Robert Johnson – A Brief Biography (1911-1938)
Robert Johnson was an American blues musician and singer-songwriter, who is widely regarded as a master of the blues and one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.
He is also considered one of the most important blues singers and guitarists of all time.
Robert Johnson was born on 8th May 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi to Noah Johnson and Julia Major Dodds.
Johnson’s mother, Julia, was initially married to a somewhat prosperous landowner and furniture maker in Hazlehurst named Charles Dodd, with whom she had ten children. However, Dodd fell into dispute with some white landowners and was forced to leave Hazlehurst by a white lynch mob.
Dodd went and settled down in Memphis and changed his name to Charles Spencer. Two years later, Julia made her way to Memphis with Johnson, for Johnson to be raised by Spencer. Almost nothing is known about Johnson’s biological father, Noah, except that Julia and Noah never married.
Johnson would go on to spend the next 9 years in Memphis. He enrolled at the Carnes Avenue Colored School, where he received lessons in reading, language, arithmetic, geography, and music. His years growing up in Memphis resulted in his love for music, especially the delta blues. It was in Memphis that he discovered the delta blues for the first time and became deeply influenced by it.
Rejoining His Mother
Around 1919-1920, Robert Johnson, aged 8 or 9, left Memphis and rejoined his mother in Crittenden County, Arkansas. By then his mother had married an illiterate sharecropper by the name of Will ‘Dusty’ Willis, who was 24 years older than her.
Shortly after joining his mother in Arkansas, the family moved across the Mississippi river to trade in the Mississippi Delta region near Robinsonville and Tunica. Here Johnson enrolled at the Indian Creek School in Tunica under the name Robert Spencer.
It was during this period that Johnson began learning how to play the jaw harp and the harmonica, soon becoming quite good at them.
What would set Johnson apart from his contemporary blues musicians was the relatively good education he received in Memphis and Tunica. For a boy of his background, he was surprisingly literate and well-educated, something that might have probably helped him as a songwriter in the future.
Learning About His Biological Father
Robert Johnson was eventually informed by his mother of his biological father, Noah Johnson. Upon learning the truth, Johnson dropped his stepfather’s surname Willis and adopted his biological father’s surname, Johnson.
Johnson’s relationship with his stepfather was turbulent and difficult. Willis was an abusive husband and father and he forced Johnson to work with him on the field.
Johnson’s complex relationship with his stepfather prompted him to search for and find out more about his biological father. He soon left Robinsonville for the region around Martinsville, which was close to his place of birth, in search of his real father.
Learning and Mastering the Guitar
It is said that when Robert Johnson left Robinsonville, he was a good harmonica and jaw harp player but a very bad guitar player.
Upon arriving at Martinsville, Johnson set about trying to master the guitar. He aspired to become a great blues guitarist like blues musician Son House, whom he had met in Robinsonville. Son House would later remember Johnson as a little boy who was a good harmonica player but an embarrassingly bad guitarist.
In Martinsville, he met blues guitarist Isaiah ‘Ike’ Zimmerman, who quickly became his mentor and guitar teacher. Zimmerman was so good at playing the guitar that he was rumored to have learned and mastered the instrument supernaturally by visiting graveyards at midnight and practicing and playing as spirits took over control of his fingers.
It is said that Zimmerman initiated Johnson in this practice of his, and Johnson, desperate to become a great blues guitarist, was willing to try out Zimmerman’s methods. Legend has it that every midnight, Zimmerman and Johnson visited a graveyard, sat on the tombstones, and played and practiced the guitar, learning and mastering the instrument supernaturally.
Johnson became so good at playing the guitar that when he returned to Robinsonville almost two years later, it seemed as if he had miraculously perfected Son House’s guitar style as well as several other new and unique styles and techniques never seen before.
His sudden mastery over the guitar took everyone by surprise, even compelling his more established contemporaries in Robinsonville like Son House to be in awe of him. It was then that rumors began circulating of his pact with the devil, a rumor that would go on to become the most famous, mysterious, and iconic legend in music history.
According to this legend, Johnson had a deep desire to become a great blues musician and was told to go with his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation in Mississippi at midnight. Johnson did as he was told, and at the crossroad, he got down on his knees and was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took his guitar, tuned it, played a few songs, and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. It was at that moment, the legend goes, that Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastery over the instrument.
However, much like every detail of Johnson’s life, this legend also has multiple versions of what actually happened. The exact location of the crossroad is still uncertain and debated, with several different accounts claiming several different locations.
Becoming a Full-time Blues Musician
In February 1929, Robert Johnson, aged 27, married a 16-year-old girl named Virginia Travis. By then Johnson was trying to make a career out of being a blues musician by playing in juke joints, street corners, dances, etc.
