Robert Johnson - Biography
Robert Johnson is a figure whose tale is shadowed by myth and hyperbole. The facts of his life and death remain scant, and both latter-day writers and present-day listeners have in many cases filled in the blanks with fancy. Perhaps because of his relative obscurity, and thanks to the enduring power of his handful of recordings, he has become the most written-about and lionized blues performer of his era. The truth of his existence will always be somewhat in question, but his songs and his style retain their force. He now exists out of time, a potent figure in the American imagination.
It is believed that Johnson was born in the Mississippi Delta town of Hazlehurst, Miss., on May 8, 1911. He was the eleventh child of Julia Major Dodds, then married to furniture maker and landowner Charles Dodds, who had fled the area for Memphis after a dispute with some powerful locals; he was the product of an extramarital relationship between his mother and plantation worker Noah Johnson. At around the age of three, he joined his father, who now called himself Charles Spencer, in Memphis. (He would go by the names Robert Johnson and Robert Spencer as a youth.) By the age of nine, he had moved back to Mississippi, to live with his mother and her new husband, Dusty Willis, in the town of Robinsonville, which would be his base in years to come.
In Memphis, Johnson had learned the basics of guitar from his half-brother Charles Leroy. In Robinsonville, he came under the spell of some gifted bluesmen who played and lived in the area. He saw Charlie Patton, the raw-voiced, hard-traveling guitarist, who performed frequently in the regional juke joints, and was taken under the wing of Willie Brown, an elusive, little-recorded figure who would famously share a Paramount Records session with Patton, Louise Johnson, and Son House in 1930. (In homage to Brown’s tutelage, Johnson’s 1936 recording “Cross Road Blues” contains a shout-out to “my friendboy Willie Brown.”)
By all reports, and by the evidence of the two photographs published to date, Johnson was a handsome and charismatic youth, somewhat shy and withdrawn when not performing, and a rake with the ladies. He may have contemplated settling down, for in February 1929, at 17, he married Virginia Travis. But any notion of a happy home life was shattered in April 1930, when his bride died in childbirth at the age of 16.
Not long thereafter, Robert Johnson began to give himself over completely to the blues life. In 1930, Son House, the big-voiced singer-guitarist and lapsed preacher, moved to the Robinsonville area, and he became a major formative influence on Johnson. During a stay in Hazlehurst, the teenage performer was also mentored by Ike Zinnerman, an unrecorded local player.
Johnson’s skill as a guitar player developed so rapidly that the Robinsonville musicians were amazed when they heard him during a brief return sometime in the early ‘30s. House’s offhand, much-quoted mid-‘60s recollection of a performance during this time – which led the older bluesman to surmise that his erstwhile protégé had sold his soul to the Devil in order to play that well – laid the groundwork for the image of Robert Johnson as a tortured, possessed figure. (In fact, the unrelated Mississippi bluesman Tommy Johnson, who famously recorded for Paramount in 1928-29, is the probable source of this Faustian legend: His brother LeDell later claimed that Tommy told his kinfolk he acquired his musical gifts after a man – possibly the Devil in human guise -- retuned his guitar one dark night at a rural crossroad.)
Based largely in Helena, Ark. – where he met and schooled his disciple Robert Lockwood, Jr., whose mother was romantically involved with the bluesman -- Robert Johnson traveled and played widely through the Mississippi Delta during the early ‘30s; it is believed the footloose musician journeyed as far north as Chicago and Detroit. He sometimes performed solo, but also played as a duo with such musical sidekicks as Johnny Shines and David Honeyboy Edwards. He was apparently a crowd-pleasing entertainer who knew what the public wanted: Shines said that Johnson’s streetcorner performances and jukehouse sets ranged through the popular music of the day, from “race” hits to Tin Pan Alley standards and tunes from Bing Crosby’s songbook.
But Johnson was not satisfied to be merely an itinerant musician – he wanted to make records. So, sometime in 1936, he materialized at the Jackson, Miss., music store operated by H.C. Speir, a regional talent scout who had secured recording deals for Patton, Brown, House, and many other Delta bluesmen. Speir recommended Johnson to Ernie Oertle, of the American Recording Company, and in November 1936 Oertle drove Johnson to San Antonio for the first of his two ARC recording sessions.
