Robert Johnson, King of Delta Blues
Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) was an American blues singer and musician. His landmark recordings from 1936–1937 display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced later generations of musicians. Johnson’s shadowy, poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend, including a Faustian myth. As an itinerant performer who played mostly on street corners, in juke joints, and at Saturday night dances, Johnson enjoyed little commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime.
His records sold poorly during his lifetime, and it was only after the first reissue of his recordings on LP in 1961 that his work reached a wider audience. Johnson is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly of the Delta blues style. He is credited by many rock musicians as an important influence;Eric Clapton has called Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived”. Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “Early Influence” in their first induction ceremony in 1986. He was ranked fifth in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
Robert Johnson is today considered a master of the blues, particularly of the Delta blues style. As Keith Richards said in 1990 “You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.” But according to Elijah Wald, in his book Escaping the Delta, Johnson in his own time was most respected for his ability to play in such a wide variety of styles—from raw countryslide guitar to jazz and pop licks—and to pick up guitar parts almost instantly upon hearing a song. His first recorded song, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” in contrast to the prevailing Delta style of the time, more resembled the style of Chicago or St. Louis, with “a full-fledged, abundantly varied musical arrangement.” Unusual for a Delta player of the time, a recording exhibits what Johnson could do entirely outside of a blues style. “They’re Red Hot,” from his first recording session, shows that he was also comfortable with an “uptown” swing or ragtime sound similar to the Harlem Hamfatsbut, as Wald remarks, “no record company was heading to Mississippi in search of a down-home Ink Spots … [H]e could undoubtedly have come up with a lot more songs in this style if the producers had wanted them.”
An important aspect of Johnson’s singing was his use of microtonality. These subtle inflections of pitch help explain why his singing conveys such powerful emotion. Eric Clapton described Johnson’s music as “the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.” In two takes of “Me and the Devil Blues” he shows a high degree of precision in the complex vocal delivery of the last verse: “The range of tone he can pack into a few lines is astonishing.” The song’s “hip humor and sophistication” is often overlooked. “[G]enerations of blues writers in search of wild Delta primitivism,” writes Wald, have been inclined to overlook or undervalue aspects that show Johnson as a polished professional performer.
Johnson mastered the guitar, being considered today one of the all-time greats on the instrument. His approach was highly complex and extremely advanced musically. When Keith Richards was first introduced to Johnson’s music by his band mate Brian Jones, he replied, “Who is the other guy playing with him?”, not realizing it was Johnson playing on one guitar. “I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realise he was doing it all by himself,” said Richards. Johnson would sometimes sing over the triplets in his guitar playing, using them as an instrumental break; his Chord Progression not being quite a standard Twelve-bar Blues.
Around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi, 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. At the recording session, held November 23, 1936 in room 414 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio 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. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played sixteen selections, and recorded alternate takes for most of these.
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”. 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. His first recorded song, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”, was part of a cycle of spin-offs and response songs that began with Leroy Carr’s “Mean Mistreater Mama” (1934). According to Wald, it was “the most musically complex in the cycle” and stood apart from most rural blues as a through-composed lyric, rather than an arbitrary collection of more-or-less unrelated verses. In contrast to most Delta players, Johnson had absorbed the idea of fitting a composed song into the three minutes of a 78 RPM side. Most of Johnson’s “somber and introspective” songs and performances come from his second recording session.
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. Because Johnson did two takes of most songs during these sessions, and recordings of those takes survived, more opportunity exists to compare different performances of a single song by Johnson than for any other blues performer of his time and place.
By the time he died, at least six of his records had been released in the South as race records.
Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, 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. Differing accounts and theories attempt to shed light on the events preceding his death. A story often told is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance, the wife of the juke joint owner, according to rumor, unaware that the bottle of whiskey she gave to Johnson had been poisoned by her husband. In another version, she was a married woman unrelated to the juke joint owner. Johnson was allegedly offered an open bottle of whiskey that was laced with strychnine. Fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson allegedly advised him never to drink from an offered bottle that had already been opened. According to Williamson, Johnson replied, “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.” Soon after, he was offered another open bottle of whiskey, also laced with strychnine, and accepted it. Johnson is reported to have begun feeling ill 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.
Musicologist Robert “Mack” McCormick claims to have tracked down the man who murdered Johnson, and to have obtained a confession from him in a personal interview. McCormick has declined to reveal the man’s name, however.
In his book Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, Tom Graves uses expert testimony from toxicologists to dispute the notion that Johnson died of strychnine poisoning. He states that strychnine has such a distinctive odor and taste that it cannot be disguised, even in strong liquor. However, according to the CDC, strychnine is bitter but odorless. He also claims that a significant amount of strychnine would have to be consumed in one sitting to be fatal, and that death from the poison would occur within hours, not days. This observation was also noted in a recent Guitar World comment from contemporary David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who said that it couldn’t have been strychnine, since he would have died much sooner than the three days he suffered.
The 1986 film Crossroads is about a young white blues guitarist’s search for Johnson’s “missing” 30th song and the theme of blues artists selling their souls to the devil.
Stones in my Passway: The Robert Johnson Story (1990), a biopic by filmmaker Martin Spottl.
The Search for Robert Johnson (1991), UK documentary hosted by Blues musician John P. Hammond, son of John H. Hammond.
Sherman Alexie’s novel Reservation Blues (1995) centers on the myth of the crossroads.
Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life and Music of Robert Johnson (1997)
Hellhounds On My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson (2000, directed by Robert Mugge)
Eric Clapton – Sessions for Robert Johnson (2004, documentary)
Supernatural – “Crossroad Blues” (2006)
Me and the Devil Blues: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson (published in 2008) is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Akira Hiramoto. It is a phantasmagoric reimagining of Johnson’s life.
Celebration of the music and legend of Robert Johnson: Show 502 WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Rory Block and Scott Ainslie discuss Johnson and play his music. Taped 2008-09-29; 60 minutes audio (WMA, MP3), 88 minutes video (WMV).