Virginia’s parents disapproved of Johnson and were against their marriage, as they did not want their young daughter to be associated with a man who played the devil’s music, which was what blues music was considered back then, for a living.
Johnson and Virginia married nonetheless against the wishes of her family, and Virginia died in childbirth soon after. Virginia’s family blamed Johnson for her death, believing that it was divine punishment for Johnson’s decision to sing the devil’s music, the blues.
Although Virginia’s death devastated Johnson, he became more resolved than ever before to abandon the settled conventional life of a husband and farmer to become a full-time traveling blues musician.
Life as a Traveling Musician
Even though he had decided to dedicate his life to becoming a traveling blues musician and abandon the conventional family life, Robert Johnson could not help but marry a woman named Caletta Craft in May 1931. He even settled down with Caletta briefly in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
But the conventional family life was just not meant for Johnson, and he soon left home in 1932 to make a career as an itinerant musician on the road. Adding further to his legend of making a pact with the devil, Caletta died in early 1933.
From 1932 onward until his death, Johnson traveled frequently visiting cities and small towns in the regions of Mississippi and Arkansas. He frequently visited the towns of the Mississippi Delta as well as big cities such as Helena and Memphis.
Apart from this regular touring route in the South, he occasionally even traveled to cities such as Texas, New York, Chicago, Kentucky, and Indiana. In 1935, he met blues musician Johnny Shines, who was four years younger than him.
Shines had been working on a farm for three years after putting aside his music career until a chance meeting with Johnson inspired him to return to music. Johnson became a great influence on the 20-year-old Shines, and the two began touring together across America and Canada.
Shines described Johnson as a very friendly but peculiar person, who could be sulky and moody at times.
While on the road, Johnson stayed with members of his extended family or with one of his several female friends. It is said that he formed many long-term relationships with women while on the road, without marrying anyone again. He would periodically return to these women and stay with them while visiting that particular town.
Oftentimes, in places where he had no family members or women with whom he had long-term relationships, he stayed with some woman whom he had managed to seduce before, during, or after his performances.
Robert Johnson usually adopted different names in the different places he visited, and is said to have used at least eight different surnames. Due to this, the women he had relationships with never knew of his life elsewhere. He tried to have a woman in each town he visited to look after him when he returned to that town some other time.
Upon arriving in a new town, Johnson usually went to play in juke joints, in front of barbershops and restaurants, or on street corners for tips.
Even though Johnson desired to be a great blues musician, he often played and performed the popular pop songs of the day in his live performances, preferring to give the audiences the songs they wanted to hear rather than playing his dark and complex compositions that few might have enjoyed at the time.
He was said to have also been interested in country and jazz music and was willing to perform them in his performances. His uncanny ability to pick up songs at first hearing greatly served him in this purpose.
Johnson also made sure to establish strong ties and relationships with the local community of the places he visited, which greatly helped him as a regular traveler.
Developing as a Musician
Continuously touring and performing in different towns and cities helped Robert Johnson to hone his craft and develop as a musician.
It was during these years on the road that he developed and mastered his signature guitar techniques that would go on to influence musicians for generations to come, and which would become his greatest contribution to the blues and rock genres.
The most influential and groundbreaking technique he developed was the execution of a driving bass beat on the guitar, something that had never been done before and that changed the delta blues guitar playing style. This technique came to be known as the boogie shuffle or the boogie bass pattern, often regarded as one of the most important riffs in blues music. This innovation was groundbreaking and it set the pattern for not only his contemporaries but also future generations.
People who heard Robert Johnson play often remarked that it sounded as if two guitars were being played by two different guitarists, as he moved effortlessly from hen-picking and bottleneck slides to a full deck of chucka-chucka rhythm figures.
During these years on the road, he also developed microtonality in his voice, which became an important aspect of his singing. The subtle inflections in his pitch gave his singing the ability to convey powerful emotions.
Johnson also pioneered the use of the guitar as another vocalist in the song, something that would later be mastered by the great blues musician B.B. King.
Sometime around the year 1936, Robert Johnson made his way to Jackson, Mississippi in search of well-known talent scout and record store owner, H.C. Speir, who had launched the recording careers of several successful and popular Mississippi blues musicians in the 1920s and 1930s.
Johnson wanted to meet Speir to launch his recording career. Speir put him in touch with a salesman for the ARC group of labels, Ernie Oertle, who in turn introduced him to record producer Don Law to record his first sessions in San Antonio, Texas.
