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Hero. Legend. Good Bloke.
John Peel OBE, 1939 - 2004

Red Lick Records



 

 

Robert Johnson, His Life, His Music, His Legacy
by Alan White, December 1994

Robert Johnson's Life

Information on the events of Robert Johnson's life is rather scarce.  From birth to his still-disputed burial place, his life has remained shrouded in mystery for more than half a century. Indeed, some early blues researchers encountered a difficult time finding any information about him, even in the years immediately after his death.  Historians weren't even sure of the name of the man they were asking about. At various times in his life, and also in different communities, Robert went by the names Dodds, Moore, James, Barstow and Spencer, as well as that of his natural father, but never by that of his mother (Major) or of her second husband (Willis).

Robert Johnson's mother was Julia Ann Majors, whose parents had been born into slavery.  In 1889, she married Charles Dodds, a carpenter and furniture maker, also the son of former slaves.  They owned their land and their house and were comparatively fairly well off.  But, after narrowly avoiding the noose in Hazelhurst for injuring a prominent white man in a fight, Charlie changed his last name from Dodds to Spencer and fled to Memphis.  Over the next couple of years Julia sent her ten children, one by one, except for her two daughters, to stay with their father in Memphis.  While Charlie was there, he had taken a mistress and had two children by her.  Meanwhile, Julia had taken up living with Noah Johnson, an itinerant sharecropper by whom she conceived Robert.  Robert Leroy Johnson was born out of wedlock, on May 8, 1911, near the town of Hazelhurst, Mississippi. 

For the first few years of Robert's life, he lived with his mother moving from plantation to plantation.  In 1914, Julia took her family to Memphis where she, her ten children, Charlie Dodds, his mistress, and their two children, apparently got on fairly well together. However, Charlie resented young Robert, the outside child, evidently already having discipline problems.  Julia disappeared not long after the family arrived in Memphis, returning two years later to ask for Charlie's permission to remarry.  So when Robert was 4 or 5 years old, he went to live with his mother and her second husband, Willie 'Dusty' Willis, in the shanty-town of Commerce, near Robinsonville, Mississippi.  Robert showed no interest in farming, preferring to play music and trade songs with his friends. In 1927, he got his first guitar.

In 1929, at the age of 18, Robert fell in love with 16 year old Virginia Travis. They were married on 16th February, and the young couple moved in with Robert's half-sister Carrie.  Robert then did more farm work than playing music.  In August, Virginia became pregnant. On 10th April 1930, both she and the baby died in labour.

A few months after Virginia died the popular Son House came to Robinsonville with Willie Brown.  Robert constantly badgered the older Son House, who tried to teach him some guitar, but Robert showed little promise.  He would occasionally borrow a guitar when House or Brown were having a break, driving the audience out of the juke joints with his inexperienced playing. During late 1930 or early 1931, Robert went to Hazelhurst to search for his father.  This is the period of his life when he reputedly disappeared to 'sell his soul to the devil'.  In Hazelhurst, he began taking guitar lessons from Ike Zinnerman.

Johnson was a reputed ladies' man to whom women "were like motel or hotel rooms," in the words of Johnny Shines, who frequently travelled with him. However, in May of 1931, during his stay in Hazelhurst, he married Calletta "Callie" Craft, an affectionate woman, twice married with three children. With Callie, Robert established a pattern that he was to follow in the coming years wherever he went.  Seeking out older, often less attractive women, or a homely young girl, for whom there would likely be no competition, he would exchange his attentions for their kindness and a place to stay.  One researcher found at least half a dozen women who had relationships of this kind with Robert, most of them lasting two or three weeks. Whilst many blues artists got nothing but a meal or free booze for their work, Robert usually had a little money too, which appealed to many local ladies.

There is little evidence that Robert Johnson had any family.  However, the blues singer Robert 'Junior' Lockwood was said to be the son of one of Robert Johnson's 'girl friends'.  Also, recent research has located Claude Johnson, reputed to be Robert's son, together with grandson, Gregory and great-grandson Richard.

