Robert Johnson was an extremely gifted delta blues guitar player of the early 1900's. He was, and still is, one of the great blues guitar legends whose combination of song writing, singing, and guitar playing talents, continued to inspire and influence generations of musicians, even today.
His mysterious life, and unclear death at only 27 years old, led to stories that he sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads to achieve heightened musical ability and commercial success. Unfortunately though, he only achieved minimal public recognition during his life.
Robert Johnson in 1935 (aged 24) fair use
He was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1911 and was named Robert Leroy Johnson. His Mother was Julia Major Dodds and his Father, was Noah Johnson. Robert's Mother, Julia, was married to Charles Dodds who was a prosperous landowner and furniture maker. Julia had ten children with Charles. The following events aren't entirely clear, but Charles Dodds was forced to leave Hazlehurst after a dispute with white landowners. Julia also left Hazlehurst afterwards with her baby. After about two years she sent Robert to live in Memphis with her husband, who had by this time changed his name to Charles Spencer.
About 1919, Robert was reunited with his mother somewhere around Robinsonville (now named Tunica after the name was changed in 2003) in the Mississippi Delta. Julia's new husband was 24 years younger than her and was known as Dusty Willis and as a result, some local residents remembered the young Robert Johnson as "Little Robert Dusty." Officially though, he was Robert Spencer and this was the name he was registered with at Tunica's Indian Creek School. He is listed as living in Lucas, Arkansas with Will and Julia Willis, under the name of Robert Spencer, in the 1920 census.
When Robert left school, he decided to take on the surname of his natural father. This is noted on his marriage certificate, where he signed himself as Robert Johnson, when he married his 16 year old bride Virginia Travis in February 1929 when Robert was 18. Virginia unfortunately died during childbirth soon after.
Virginia's surviving relatives told Robert "Mac" McCormick, who was a musicologist and folklorist at that time, that Virginia died as a divine punishment for Robert singing secular (non-religious) songs, or 'selling your soul to the Devil'. This is a very interesting point. The root of this type of belief is, in my opinion, influential and part of the reason that the myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil for great musical ability started in the first place. This is discussed further down the page.
Around the same time, about 1929/30 the well-known and respected blues player Son House also moved to Robinsonville (Tunica) after his initial move to Lula after his time served in the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Son House's long-term musical acquaintance, Willie Brown, also lived in Robinsonville. Later on in life, Son House said he remembered Robert as a 'little boy' and said, he was a good harmonica player but not so good on the guitar!? Obviously no reflection of things to come!
Robert later left Robinsonville for the surrounding area of Martinsville, which was close to Hazlehurst, the place where he was born. It is thought that he may have been looking for his blood father at this time. It was also here during this period in his life, that Robert Johnson is said to have mastered the guitar style of his inspiration, Son House. He also learned and played other musical styles too with equal ability.
While living in Martinsville, Johnson fathered a child with Vergie Mae Smith. He also married Caletta Craft in May 1931. In 1932, the couple moved to Clarksdale in the Delta. While here, Caletta died of childbirth and Johnson left for a career as a 'wandering musician'.
When Robert Johnson visited Robinsonville again at a later date, he had attained a far greater level of skill on the guitar than he had previously been able to express. Son House was apparently later interviewed at a time when the legend of Robert's so-called pact with the Devil was well-known among the various blues researchers of the day. Son House was asked whether he credited Johnson's technique to this so-called pact. His apparently vague and potentially misleading answers suggested that this was in fact the case.
My personal opinion is that Robert Johnson was a naturally gifted musician who was able to pick things up quickly on the instrument. There was also a lot of fear surrounding God and the Devil at that time in the Deep South. This is still the case I believe, even today, not only in the Deep South, but also in many other parts of the world too. I personally believe that the combination of these fears, Robert Johnson's quick learning ability, and the mysterious, unclear way in which Robert died, led to this 'pact with the Devil story' of selling his soul for enhanced technical ability on the guitar.
It is also interesting to note that Son House, who apparently confirmed that he believed Johnson did make a pact with the devil, was himself a preacher in his earlier days?
During the period between 1932 until he died in 1938, Robert Johnson often travelled extensively between big cities such as Memphis in Tennessee and Helena in Arkansas. He passed through smaller towns of the Mississippi Delta too, including many surrounding areas of Mississippi and Arkansas. He also travelled to Chicago, Texas, New York, Canada, Kentucky, and Indiana with Johnny Shines, a fellow blues guitarist and one of his travelling companions from 1935-1937. He also travelled to St Louis with the singer, guitarist and pianist, Henry Townsend to accompany him on a musical appointment.
It is well documented that Robert Johnson had the ability to pick up well-known popular tunes with ease. He pleased his audiences with these types of songs and played whatever they wanted to here, not only blues. He was also known by his associates to have an interest in jazz and country music.
He played for tips on street corners, in front of the local barbershop, or restaurants, whenever he arrived in a new town. He had a natural ability to form a rapport with his audience, and also forged long-term connections in every town that he stopped. This served him well whenever he passed through again at a later date, he was no fool.
Robert Johnson also had a large extended family and often stayed with whoever he could in the many places he travelled. He never married again but was known to have many lady friends with whom he formed long-term relationships and 'hooked-up' with during his travels.
He apparently used up to eight different names for different places he visited and stayed at, and it is generally recognised that each of his lady friends never had any idea of his life elsewhere.
One lady with whom he forged a long-term relationship was Estella Coleman. She was the mother of the well-known blues guitarist Robert Lockwood Jr. who was the only known direct student of Robert Johnson. He often played with Robert, as well as Sonny Boy Williamson II and Johnny Shines.