Johnson’s studio career was tantalizingly brief: He cut a mere 29 titles at his Nov. 23-27 session in San Antonio and a subsequent date in Dallas on June 19-20, 1937. Only 11 selections were issued on 78 RPM discs; just one, “Terraplane Blues,” which biographer Peter Guralnick estimates sold around 5,000 copies, could be considered even a decent seller.
Johnson’s low commercial profile could have had something to do with the changing tastes of the African-American blues consumer. By the late ‘30s, the solo guitar-vocal hits of Blind Lemon Jefferson were a decade in the past, and record buyers sought more sophisticated fare, by such duos as pianist Leroy Carr and guitarist Scrapper Blackwell. The “Bluebird beat” of Chicago teams like Tampa Red and Big Maceo Merriweather was on the horizon.
Johnson’s 1936-37 recordings reflect a panoply of influences that flowed into his sound. Son House looms over such Johnson selections as “Walking Blues” and “Preaching Blues,” both of which were cornerstones of the elder bluesman’s repertoire. Snatches of Leroy Carr’s “Blues Before Sunrise,” “I Believe I’ll Make a Change,” and “Evil Hearted Woman” found their way into “Kindhearted Woman Blues” and “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.” Contemporaneous singer-guitarist Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues” and “Old Original Kokomo Blues” served as the templates for Johnson’s “Milkcow Calf’s Blues” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” respectively. Singer-guitarist-pianist Skip James’ 1931 recording “22-20 Blues” became “32-20 Blues” in Johnson’s hands. And the guitar work of such precursors as Hambone Willie Newburn (whose 1929 “Roll and Tumble Blues” laid the rhythmic groundwork for several Johnson compositions) and the deft, jazzy Lonnie Johnson left an indelible mark. There are even echoes of hillbilly artists like Fiddlin’ John Carson and Charlie Poole in “Last Fair Deal Gone Down.”
Yet Johnson’s work can’t be counted as merely derivative. He effortlessly synthesized the music that came before him into work of unexpected freshness, cohesion, and drama. He boasted a distinctive voice that could soar into a falsetto (much as Carr and Arnold did) or plunge into the deep (recalling House). He was one of the most adept guitarists of his era: His silvery, understated slide work has no real precedent, while his single-string accompaniment is on a par with Lonnie Johnson’s dazzling complexity. His songs were so tightly constructed that even derivations like “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Sweet Home Chicago” came to be considered the definitive renditions by succeeding bluesmen. And his most ghostly, affecting numbers – “Come On In My Kitchen,” “Me and the Devil Blues,” “Hell Hound On My Trail” – are as artfully crafted and seamless as they are harrowing, and seemingly personal in a way that the scattershot assemblages of other Delta blues songs never seem to be. Robert Johnson brought many strains of the blues, from the Delta and beyond, together in his sound, and he piqued many a later listener’s ear, as we will see.
Johnson outlived his last recording session by a scant 14 months. He continued his rambling, appearing as far west as Texas, according to road mate Johnny Shines, then headed back to the Delta. On Aug. 13, 1938, he played a dance at a juke joint in Greenwood, Miss.; the musician, known to many as a somewhat reckless womanizer, had begun seeing the wife of the juke’s owner. It is thought that Johnson consumed a poisoned drink and fell ill during his performance.
Mortally ill, he lingered for three days. Robert Johnson died at Star of the West Plantation on Aug. 16, 1938, at the age of 27. No cause of death is listed on a death certificate discovered in 1973. His true resting place has never been definitively confirmed; a marker – the third such monument built for Johnson – was erected outside Little Mount Zion Baptist Church outside Greenwood, considered the likeliest grave site by researcher Steve LaVere, who paid for the stone.
Robert Johnson’s musical afterlife began just months after his demise. In late 1938, record producer, writer, and blues proselytizer John Hammond began hunting for Johnson for “an evening of American Negro music” he was mounting at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Learning that Johnson had died, Hammond drafted Big Bill Broonzy to represent the Delta’s musical contributions at the “From Spirituals to Swing” concert on Dec. 23, 1938, but two Johnson 78s were played for the audience.
