Written By Paul Tingen
Robert Johnson is known as “The King of The Delta Blues,” and “The Father of Rock ‘n Roll.” Despite his enormous influence, Johnson’s musical career lasted barely six years, and he conducted just two recording sessions. He died in 1938, at the age of 27, and was more or less forgotten. This changed dramatically after the release in 1961 of The King Of Delta Blues Singers, an album with 16 of his songs that showcased him playing a mixture of blues and, astonishingly, some kind of prototype rock ‘n roll, more than two decades before rock ‘n roll was actually invented. The album turned Johnson into one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n roll.
Johnson became a major influence on pretty much every British rock and blues guitar player in the 1960s, and on artists and bands like Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and many, many more. Bob Dylan wrote, “Robert Johnson was one of the most inventive geniuses of all time. We still haven’t caught up with him.” Keith Richards remarked, “You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.” Eric Clapton stated that Johnson was “the greatest folk-blues guitar player that ever lived, and the greatest singer,” with “the most powerful cry you can hear in the human voice.”
Since his rediscovery in the 1960s, Johnson’s influence has spread wide and far. Artists not only name-check him, but many also cover his songs. Those that have include Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, ZZ Top, The Allman Brothers Band, Peter Green Todd Rundgren, and The White Stripes. In 2004, Eric Clapton recorded an entire album of Robert Johnson covers, called Me and Mr Johnson.
Johnson was inducted in the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1990, the double album The Complete Recordings was released, consisting of everything Johnson recorded: just 29 songs and 13 alternate takes. The collection received a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album, and was inducted in the National Recording Registry in 2003 as historically and culturally significant. In 1998, Johnson was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award followed in 2006.
As Robert Johnson became increasingly well-known, people wanted to know more about the man behind the music. However, very little was known about his life, and what was known often was and remains confusing. To fill this hole, one story, more than any other, caught the public imagination, which is that Johnson is claimed to have developed, in less than a year, from a mediocre musician to a master of the blues guitar. To achieve this extraordinary feat, the story goes, he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads, sometime around the year 1931.
The tale of Johnson selling his soul to the devil, also called The Crossroads Myth, has become a cornerstone of blues mythology, but it’s important to note that selling one’s soul to the devil in exchange for special skills or knowledge is an archetypal story with roots in many cultures, including West-African and Haitian voodoo, and European and American folklore. In America, the story is a motif in the blues genre in general. Blues is secular music, and was often seen as the devil’s music by those of a religious nature.
Of course, all this tells us nothing about the real Johnson. In attempts to fill the need for more information about him many biographies have been published. The two most recent are Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, in 2019, and in 2020 there was Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson, by his step-sister Annye Anderson. The book cover displays an until now unknown photo of a smiling and relaxed Johnson, and fleshes out his relationships with his various family members, as well as providing new details of his musical life.
Despite the fact that these two recently published books add new facts about Johnson’s beginnings, his early days remain confusing. What is known is that he was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, on or around May 8, 1911, to Julia Majors Dodds and a plantation worker called Noah Johnson. Julia Majors Dodds had since 1889 been married to Charles Dodds, but after getting into a fight with a white man in 1906, he had to flee the lynch mobs and escaped north to Memphis, Tennessee. He changed his name to Spencer, married again, twice, and had four more children, one of them being Annye Anderson, born in 1926.
For a number of years, Robert’s mother had problems taking care of him, and during this time the boy grew up at the Spencer’s house. Robert’s older half-sister, known as Sister Carrie, had also moved in with the Spencers, and gave Robert his first guitar. Charles Spencer was a multi-instrumentalist and taught young Robert the guitar, and piano.
In 1929, at the age of 18, Johnson married Virginia Travis, who was still only sixteen, and died in childbirth not long afterwards. The death of his wife and child is likely to have pushed Johnson to abandon any aspirations he had of being a family man, and instead to dedicate himself to being a full-time, travelling, blues musician
Around the same time, the famous blues musician Son House moved to the town where Johnson was living, Robinsonville, Mississippi, to join another well-known blues guitarist and singer, Willie Brown. The latter had played with the legendary Charlie Patton, also known as “the Father of the Delta Blues,” providing a direct line to the early origins of the blues.
It was Son House who claimed later in interviews that Johnson was a lousy guitar player when they first met, and then, a year later, had become a great player. Son House added, “All our mouths were standing open. He sold his soul to play to the devil to play like that.”
