Robert Johnson | Biography, Songs, Guitarist & Death — What Insider

Robert Johnson (born on May 8, 1911, as Robert Leroy Dodds in Hazlehurst, Mississippi; Died on August 16, 1938, in Greenwood, Mississippi) was an American blues musician, singer, and songwriter. He is considered one of the most famous guitarists, singers, and songwriters in the history of blues. Robert Johnson was also known as the King of the Delta Blues.

There are many tales of people achieving all sorts of fortune and fame by selling their souls to the devil. Blues guitarist Robert Johnson is probably the most famous subject of that tall tale. The legend goes that he offered his soul at a Mississippi crossroads in 1986, and in return, he would receive musical success and talents beyond his wildest dreams.

This day he is considered a pioneer of American blues guitar and songwriting. His influence on other guitarists began during his lifetime. After his early death and a lively formation of legends about his talent as a guitarist, he remained known only to blues collectors and musicians.

Even then other blues musicians recorded pieces by Robert Johnson but did not always name Johnson as the author. Sometimes Johnson’s pieces were simply called traditional. A wide white audience Johnson was founded in 1961 by the release of the album King of the Delta Blues Singers famous overnight.

From then on, many blues and rock-oriented bands such as Cream or The Rolling Stones played pieces by Johnson at concerts and in the studio. Guitarists likeEric Clapton or Keith Richards called his style an essential inspiration for their music career. Today, Johnson is regarded as the most influential guitarist and songwriter of the Delta blues.

In 1980 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone’s David Fricke placed Johnson at number 5 on his list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time in 2004. In the regular list, it ranks 71.

Quick Facts: Robert Johnson

  • Born: 8 May 1911, Hazlehurst, Mississippi, United States

The Early Life of Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911, spending much of his beginnings on a plantation in the Delta. His mother, Julia Major Dodds, was a daughter of slaves. Dodds had ten children with her husband, but Robert was born out of an affair with a field hand named Noah Johnson.

Later in Robert’s childhood, Julia remarried and moved the family to Robinsonville, Mississippi. Robert seemed to take to music quickly as a child, demonstrating keen musical ability both on the jaw harp and harmonica. That interest didn’t fade as he grew into his teens, as he was absent from school more and more, which his friends attributed to him studying music in Memphis.

He would also play around with a makeshift instrument called a diddley bow, which was a wire attached to a house that a person could pull taut and hit with a stick, altering the pitch with a bottle that slides along the wire. The early and teenage years of Robert Johnson are very much shrouded in mystery.

Historians have had to lean on unreliable tales from other musicians and friends of his from those days, which is a lot like playing a game of telephone. There just isn’t much to go on, and his Johnson’s nomadic nature made it even harder to get a sense of his beginnings.

He’d pester every local musician he could for a chance to share a stage of a jam session with them. Many times, between other musicians’ sets, Robert would take over the stage and play some songs of his own. A bold move for sure.

Legendary bluesman Son House knew Robert Johnson during these years, and wasn’t exactly blown away by the young man’s ability at the time: “Folks they come and say, ‘Why don’t you go out and make that boy put that thing down?

He running us crazy,’ “ House said. “Finally he left. He runs off from his mother and father, and went over in Arkansas some place or other.”

Marriage

When he was 18, Robert married 16-year-old Virginia Travis, but tragedy struck soon after, as she died during childbirth. Rumors abounded that it was punishment for his burgeoning musician lifestyle, but he forged ahead, deciding to dedicate his life to becoming a bluesman.

He did manage to marry again in 1931, at the age of 20, though she too died while giving birth. This set him on an even more solitary path. Johnson would stay with numerous women, whom he would return to from time to time, but he remained single, adopting different aliases.

The women he frequented mostly didn’t know about each other, and he preferred it that way. He was a loner, committed to playing music and traveling the road, playing music at his frequent stops. At his shows, he would play mostly crowd-pleasing songs of the time, including jazz and country standards.

And even though he would form strong temporary relationships with the townsfolk and local musicians, his stays would be brief, and then he would move on as easily as the breeze.

Did Robert Johnson sell his soul?

Robert Johnson himself confirmed that he had made a pact with the Devil by selling his soul in exchange for his guitar. He returned with a formidable technique and a mastery of the blues.

This rumor has arisen and consolidated over the years as a result of several facts: his amazing guitar technique, based on fingerpicking and still pointed out as one of the greatest expressions of delta blues.

The evocations generated by his voice, and the complex guitar structures he developed, and the sinister content of his lyrics which, although largely improvised as was obvious for the genre at the time, often told of ghosts and demons when they did not explicitly refer to his diabolical agreement.

The stories of the various musicians who knew him and who refer to his initial awkwardness in playing the guitar also contributed to the story: on the basis of these stories, however, all agree, Johnson disappeared after the death of his wife and then reappeared, the following year, endowed with such skill and expressiveness as to leave everyone stunned.

Rumors of the time tell of a meeting, which took place at the stroke of midnight at a desolate crossroads, between Johnson and a mysterious man in black, who would have granted him unparalleled guitar talent in exchange for his soul.

In reality, the “official” version is that Johnson, in the course of his wandering, met a mysterious bluesman named Ike Zimmerman, who was his teacher. The sinister figure of Zimmerman is however hidden by a thick veil of mystery:

The only certainty, in the complete oblivion of his biographical data, concerns his habit of playing in cemeteries, among the tombs, known to the point of being pointed out as emissary of the devil.

A career as a Musician

In 1934 Johnson came to the city of Helena in Arkansas on his now vagabond wanderings, where he met a number of blues musicians who were already well-known at the time. With his guitar playing there he impressed Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Nighthawk, Howlin ‘Wolf, and Memphis Slim.

In 1936 the first recordings were made for the American Record Corporation. His first release, the Terraplane Blues, sold reasonably well (around 500 copies) so that Johnson was able to record more songs in a second recording session in 1937.

However, all other publications were not granted commercial success; sometimes only double-digit sales figures were achieved. In total, Johnson recorded 29 songs in 41 takes in his two sessions.

Robert Johnson Death Cause

Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, near Greenwood. Although the cause of death is still unknown, many theories have emerged, the most likely of which is that Johnson was murdered by the husband of a woman with whom he was flirting.

This version is somewhat confirmed by Sonny Boy Williamson who saw the married woman hand Robert a bottle of whiskey given to her by her husband. When Johnson picked up the bottle, Williamson tried to advise him not to drink from the bottle he had not opened himself.

Ignoring this advice, he accepted another bottle, this time poisoned. That same evening, he felt unwell and returned home. Over the next three days, his health deteriorated and he died as a result. Robert “Mack” McCormick admitted that he found the man who poisoned Johnson and with whom he had a private conversation about it, but refused to give his name.

Johnson’s exact burial place is not officially known.

Robert Johnson Quotes

  • “You may bury my body down by the highway side. So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.” — Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson album

A detailed listing of all known recordings by blues musician Robert Johnson. Eleven Johnson 78s were released on the Vocalion record during his lifetime, with a twelfth issued posthumously. All songs are copyrighted to Robert Johnson and his estate.

Song

  1. “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”

Originally published at https://whatinsider.com on October 15, 2020.

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