1911 – Robert Johnson is born this day in rock history. You remember the movie Crossroads… that was his song!
Robert Johnson, born Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) is among the most famous of Delta blues musicians. His landmark recordings from 1936–1937 display a remarkable combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced generations of musicians. Johnson’s shadowy, poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend. Considered by some to be the “Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, his vocal phrasing, original songs, and guitar style have influenced a broad range of musicians, including John Fogerty, Bob Dylan, Johnny Winter, Jimi Hendrix, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers Band, The Rolling Stones, Paul Butterfield, The Band, Neil Young, Warren Zevon, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton, who called Johnson “the most important blues musician who ever lived”. He was also ranked fifth in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. He is an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Life and career
Johnson’s life is not well documented, and the variety of legends that have surrounded him for decades have made scholarship difficult. Serious research was not undertaken until the late 1960s and early 1970s, most notably by researchers Mack McCormick and Stephen LaVere. Most of the information on his life has come from the decades-old recollections of surviving family and associates. The two known 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.
Five significant dates from his career are documented: Monday, Thursday and Friday, November 23, 26, and 27, 1936 at a recording session in San Antonio, Texas. Seven months later, on Saturday and Sunday, June 19–20, 1937, he was in Dallas, Texas at another session. His death certificate was discovered in 1968, and lists the date and location of his death. Two marriage licenses for Johnson have also been located in county records offices. Other facts about him are less well established. Director Martin Scorsese says in his foreword to Alan Greenberg’s filmscript Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, “The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend.”
Scarcely anything was known of Johnson’s origins until Mack McCormick traced and interviewed members of his family. The research has still not been published, so the biography is based entirely on trust. Such is McCormick’s reputation among his peers that no blues scholar seriously doubts his findings. Eventually, McCormick pemitted Peter Guralnick to publish a summary in Living Blues (1982), later reprinted in book form as Searching for Robert Johnson.
Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi sometime around May 8, 1911, the 11th child of Julia Major Dodds, who had previously borne ten children to husband Charles Dodds. Born out of wedlock, Johnson did not take the Dodds name.
Twenty two-year-old Charles Dodds had married Julia Major in Hazlehurst, Mississippi—about 35 miles (56 km) south of Jackson—in 1889. Charles Dodds owned land and made wicker furniture; his family was well off until he was forced out of Hazlehurst around 1909 by a lynch mob following an argument with some of the more prosperous townsfolk. (There was a family legend that Dodds escaped from Hazlehurst dressed in women’s clothing.) Over the next two years, Julia Dodds sent their children one at a time to live with their father in Memphis, where Charles Dodds had adopted the name of Charles Spencer. Julia stayed behind in Hazlehurst with two daughters, until she was evicted for nonpayment of taxes.
By that time she had given birth to a son, Robert, who was fathered by a field worker named Noah Johnson. Unwelcome in Charles Dodds’ home, Julia Dodds became an itinerant field worker, picking cotton and living in camps as she moved among plantations. While she worked in the fields, her eight-year-old daughter took care of Johnson. Over the next ten years, Julia Dodds would make repeated attempts to reunite the family, but Charles Dodds never stopped resenting her infidelity. Although Charles Dodds would eventually accept Johnson, he never would forgive his wife for giving birth to him.
Around 1914, Robert Johnson moved in with Charles Dodds’ family, which by that time included all of Dodds’ children by Julia Dodds, as well as Dodds’ mistress from Hazlehurst and their two children. Johnson would then spend the next several years in Memphis, and it was reportedly about this time that he began playing the guitar under his older half-brother’s tutelage.
Johnson did not rejoin his mother until she had remarried several years later. By the end of the decade, he was back in the Mississippi Delta living with his mother and her new husband, Dusty Willis. Johnson and his stepfather, who had little tolerance for music, did not get along, and Johnson had to slip out of the house to join his musician friends.
In the course of these these years, he was known by various names: Robert Dodds and Robert Spencer (his first stepfather’s real name and pseudonym), and Little Robert Dusty (after his second stepfather’s nickname). Finally he chose to use his birth name Robert Johnson after his natural father. He may also have wished to be associated with the great guitarist Lonnie Johnson. These changes of name largely explain the inability of researchers before McCormack to obtain information.
There are conflicting accounts of whether Johnson attended school or not. Later accounts portray him as illiterate or possessing beautiful handwriting. The question was settled with the discovery by Gayle Dean Wardlow of marriage certificates bearing the clear and attractive signature of Robert L Johnson.
In any case, everyone agrees that music was Johnson’s first interest, and that he had his start playing the Jew’s harp and harmonica in addition to guitar.
Son House recalled Johnson as a boy had followed him around and tried very unsuccessfully to copy him. He then left the Robbinsville area, but later reappeared with a miraculous guitar technique. His boast is entirely credible. Johnson later recorded versions of Preaching the Blues and Walking Blues in House’s vocal and guitar style. However, Son’s chronology is questioned by Guralnick. When House moved to Robbinsville in 1930, Johnson was a young adult, already married and widowed. The following year, he was living near Hazelhurst, where he married for the second time. From this base Johnson began travelling up and down the Delta as an itinerant musician.
