Robert JohnsonRobert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, possibly on May 8, 1911, to Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson
May 8, 1911 (?) - August 16, 1938
50th Featured Artist
May 8, 1911 (?) - August 16, 1938
50th Featured Artist
If the blues has a truly mythic figure, one whose story hangs over the music the way a Charlie Parker does over jazz or a Hank Williams does over country, it's Robert Johnson, certainly the most celebrated figure in the history of the blues.
Of course, his legend is immensely fortified by the fact that he also left behind a small legacy of recordings that are considered the emotional apex of the music itself. These recordings have not only entered the realm of blues standards ("Love in Vain," "Crossroads," "Sweet Home Chicago," "Stop Breaking Down"), but were adapted by rock & roll artists as diverse as The Rolling Stones, Steve Miller, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton.
The legend of his life - which by now, even folks who don't know anything about the blues can cite to you chapter and verse - goes something like this: Robert Johnson was a young black man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi. Branded with a burning desire to become great blues musician, he was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery's plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar from Johnson, tuned it, and handed it back to him. Within less than a year's time, in exchange for his everlasting soul, Robert Johnson became the king of the Delta blues singers, able to play, sing, and create the greatest blues anyone had ever heard.
Of course, Robert Johnson's influences in the real world were far more disparate than the legend suggests, no matter how many times it's been retold or embellished.
As a teenage plantation worker, Johnson fooled with a harmonica a little bit, but seemingly had no major musical skills to speak of. Every attempt to sit in with local titans of the stature of Son House, Charley Patton, Willie Brown, and others brought howls of derision from the older bluesmen. He idolized the Delta recording star Lonnie Johnson - sometimes introducing himself to newcomers as "Robert Lonnie, one of the Johnson brothers" -- and the music of Scrapper Blackwell, Skip James and Kokomo Arnold were all inspirational elements that he drew his unique style from. His slide style certainly came from hours of watching local stars like Charley Patten and Son House, among others.
Although Robert Johnson never recorded near as much as Lonnie Johnson, Charley Patten, or Blind Lemon Jefferson, he certainly traveled more than all of them put together. After his first recordings came out and "Terraplane Blues" became his signature tune, Johnson hit the road, playing anywhere and everywhere he could.
In Jackson, 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 in San Antonio, Texas. The recording session was held on November 23, 1936 in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San 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.
In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas, 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.
The end came at a Saturday-night dance at a juke joint in Three Forks, MS, in August of 1938. Playing with Honeyboy Edwards and Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnson was given a jug of moonshine whiskey laced with either poison or lye, presumably by the husband of a woman the singer had made advances toward. He continued playing into the night until he was too sick to continue, then brought back to a boarding house in Greenwood, some 15 miles away. He lay sick for several days, successfully sweating the poison out of his system, but caught pneumonia as a result and died on August 16th.
Research in the 1980s and 1990s strongly suggests Johnson was buried in the graveyard of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City, not far from Greenwood, in an unmarked grave.
A one-ton cenotaph in the shape of an obelisk, listing all of Johnson's song titles, with a central inscription by Peter Guralnick, was placed at this location in 1990, paid for by Columbia Records and numerous smaller contributions made through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund.
In 1990 a small marker with the epitaph "Resting in the Blues" was placed in the cemetery of Payne Chapel near Quito, by the cemetery's owner. This alleged burial site, in an apparent attempt to strengthen a claim, happens to be located in the center of Richard Johnson's family plot.
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.
Since his death Johnson's name and likeness has become a cottage growth merchandising industry. Posters, postcards, t-shirts, guitar picks, strings, straps, and polishing cloths -- all bearing either his likeness or signature (taken from his second marriage certificate) -- have become available, making him the ultimate blues commodity with his image being reproduced for profit far more than any contemporary bluesman, dead or alive. Although the man himself (and his contemporaries) could never have imagined it in a million years, the music and the legend both live on