Described by David 'Honeyboy' Edwards, as tall and skinny, Robert also had a bad eye, evidently due to a cataract.  There are only two surviving photographs of Robert, found years after his death.  In one of them he looks young and sophisticated in a pinstripe suit, with a hat tilted at an angle.  In the other more informal picture, he looks relaxed with possible hints of the sullen, more morose character which has become the Robert Johnson myth.  Studying the photographs it looks like his left eye was the bad one, but not as bad as legend has led us to believe.  Robert, described as a sulky person, would disappear for weeks at a time, giving no reason, even deserting fellow artists during a session. He was a very widely travelled man, travelling around the Mississippi Delta, to Chicago, Detroit, New York, Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, and even as far as Windsor, Ontario, Canada, earning his living solely through music. 

Musical Education

Robert's earliest musical desire was to be a harmonica player, but that soon waned, and he decided he wanted to be a guitar player like Son House and Willie Brown.  Robert would literally sit at their feet, studying their technique, arrangements and styles, in the rowdy juke joints.  In Hazelhurst, Robert had apprenticed himself to Ike Zinnerman, a veteran guitarist from Alabama.  He often spend entire weekends playing with Zinnerman, said to be an excellent guitarist, but unfortunately one of the many unrecorded bluesmen.

Robert was reported to have one of the 'quickest ears' in the Mississippi Delta.  Johnny Shines claimed he could have a conversation while listening to a song on the radio playing it, note for note, hours or even days later.  Shines also said, when playing for money on street corners, Robert was just as likely to play a Bing Crosby tune, or a current jazz tune as he was to play one of his own songs.  Not many people recall him ever practising or working out new songs.  Whenever he picked up the guitar with people around, it was to work. On the subject of learning to play the guitar, Shines summed it up by saying 'They don't talk about a duck learning to swim, do they?'. So it was for Robert Johnson.

Songs and Music

During Robert's period of wandering as an itinerant blues singer, he was heard by a local record salesman of the American Record Corporation (ARC). He was recommended to ARC's Don Law, who had gone South to record local artists for the Vocalion label. Robert recorded 29 songs for Vocalion in five sessions, 16 of them in a makeshift studio in a room of the Ganter Hotel, San Antonio, Texas, in November 1936, and the other 13 in a warehouse in Dallas, Texas the following June. Only twelve of  these recordings were released during his lifetime. There is reference to a thirtieth 'bawdy' song, recorded at the engineers' request, but this has never been located. It has never been established which, if any, of his recordings were specifically created for the studio, and what proportion were regularly performed. Johnny Shines, reminiscencing about Robert's 'talking guitar playing', is frequently quoted: "His guitar seemed to talk; repeat and say words with him like no one else in the world could. One time in St Louis we were playing one of the songs that Robert would like to play with someone once in a while: 'Come On in My Kitchen'. He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we had quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realised they were crying - both men and women".

Most of Robert's songs can be traced to other older and contemporary bluesmen, either heard personally or on record, like Son House, Willie Brown, his great hero Lonnie Johnson, Hambone Willie Newbern, Leroy Carr, Scrapper Blackwell, Tommy Johnson, Kokomo Arnold, Charley Patton, Skip James, Big Bill Broonzy, and of course Ike Zinnerman.  Any song Robert Johnson played automatically became his own.  Robert would pick up any hillbilly tune, popular song, ballad, 'sweet music' from the radio, and convert them into his purely personal style.

The Legend of the Devil and Robert Johnson

According to legend, in 1931 Robert disappeared from Robinsonville, where he had been hanging around with Son House and Willie Brown, and travelled to Hazelhurst.  During those months away, he studied guitar with Ike Zinnerman.  Ike claimed that he learned how to play guitar by sitting in a graveyard on tombstones at night.  When Robert returned to Robinsonville, his playing had improved so incredibly that people began to speculate that he had met the devil and swapped his soul for such ungodly ability.  Son House was emphatic "he sold his soul to the devil to get to play like that."  Certainly he didn't need any more lessons.  The awkward kid, who could barely play the harmonica and who had very little command of the guitar, had been changed into a kind of master musician who gained a great deal of respect.

