the devil in exchange for learning to play like that'". He did not elaborate and in later interviews House dismissed the subject without comment. Then came David Evans' 1971 biography of Delta Blues great Tommy Johnson, with an anecdote from his brother LeDell of how Tommy allegedly acquired his musicianship from a mysterious man at a crossroads. What he described was a ritual in the Southern folk belief of Hoodoo, which did not involve Satan or Faustian bargains. Subsequent writers like Greil Marcus (in his book "Mystery Train", 1975), Robert Palmer ("Deep Blues", 1981), and Peter Guralnick ("Searching for Robert Johnson", 1982, 1989) conflated aspects of this myth with the Son House quote until it finally emerged as Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads; after all, such songs as "Cross Road Blues", "Hellhound On My Trail" and "Me and the Devil Blues" could be vaguely interpreted to fit that scenario. This reading inspired the Hollywood film "Crossroads" (1986) and has been entrenched in blues folklore ever since. There is no evidence either Johnson claimed a Satanic connection, personally or to promote themselves; the only notable bluesman who did was Peetie Wheatstraw, and he was cheekily cashing in on the superstition of blues as "the devil's music". Another controversy involves Johnson's resting place, the exact location of which is still unknown (his death certificate is imprecise on the matter). Three church cemeteries outside Greenwood lay claim to his grave and there is a cenotaph for him in each, though it now appears he was most likely buried beneath a pecan tree at Little Zion M.B. Church on Money Road. Johnson's legacy became a lifelong obsession for Eric Clapton and has influenced or been covered by Roebuck "Pops" Staples, John Lee Hooker, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Cream, Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, ZZ Top, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lonnie Pitchford and Cassandra Wilson, among many others. He was an inaugural inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame (1980) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1986), and in 1994 the US Post Office issued a commemorative stamp in his honor.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards
Claud L. Johnson