According to a legend known to modern Blues fans, Robert Johnson was a young black man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi. Branded with a burning desire to become a 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 the guitar so that he could play anything that he wanted, and handed it back to him in return for his soul. 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.
This legend was developed over time, and has been chronicled by Gayle Dean Wardlow, Edward Komara and Elijah Wald. Folk tales of bargains with the Devil have long existed in African American and White traditions, and were adapted into literature by Washington Irving in “The Devil and Tom Walker” in 1824, and by and Stephen Vincent Benet in “The Devil and Daniel Webster” in 1936. In the 1930s the folklorist Harry Middleton Hart recorded many tales of banjo players, violinists, card sharps and dice sharks selling their souls at the crossroads, along with guitarists and one accordionist. The folklorist Alan Lomax considered that every African American secular musician was “in the opinion of of both himself and his peers, a child of the devil, a consequence of the black view of the European dance embrace as sinful in the extreme”.
Johnson seems to have claimed occasionally that he had sold his soul to the Devil, but it is not clear that he meant it seriously. 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. However, other interviewers failed to elicit any confirmation from House. Moreover, there were fully two years between House’s observation of Robert as first a novice and then a master. In 1982, Guralnick unintentionally added the crossroads details to the legend. He quoted the account given by Ledell Johnson to David Evans of how his brother Tommy Johnson (no relation to Robert) sold his soul to a large black man at a crossroads. Although Guralnick made it clear that the details belonged to the Tommy Johnson story, casual readers failed to notice, and the crossroads association passed into oral tradition, and then into popular written accounts. The myth was established in mass consciousness in 1986 by the film “Crossroads’. There are now tourist attractions claiming to be “The Crossroads” at Clarksdale and in Memphis.
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. He played what his audience asked for — not necessarily his own compositions, 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, most notably Johnny Shines, later remarked on Johnson’s interest in jazz and country. (Many giants of the blues, including Muddy Waters, were not averse to playing the hit songs of the day.) 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 Johnny Shines was 17 when he met Johnson in 1933. He estimated that 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 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 who was about fifteen years his elder and the mother of musician Robert Lockwood, Jr.. Johnson, however, reportedly also 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.
Around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi, who ran a general store and doubled as a talent scout. Speir, who helped the careers of many blues players, put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who offered to record the young musician in San Antonio, Texas. At the recording session, held on November 23, 1936 in rooms at the landmark Gunter Hotel which Brunswick Records had set up as a temporary studio, Johnson reportedly performed facing the wall. This has been cited as evidence he was a shy man and reserved performer, a conclusion played up in the inaccurate liner notes of the 1961 album King of the Delta Blues Singers. Johnson probably was nervous and intimidated at his first time in a makeshift recording studio (a new and alien environment for the musician), but in truth he was probably focusing on the demands of his emotive performances. In addition, playing into the corner of a wall was a sound-enhancing technique that simulated the acoustical booths of better-equipped studios. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played 16 selections, and recorded alternate takes for most of these. When the recording session was over, Johnson presumably returned home with cash in his pocket; probably more money than he’d ever had at one time in his life.
Among the songs Johnson recorded in San Antonio were “Come On In My Kitchen”, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”, and “Cross Road Blues”. “Come on in My Kitchen” included the lines: “The woman I love took from my best friend/Some joker got lucky, stole her back again,/You better come on in my kitchen, it’s going to be rainin’ outdoors.” In “Crossroad Blues”, another of his songs, he sang: “I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees./I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees./I asked the Lord above, have mercy, save poor Bob if you please./Uumb, standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride./Standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride./Ain’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by.”
When his records began appearing, Johnson made the rounds to his relatives and the various children he had fathered to bring them the records himself. 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.
In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas, Texas, for another recording session in a makeshift studio at the Brunswick Record Building, 508 Park Avenue. Eleven records from this session would be released within the following year. Among them were the three songs that would largely contribute to Johnson’s posthumous fame: “Stones in My Passway”, “Me and the Devil”, and “Hellhound On My Trail”. “Stones In My Passway” and “Me And The Devil” are both about betrayal, a recurrent theme in country blues. The terrifying “Hell Hound On My Trail”—utilising another common theme of fear of the Devil—is often considered to be the crowning achievement of blues-style music. Other themes in Johnson’s music include impotence (“Dead Shrimp Blues” and “Phonograph Blues”) and infidelity (“Terraplane Blues”, “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” and “Love in Vain”).
Six of Johnson’s blues songs mention the devil or some form of the supernatural. In “Me And The Devil” he began, “Early this morning when you knocked upon my door,/Early this morning, umb, when you knocked upon my door,/And I said, ‘ Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go,'” before leading into “You may bury my body down by the highway side,/ You may bury my body, uumh, down by the highway side,/So my old evil spirit can get on a Greyhound bus and ride.”