Johnson’s first recording session took place from the 23rd to the 25th of November 1936 in the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. During this three-day session, Johnson played 16 songs, and also recorded alternate takes for most of them. Some of the songs he recorded during this first session, such as Cross Road Blues, I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom and Sweet Home Chicago went on to become blues standards.
The first of these songs to be released was Terraplane Blues, backed by Last Fair Deal Gone Down, which went on to sell over 10,000 copies.
Johnson’s second recording session with Don Law took place on the 19th and 20th of June 1937 in Dallas, Texas in a makeshift studio. This session saw him record most of his introspective and somber songs and almost half of the songs in his discography.
He again recorded alternate takes of most of the songs he played in the second session, all of which survive to this day. Eleven songs recorded during this session were released within the following year.
Johnson recorded a total of only 29 songs in his lifetime, with his recording career spanning merely seven months. Some of his other famous songs include Ramblin’ on My Mind, Come On in My Kitchen, Walking Blues, Preaching the Blues, Love in Vain, From Four Until Late, and Devil Got My Woman.
On 16th August 1938, Robert Johnson, aged 27, died of unknown causes near Greenwood, Mississippi. Even his death certificate, discovered 30 years later by blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow, only mentions the date and location of his death, with no reference to the cause of death. Not even a formal autopsy had been performed, thereby making his death, just like his life, mysterious, and shrouded in myth and legend.
The legend around his death intensified over the decades, with several different accounts put forward declaring the reasons for his death. Some claim that he was murdered by a jealous husband of a woman he had flirted with. According to this account, the husband poisoned Johnson’s bottle of whiskey before the woman handed it over to him and he drank from it. Johnson spent the next three days suffering from severe abdominal pain, bleeding from the mouth, and vomiting until he finally died on the 16th of August.
Some medical professionals claim that he had congenital syphilis which may have contributed to his untimely death, while some claim that he may have had Marfan syndrome, which may have contributed to his death due to aortic dissection.
Unfortunately, we may never know the true cause of his death. And with three different gravesites located for Johnson in church cemeteries outside Greenwood, even the exact location of his gravesite remains a mystery.
No one knew or heard about his death as it was not publicly reported. In 1938, shortly after his death, producer of Columbia Records John H. Hammond, who owned and admired Johnson’s records, asked Don Law to find Johnson and book him for the From Spirituals to Swing concert to be held in December at Carnegie Hall in New York. Don Law went in search of Johnson, only to discover that he died a few months earlier.
Johnson’s death came just a few months before he was about to get his big break. However, Hammond played two of his recordings, Walkin’ Blues and Preachin’ Blues at the concert, bringing him to the attention of a wider audience.
Robert Johnson is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential and significant blues musicians of all time.
Although he recorded only 29 songs within a span of seven months, his recordings display his effortless guitar playing, singing, and songwriting skills that have gone on to inspire and influence almost all subsequent blues musicians and musicians of later generations in other genres as well.
Apart from pure delta blues music, artists from genres such as Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, and Rock also claim to have been greatly influenced by Johnson.
A collection of his recordings titled King of the Delta Blues Singers, released in 1961 by Columbia, went on to have a great impact on the British blues scene, influencing future musicians such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, and several others. And the lyrics of his songs have inspired musicians such as Bob Dylan, who credited Johnson for inspiring him to write the lyrics he wrote.
Clapton regarded Johnson as the most important blues musician to have ever lived, and who had the most powerful cry one could find in the human voice. Clapton would go on to record several of Johnson’s songs and even release a tribute album titled Me and Mr. Johnson.
But perhaps, Johnson’s greatest contribution to music was his unique guitar-playing skills that went on to inspire countless musicians such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards.
Johnson’s boogie pattern on the guitar became a signature figure in electric guitar-based rock and roll, which was used by several rock musicians of the 1960s.
Several of Johnson’s recordings were ahead of their times and went on to become blues standards, played and performed, and recorded over decades by countless musicians. These songs of his are some of the most interpreted, widely performed blues songs that have stood the test of time. And his guitar licks and poetical lyrics have been borrowed by many musicians.
Although he had a very short recording career, it led him to be regarded as a master of the blues and as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Johnson’s legacy has been honored with numerous posthumous awards and recognitions such as being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy Hall of Fame, and Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, and being awarded the Grammy Award, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Blues Music Award, and many more.
Over the years, Johnson’s life has been the subject of several biographies, documentaries, books, and movies. With all his posthumous fame and recognition, and with the myth and legend that his life and death have become, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame described him best when they called him the first-ever Rock Star.
With all his musical achievements and influence over future generations, Robert Johnson’s legacy shall never die.