We don’t know in how far the discrepancy between Robert Johnson’s supposedly very bad early playing and his later mastery has been embellished to make it fit a narrative. What appears to have happened was that Johnson in 1931 went to a town called Beauregard, where blues guitarist Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman lived. Johnson moved in with the guitarist for more than a year, and became his pupil, and the two toured together for another year.
In addition to Zimmerman, Johnson must have picked up on techniques and inspiration from other blues players. Primary influences would have been Henry Sloan, the originator of the blues, who taught the father of the blues, Charlie Patton, as well as Son House and Willie Brown. These four musicians all came from what is often regarded as ground zero of the blues: the Dockery Plantation in Mississippi. Others who influenced Johnson included Tommy Johnson, Lonnie Johnson, Kokomo Arnold, Skip James, Leroy Carr, Blind Blake, and Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett.
From 1932 until he died in 1938, Johnson travelled around the south-east of the US as a touring musician, performing in Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas and Kentucky, and even as far as Chicago, New York and Ontario. Apparently Johnson knew how to handle audiences, and was happy to please crowds with popular country, ragtime, music hall or pop tunes of the day. His step-sister Annye Anderson confirms that Johnson played a wide range of repertoire, not just the blues, but that he was always interested in the most contemporary music around. “He wanted modern.”
Johnson’s invention of a “modern” way of playing the guitar would have gotten lost in the mists of time if it were not for the two recording sessions he conducted. In 1936, Don Law, an English-American producer and record company executive, and engineer Vincent Liebler, recorded Johnson over three days in November 1936, in San Antonio in Texas. They did it again over two days in June 1937, at 508 Park Avenue, in Dallas, Texas. Johnson played a Gibson L-1, a model that has become synonymous with his name. During these sessions Johnson recorded his entire known catalogue of 29 songs.
Eleven of these were released during his lifetime, in the 1937, on the Vocalion label. “Terraplane Blues” became a minor hit, with 5000 sales. Just over a year after his second recording session, Robert Johnson died, on August 16, 1938, near Greenwood, Mississippi, at the age of 27. The cause of Johnson’s death is unknown, and the stories of what happened vary. The account of him being poisoned by a jealous bar owner for flirting with his wife is one of several.
What Clapton had called “The most powerful cry you can hear in the human voice,” had fallen silent, and was more or less forgotten. It wasn’t until 23 years later, with the US folk music revival movement at its height, that Columbia released King Of The Delta Blues Singers.
So what made Johnson have such a huge impact decades after his death? To a large degree it seems that Johnson was too far ahead of his contemporaries for him to be recognised in his time. “Honeyboy” Edwards pointed out in 2011, “Robert was the only guitar player with a little different style than all the other guys had.” It took until the 1960s before the time was finally right.
Johnson used four tunings—regular, dropped D, open G and open D, and often a capo—to blend many of the styles that were current in his time into a virtuoso approach that combined him playing chords, bass-lines and fills and singing, all at the same time. By contrast, Johnson’s contemporaries would strum while singing, and stop strumming while playing fills.
Johnson also used elements of piano playing, most famously in “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” where he is the first to use a boogie walking bass riff, which was until then only played on the piano. Johnson used a thumb pick, and played riffs and fills with his fingers or with a slide. His phrasing has been called “revolutionary,” and many of his licks were incorporated in the playing of British rock guitarists like Peter Green, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.
Jazz, blues and folk music were rooted in a culture of borrowing and adaptation, and many of Johnson’s songs are based on other popular songs of the day. By incorporating influences from other musicians, and musical styles like country, ragtime, swing, jazz, folk, Irish traditional, church music, and more, Johnson managed to create something that was far greater than the sum of the parts.
Johnson’s intense, eerie, sometimes almost demonic, vocal style also played a large part in drawing people in, and increased the impact of his recordings. The lyrical content of many of Johnson’s songs, in terms of the imagery as well as the sexual innuendo, also was influential. Bob Dylan remarked, “If I hadn’t heard the Robert Johnson records when I did, there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down—that I wouldn’t have felt free enough or upraised enough to write.”
More than eighty years after his death, Robert Johnson’s music and legacy continue to inspire and influence guitarists and songwriters around the world.
Watch the video below to learn more about the amazing life and music of Robert Johnson!