In such a superstitious society as the Mississippi Delta in the thirties, some of Robert's more peculiar traits might have been seen as slightly demonic, for instance: the cataract in his eye, and his practice of playing with his back turned to other musicians, usually into a corner of the room, which some took as proof that he had something to hide, whereas he probably wanted to get better sound, or even prevent other musicians from stealing his style.  LeDell Johnson, the brother of  Tommy Johnson, another bluesman supposed to have entered into an unholy pact, says that "if you go to where...a crossroads is... a big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he'll tune it".  Many of Robert's lyrics are full of dark and demonic imagery.  Devils and demons fill his visions, as in his 'Me And The Devil Blues' and 'Hellhound On My Trail'.

The idea that a performer is evil incarnate evidently caught the interest of 1930s blues audiences.  The rumour that a man had the devil on his side probably amounted to a form of protection against some of the unruly characters who assembled in the roadhouses and juke joints in which bluesmen played.  Many locals regarded such itinerant musicians as privileged, relatively wealthy outsiders, interlopers wanting to steal their women.

The Death of Robert Johnson

Robert was acknowledged as a musical genius by just about everybody who met him. However, he couldn't stand his own success, and it has been said it was his downfall. Modern day rock stars turn to drugs to handle the success and pressures success brings. Robert turned to women to give him comfort. Unfortunately he turned to one too many.

On Friday, August 12th, 1938, Robert and David 'Honeyboy' Edwards were booked to play at a dance in Three Forks, near Greenwood, Mississippi.  Robert was apparently showing too much interest in somebody's wife or girlfriend.  The next night, the jealous husband had his friends give Robert some poisoned whiskey.  Another eyewitness, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), claims that Robert was openly displaying affection for some particular lady, who was, indeed, the wife of their employer.  Sonny Boy claims that a pint of whiskey was sent to Robert. He drank it, while Sonny Boy stood by helplessly and watched.  Honeyboy Edwards, who showed up after the poisoning, said that around 1.00am, Robert became sick while playing, but the audience wanted him to carry on.  By 2.00am, he was so ill they had to take him into Greenwood, but there was no money for a doctor.  Robert survived for several days, but finally died on Tuesday, August 16th, 1938.

 Copyright 2008 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright 2008 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

The Certificate of Death contains several inconsistencies (e.g. age, date of birth), however the cause of death is recorded as 'No Doctor'.  No one was ever brought to trial, although, researcher Robert Burton 'Mack' McCormick more recently located a black man who confessed to the crime. Mack refuses to reveal any more details of the man's identity, but suggested that he may do after the man's death.

Whilst the legend claims that Robert howled like a dog before he died (clearly alluding to the black arts), this is at odds with a contemporary report from Honeyboy Edwards who said he died alone.

Robert Johnson's Importance to Blues Music.

Robert Johnson is acknowledged as perhaps the most accomplished and certainly the most influential of all bluesmen.  His style was easily adapted to a band setting with amplified instruments; the bass line could be carried by piano, bass and drums, while the electric guitar or harmonica took up the treble.  Versions of songs he recorded or which were associated with him have been made by a wealth of contemporary blues singers, including:

Jimmy De Berry
Robert 'Junior' Lockwood
Eddie Boyd
Robert Nighthawk
Jimmy 'Maxwell Street' Davis
'Little' Junior Parker
Leroy 'Baby Face' Foster
Johnny Shines
Boyd Gilmore
Roosevelt Sykes
B. Hutto
Robert Henry'Baby Boy' Warren
Elmore James
Muddy Waters
Homesick James
Big Joe Williams
Bobo Jenkins
Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller)
Johnny Littlejohn
Howlin' Wolf

More recent rock and blues singers/bands who have also made versions are:

Paul Butterfield
Cream
Eric Clapton
The Rolling Stones

His importance as a blues player only became apparent years after his death, through the growth and popularity of urban blues and rock 'n' roll.  Today, Robert's presence can be felt behind many of our best singers. He has become an almost legendary figure among white blues enthusiasts, especially in America and somewhat surprisingly, here in Britain.  I believe the legend has been encouraged by more recent (1960's and 1970's) interest in the 'roots' of rock music. The popularity of the Rolling Stones version of 'Love In Vain', and Cream / Eric Clapton's 'Crossroads' are examples.  Interestingly, the recent CD re-release of Robert's complete recordings sold in excess of 325,000 copies between August 1990 and April 1991; enough to be certified gold.  In contrast, Robert's first record "Terraplane Blues," recorded in 1936 and his only hit during his lifetime, sold just 4,000 copies.

It has been said the only modern guitarists with a real feel for the blues, are Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. The core of Jimi Hendrix's playing was the blues, even if he himself was convinced of 'selling out' to blatant commercialism. Comments have been made that Robert Johnson's music 'has now become part of Eric Clapton'. Clapton states he has taken thirty years 'meandering the back roads', only now 'getting there' in terms of making 'real' blues music. Perhaps we shall see more of Robert's influence on Clapton in future.

For the past several years a 'blues revival' has been taking shape.  Even the U.S Postal Service has recently issued a "Legends of American Music" set of eight special issue stamps, honouring, among others, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. Whilst new versions of the original blues classics will no doubt continue to be made, and no doubt criticised for not being faithful to the original, they will however play an important part in continuing the legacy of the blues, repeatedly encouraging listeners to delve deeper into the roots of the music, re-discovering and perpetuating the legacy of the original bluesmen. Robert Johnson will be there amongst them.

Robert Johnson's music was the expression of a solitary man.  It was folk music expertly played and sung, but it was also the intimate song of an individual, sung with genius.  It is the autobiographical nature of the songs, their intense personal passion, reflecting chaos and loneliness, executed so vibrantly that continues to capture the imagination of listeners today.  Despite his influences, Robert Johnson's music is unique, and the mystery that continues to surround him only reinforces his hold on our imaginations. He was indeed, 'King of the Delta Blues Singers'.
 __________________________________________________________________________

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1 The Devil and Robert Johnson: The Blues and The 1990s
Author: Russell Banks
Publication: The New Republic
Date: 29th April 1991

2 Blues Walking Like A Man: The Complicated Legacy of Robert Johnson
Author:Francis Davis
Publication: The Atlantic
Date: April 1991

3 Eric Clapton: Lost in the Blues

Author:Eric Clapton
Publication: Guitar Player
Date: September 1993

4 Listen To The Blues
Author:Bruce Cook
Date: 1975

5 Mystery Train
Author: Greil Marcus
Publisher: Omnibus
Date: 1977

6 Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson
Author: Alan Greenberg
Publisher: Da Capo
Date: 1994

7 The Devil's Music: A History of The Blues
Author: Giles Oakley
Publisher: British Broadcasting Corporation
Date: 1976

8 The Guinness Who's Who of Blues
Editor: Colin Larkin
Publisher: Guinness
Date: 1993

9 The Story of The Blues
Author: Paul Oliver
Publisher: Book Club Associates
Date: 1972

10 Feel Like Going Home: Portraits In Blues & Rock 'N' Roll
Author: Peter Guralnick
Publisher: Omnibus
Date: 1978

11 Eric Clapton: The Blues Sessions
Author: Eric Clapton
Publication: Guitar World
Date: December 1994

12 Robert Johnson: With the Devil at the Crossroads
Author: Robert M Brown
Publication: Compuserv Music Forum

13 Searching For Robert Johnson (Video)
Narrator: John Hammond Jr.
Published by: Sony Music Entertainment
Date: 1992
 __________________________________________________________________________

Copyright Alan White, 1994. All Rights Reserved
Translation
Andres Magallanes, 2010. All Rights Reserved
 
__________________________________________________________________________

Website Copyright 2000-2011 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
Essay (this page) Copyright 1994 Alan White. All rights reserved.
For further information please email: alan.white@earlyblues.com

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