Johnson’s music remained largely unheard through the early 1950s, but his songs retained a life of their own. Muddy Waters, who encountered Johnson as a boy in the Delta, recorded “32-20 Blues” and what many believe to be an unrecorded Johnson composition, “Take a Little Walk With Me,” at his 1942 Library of Congress sessions with folklorist Alan Lomax; after Waters’ relocation to Chicago, “Kind Hearted Woman” and “Walkin’ [sic] Blues” were among his first sides for the Chess brothers’ Aristocrat and Chess labels. Elmore James turned “Dust My Broom” into an R&B hit with his 1951 Trumpet Records recording, and built a career on its Johnson-derived slide lick. Johnny Shines and Honeyboy Edwards also carried Johnson’s repertoire forward.
The boom for Johnson’s music truly began in the late ‘50s, in the middle of the “folk revival” of the period, as a raft of small independent labels began reissuing the music of so-called “primitive” Delta blues singers of the ‘20s and ‘30s. In 1959, a Johnson track was unearthed for the first time on The Country Blues, an album compiled for Folkways Records’ RBF imprint by writer Samuel Charters, whose like-titled book contained a highly romanticized, but extremely influential, chapter about Johnson focusing on the tormented quality of some of his songs.
In 1961, Johnson’s music received its first full-scale reissue on a Columbia LP – midwifed by label executive and longtime fan John Hammond -- that collated 16 of Johnson’s 29 songs. Its title, King of the Delta Blues Singers, was something of a misnomer, commercially speaking at least, but the handle stuck. Moreover, it spurred interest in Johnson’s music among a group of young American and English musicians enchanted by the Delta blues’ mystique. By the late ‘60s, several of Johnson’s compositions had been successfully covered by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (“Walking Blues”), Cream (“Cross Road Blues,” a/k/a “Crossroads”), and The Rolling Stones (“Love in Vain”). A second compilation, King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. II (1971), brought together the remaining 13 Johnson titles and several alternate takes, and received widespread attention in the rock press of the day.
The legend of Robert Johnson showed increasing signs of overtaking the man. In 1986, acknowledging the bluesman’s induction at the initial Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony as an “early influence,” Rolling Stone published the first unearthed photograph of Johnson, which only deepened interest in his phantom-like existence. The same year, the execrable film Crossroads, which leaned heavily on Johnson’s purported pact with the Devil and recreated his first recording session, escaped into movie houses. (Alan Greenberg’s myth-reinforcing, still-unfilmed screenplay Love in Vain, subtitled “A Vision of Robert Johnson,” was published in book form in 1994.)
Posthumous interest in Johnson peaked in 1990, when Columbia Records issued all 41 of Johnson’s known sides as a two-CD set, The Complete Recordings. (A 42nd track, a theretofore unknown alternate of “Traveling Riverside Blues,” was subsequently appended to a CD reissue of King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. II.) The boxed set received a Grammy Award as best historical album and was certified for sales in excess of one million copies; it also helped ignite a brief but intense resurgence of interest in the blues. In recognition of his rekindled popularity, the first of three full-length documentaries about Johnson was released in 1992.
In 1994, Johnson’s status as an American icon was officially recognized by the federal government: His image (with a cigarette artfully airbrushed out, in a touch of political correctness) graced a first-class stamp released by the U.S. Postal Service as a part of a commemorative series of blues issues.
The accolades have continued to roll in: In 2006, Johnson received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, which presents the Grammy Awards. In the new millennium, some writers have attempted to dispel the fog of encomia and the mist of legend from the bluesman’s music: Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta (2004) and Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch’s Robert Johnson: Lost and Found (2003) sought to rescue Johnson’s life and music from the realm of hearsay, guesswork, and the supernatural.
Who was Robert Johnson, exactly? We’ll probably never know; most of his contemporaries have now passed on, and his few survivors’ memories are questionable. Was he the most important practitioner of Delta blues? Maybe not – an effective case can be made for Charlie Patton and Tommy Johnson, among others. Was he a brilliant and gifted practioner of the music? Certainly. Has his music, his influence, and his image extended into the very heart of the American consciousness? Beyond any shadow of a doubt.