Robert Johnson - King of the Delta Blues Singers
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 realise he was doing it all by himself.”
Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) was an American blues singer and musician. His landmark recordings from 1936–37 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 Mississippi 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. In 2003, David Fricke ranked Johnson fifth in Rolling Stone ‘s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
Robert Johnson was born inHazlehurst,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 had 10 children. Charles Dodds had been forced by a lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst following a dispute with white landowners. Julia left Hazlehurst with baby Robert but after some two years sent him to live inMemphiswith her husband, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer.
Around 1919, Robert rejoined his mother in the area around Tunica andRobinsonville,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,” but he was registered at Tunica’sIndianCreekSchoolas Robert Spencer. In the 1920 census he is listed as Robert Spencer, living inLucas,Arkansaswith Will and Julia Willis. Robert was at school in 1924 and 1927 and the quality of his signature on his marriage certificate suggests that he was relatively well educated for a boy of his background. One school friend, Willie Coffee, has been discovered and filmed, recalling 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 inMemphis.
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 in childbirth shortly after. Surviving relatives ofVirginiatold 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 toRobinsonville where his musical partner, Willie Brown, 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 leftRobinsonville for the area aroundMartinsville, 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 Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman. Ike Zimmerman was rumoured to have learned supernaturally to play guitar by visiting graveyards at midnight. When Johnson next appeared inRobinsonville, 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 inMartinsville, Johnson fathered a child with Vergie Mae Smith. He also married Caletta Craft in May 1931. In 1932, the couple moved toClarksdalein the Delta. Here Caletta fell ill and Johnson abandoned her for a career as a ‘walking’ (itinerant) musician.
Robert Johnson was not unique in choosing to be a traveling musician pursuing paying audiences. Even so, he was remembered as exceptional in his restlessness, in the number of places he stayed in and, by some accounts, in his determination to avoid agricultural labour. From 1932 until his death in 1938, Johnson lived his life in a manner that makes biography scarcely possible. He moved frequently between large cities likeMemphis,TennesseeandHelena,Arkansasand the smaller towns of the Mississippi Delta and neighboring regions ofMississippiandArkansas. On occasion, he travelled much further. Fellow blues musician Johnny Shines accompanied him toChicago,Texas,New York,Canada,Kentucky, andIndiana. Henry Townsend shared a musical engagement with him inSt 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 used different names in different places, employing at least eight distinct surnames.
Biographers have looked for consistency from musicians who knew Johnson in different contexts: Shines, who travelled extensively with him; Lockwood who knew him as his mother’s partner; David “Honeyboy” Edwards whose cousin Willie Mae Powell had a relationship with Johnson. From a mass of partial, conflicting, and inconsistent eye-witness accounts, biographers have attempted to summarize Johnson’s character. “He was well mannered, he was soft spoken, he was indecipherable”. “As for his character, everyone seems to agree that, while he was pleasant and outgoing in public, in private he was reserved and liked to go his own way”. “Musicians who knew Johnson testified that he was a nice guy and fairly average — except, of course, for his musical talent, his weakness for whiskey and women, and his commitment to the road.”
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 have said that 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 music. 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 senior 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 theClarksdale,Mississippiarea. By 1959, historian Samuel Charters could only add that Will Shade of the Memphis Jug Band remembered Johnson had once briefly played with him inWest Memphis,Arkansas. In the last year of his life, Johnson is believed to have traveled toSt. Louisand possiblyIllinois, and then to some states in the East.
In 1938, Columbia Records producer John H. Hammond, who owned some of Johnson’s records, had record producer Don Law seek out Johnson out to book him for the first “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. On learning of Johnson’s death,Hammondreplaced him with Big Bill Broonzy, but still played two of Johnson’s records from the stage.
InJackson,Mississippi, around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir, 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 inSan Antonio,Texas. The recording session was held on November 23, 1936 in room 414 of theGunterHotelinSan Antonio, which Brunswick Records had set up to be a temporary recording studio. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played sixteen selections, and recorded alternate takes for most of these. Johnson reportedly performed facing the wall, which has been cited as evidence he was a shy man and reserved performer. This conclusion was 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”.
Among the songs Johnson recorded inSan Antoniowere “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 toDallas,Texas, for another recording session in a makeshift studio at the Vitagraph (Warner Brothers) Building,508 Park Avenue, where Brunswick Record Corporation was located on the third floor. Eleven records from this session would be released within the following year. Johnson did two takes of most of these songs and recordings of those takes survived. Because of this, there is more opportunity 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.
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 speeded 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, nearGreenwood,Mississippi. He had been playing for a few weeks at a country dance in a town about 15 miles (24 km) fromGreenwood. Differing accounts and theories attempt to shed light on the events 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 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. 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.
According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in ruralMississippi, 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 David Evans’s 1971 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 Zimmerman ofHazelhurst,Mississippilearned to play the guitar at midnight while sitting on tombstones. Zimmerman is believed to have influenced the playing of the young Robert Johnson. Recent research by blues scholar Bruce Conforth uncovered Ike Zimmerman’s daughter and the story becomes clearer. Johnson and Zimmerman did practice in a graveyard at night because it was quiet and no one would disturb them, but it was not the Hazlehurst cemetery as had been believed. Johnson spent about a year living with and learning from Zimmerman, who ultimately accompanied Johnson back to the Delta to look after him. Conforth’s article in Living Blues magazine goes into much greater detail. There are now tourist attractions claiming to be “The Crossroads” atClarksdaleand inMemphis.
Most musicians who knew Johnson well, such as Johnny Shines, never heard him claim that he had sold his soul to the Devil. Different accounts give contradictory information in this regard, but there is no conclusive evidence one way or another.
“Me And The Devil” begins, “Early this morning when you knocked upon my door/Early this morning when you knocked upon my door/And I said, ‘Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go,’” and continues with, “You may bury my body down by the highway side/You may bury my body down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.”
Johnson’s lyrics to “Cross Road Blues” (“Standin’ at the crossroads, tried to flag a ride”) suggest he was hitchhiking rather than selling his soul to the Devil.
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 a strained 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.”
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 inSan Antonio,Texas. Seven months later, on Saturday and Sunday, June 19–20, 1937, he was inDallasat 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. 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.
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