According to Eric Clapton, Robert Johnson was ‘the most important blues singer who ever lived’. He is number five in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, but the man himself is still part legend, part mystery.
Almost the only concrete things we have of Robert Johnson are his recordings, made in 1936 and 1937. He died in 1938 at the age of – well no-one is quite sure. He seems to have been born in 1911 or 1912 which would make him around 25 or 26 when he died. He isn’t listed on his mother’s census entry for 1910 and his census entry for 1920 suggests he was born in 1912. These date’s aren’t consistent with the two marriage certificates that have been found, or the records of the school he attended and he has at least three separate gravestones. So who, really, was Robert Johnson?
There are not too many facts to go on. He was married in 1929 to a 16 year old girl who died giving birth soon after. In 1931 he married again, this time his wife was more than 10 years his senior. He was dedicated to his music and travelled from place to place, often sleeping in boxcars, yet he would emerge from them always looking as though his trousers had been carefully pressed. His voice and playing were distinctive, and he spent hours working on his songs. When he finally got the chance to record, he did so facing the wall. According to some, this was because he was shy, but the recording studios available to him were not advanced, it’s just as likely he worked facing the wall to improve the inadequate acoustics.
Johnson was an emotive performer who had the uncanny ability to pick up a tune after only one hearing and to play in a number of styles, In a way he shares many characteristics with Mozart, but while that composer was known to be a child prodigy and travelled Europe amazing audiences at a very young age, Johnson’s gift is not attributed to genius, but, so the story goes, to a bargain with the devil.
So desperate was Robert Johnson to sing and play the blues, that one night he waited by a crossroads and made a bargain with the devil; in return for the musical abilities he craved he would give his mortal soul.
That Johnson was very talented is not in question. At the time of his death he was scheduled to play in the very first ‘Spiritual to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, but in August 1938, he was apparently poisoned by a jealous husband while performing near Greenwood Mississippi. He died on August 16th, but as he had no family around to bury him, no-one knows for certain where he was buried, a fact which has only added to the legend.
Johnson’s output was small, only 29 songs, but those songs and his recordings of them have been enormously influential, recorded and adapted by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and Steve Miller. He has even been described as the ‘Father of Rock and Roll’.
One thing everyone who knew him agrees on is that Johnson fed his talent by learning from other musicians at every opportunity. How about you?
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