It has been suggested that the Devil in these songs does not solely refer to the Christian model of Satan, but equally to the African trickster god, Legba.
One of Robert Johnson’s three tombstonesIn the last year of his life, Johnson is believed to have traveled to St. Louis and possibly Illinois, and then to some states in the East. He spent some time in Memphis and traveled through the Mississippi Delta and Arkansas. By the time he died, at least six of his records had been released in the South as race records.
His death occurred on August 16, 1938, at the age of twenty-seven at a country crossroads near Greenwood, Mississippi. He had been playing for a few weeks at a country dance in a town about 15 miles (24 km) from Greenwood.
There are a number of accounts and theories regarding the events preceding Johnson’s death. One of these is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance. One version of this rumor says she was the wife of the juke joint owner who unknowingly provided Johnson with a bottle of poisoned whiskey from her husband, while another suggests she was a married woman he had been secretly seeing. Researcher Mack McCormick claims to have interviewed Johnson’s alleged poisoner in the 1970s, and obtained a tacit admission of guilt from the man. When Johnson was offered an open bottle of whiskey, his friend and fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson knocked the bottle out of his hand, informing him that he should never drink from an offered bottle that has already been opened. Johnson allegedly said, “don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand”. Soon after, he was offered another open bottle of whiskey and accepted it, and it was that bottle that was laced with strychnine. Johnson is reported to have started to feel ill into 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. Strychnine was readily available at the time as it was a common pesticide, and although it is a very bitter-tasting substance it is extremely toxic, and a small quantity dissolved in a harsh-tasting solution such as whiskey could possibly have gone unnoticed, but (over a period of days due to the reduced dosage) still produced the symptoms and eventual death that Johnson experienced.
The precise location of his grave remains a source of ongoing controversy, and three different markers have been erected at supposed burial sites outside of Greenwood. Research in the 1980s and 1990s strongly suggests Johnson was buried in the graveyard of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist church near Morgan City, Mississippi, not far from Greenwood, in an unmarked grave. A cenotaph memorial was placed at this location in 1990 paid for by Columbia Records and numerous smaller contributions made through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund. 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.
In 1938, Columbia Records producer John Hammond, who owned some of Johnson’s records, sought him out to book him for the first “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. On learning of Johnson’s death, Hammond replaced him with Big Bill Broonzy, but still played two of Johnson’s records from the stage. Robert Johnson has a son, Claude Johnson, and grandchildren who currently reside in a town near Hazlehurst, Mississippi.
Eleven Johnson 78s were released on the Vocalion label during his lifetime, with a twelfth issued posthumously. All songs copyrighted to Robert Johnson, and his estate.
|1.||11/23/36||Vocalion 3416||1936||Kind Hearted Woman Blues||2:29|
|2.||11/23/36||Vocalion 3416||1936||Terraplane Blues||3:01|
|3.||11/26/36||Vocalion 3445||1936||32-20 Blues||2:50|
|4.||11/27/36||Vocalion 3445||1936||Last Fair Deal Gone Down||2:39|
|5.||11/23/36||Vocalion 3475||1936||I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom||2:57|
|6.||11/27/36||Vocalion 3475||1936||Dead Shrimp Blues||2:29|
|7.||11/23/36||Vocalion 3519||1936||Ramblin’ On My Mind||2:57|
|8.||11/27/36||Vocalion 3519||1936||Crossroads Blues||2:29|
|9.||11/23/36||Vocalion 3563||1936||Come On In My Kitchen||2:52|
|10.||11/27/36||Vocalion 3563||1936||They’re Red Hot||2:56|
|11.||11/27/36||Vocalion 3601||1936||Walking Blues||2:30|
|12.||11/23/36||Vocalion 3601||1936||Sweet Home Chicago||2:57|
|13.||6/19/37||Vocalion 3623||1937||From Four ‘Til Late||2:22|
|14.||6/20/37||Vocalion 3623||1937||Hellhound on My Trail||2:37|
|15.||6/20/37||Vocalion 3665||1937||Malted Milk||2:20|
|16.||6/20/37||Vocalion 3665||1937||Milkcow’s Calf Blues||2:17|
|17.||6/19/37||Vocalion 3723||1937||Stones in My Passway||2:28|
|18.||6/19/37||Vocalion 3723||1937||I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man||2:35|
|19.||6/20/37||Vocalion 4002||1937||Stop Breaking Down Blues||2:21|
|20.||6/20/37||Vocalion 4002||1937||Honeymoon Blues||2:16|
|21.||6/20/37||Vocalion 4108||1937||Little Queen of Spades||2:16|
|22.||6/20/37||Vocalion 4108||1937||Me and the Devil Blues||2:34|
|23.||11/27/36||Vocalion 4630||1938||Preaching Blues||2:52|
|24.||6/20/37||Vocalion 4630||1938||Love In Vain||2:20|