After talking to musicians and various acquaintances who knew Robert in different ways, biographers have tried to find some clarity regarding his personality and life. The often conflicting, and inconsistent stories and opinions from various associates and witnesses, have led biographers to attempt to summarise Johnson's character as follows;
He was well mannered, soft spoken, but at times was somewhat difficult to understand as he was quite a complicated character. He was considered by all who knew him to be a nice man who was outgoing in public, but quiet in private. He also liked to go his own way. Musicians, who knew Johnson well, said he was generally a decent and average type of fellow with exception to his musical talent, his weakness for whisky and women, and his dedication to performing on the road.
Fellow blues guitarist Johnny Shines was 18 years old when he first met Robert Johnson in 1933. He played and travelled with Robert for two years from 1935-1937. In Samuel Charters' book entitled "Robert Johnson", Johnny Shines is quoted as saying;
"Robert was a very friendly person, even though he was sulky at times, you know. And I hung around Robert for quite a while. One evening he disappeared. He was kind of a peculiar fellow. Robert'd be standing up playing some place, playing like nobody's business. At about that time it was a hustle with him as well as a pleasure. And money'd be coming from all directions. But Robert'd just pick up and walk off and leave you standing there playing. And you wouldn't see Robert no more maybe in two or three weeks. So Robert and I, we began journeying off. I was just, matter of fact, tagging along."
Columbia Record producer and talent scout, John Henry Hammond II, who owned some of Robert Johnson's records, wanted to book him for the first of two concerts called "From Spirituals to Swing" to be held at Carnegie Hall in New York. Hammond got Big Bill Boonzy to replace him after he heard of Robert's death, but Hammond still played two of Robert Johnson's records from the stage though.
Incidentally, John Hammond was instrumental in starting many famous musicians careers, including artists such as; Billie Holiday, Big Joe Turner, Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Count Basie, Stevie Ray Vaughan and many more.
Sometime around 1936 in Jackson Mississippi, Robert found general store manager and talent scout H.C. Speir who put him in touch with a man called Ernie Oertle. Oertle was a salesman for the ARC label (American Record Corporation). He, in turn, introduced Johnson to English-born, American record producer, Don Law. Donald Firth "Don" Law produced Robert Johnson's only recordings, and later worked with many leading country musicians as head of Columbia Records' country music division.
The first of Robert's recording sessions with Ernie Oertle were held in San Antonio, Texas on 23rd November 1936. The recording session was held in room 414 at the Gunter Hotel. The room had been set up as a temporary recording studio. The session lasted for three days where Robert Johnson played sixteen songs.
He reportedly played facing the wall, which had since been seen as an expression of his shy character. However, it has since been recognised, particularly by Ry Cooder, that Johnson played facing a corner to enhance the sound of the guitar. This is a technique known as "corner loading".
Some of the songs that were recorded during the Gunter Hotel recording session were; "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", "Cross Road Blues", Come On in My Kitchen", and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom". The only songs that Robert probably lived to hear were the first songs to be released, namely; "Terraplane Blues" and "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" of which "Terraplane Blues" sold around 5,000 copies making it a modest hit within its region.
The second recording session with Don Law took place in another temporary studio, at the Vitagraph (Warner Brothers) building in Dallas, Texas in 1937. Most of these songs had two takes recorded, most of which have survived. Robert recorded almost half of his entire list of musical recordings during this one recording session alone, of which eleven records were released by the following year.
At least six of Robert Johnson's records had been released in the South as 'race records' by the time he died. 'Race records' was the term given to a specialised musical market for African American musical genres such as; blues, jazz and gospel music.
At the age of 27 years, on 16th August 1938, Robert Johnson died near Greenwood in Mississippi. The cause of his death is unknown to this day, but there have been various theories based on different accounts of the events leading up to his death.
One theory is that Robert had apparently been playing at a country dance in a town about 15 miles (24 km) from Greenwood for a few weeks preceding his death. One theory suggests that his life was taken by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he had been flirting. By all accounts, he regularly flirted with women. He often singled individual women out during his performances and even sang to them. It is well documented that he often went home with a woman after his live acts.
Blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson confirmed that Robert Johnson had been flirting with a married woman at a dance who later passed a bottle of whisky to him. Sonny Boy Williamson said he knocked the bottle out of Robert's hand and advised him to never drink from a bottle that he had not seen opened himself. Johnson was supposed to have replied, "Don't ever knock a bottle out of my hand." He was offered another bottle by the woman and accepted it.
Robert is said to have felt unwell the following evening and had to be helped back to his room. Over the next three days his condition became worse and witnesses said he died in pain with convulsions. It is believed by many that the bottle was poisoned by the woman's jealous husband.
Strychnine has been suggested to have been used, but it would apparently need a fairly large amount to cause death to a person. Such an amount couldn't be disguised, even in strong alcohol, as it is said to have a very distinctive taste and smell. Strychnine would also take a matter of only hours to cause fatality, and not days, as was the case with Robert Johnson.
The musicologist and folklorist, Robert McCormick, apparently found and spoke to the man who poisoned Johnson. The man was said to have confessed to McCormick but Robert McCormick didn't want to reveal the man's name.
Pact with the Devil?
The Story of Johnson making a pact with the Devil to become a great blues guitar player has led to much speculation, discussion, documentaries and even a film was made about it. The legend is;
Robert Johnson had a burning desire to be a great blues guitarist while a young man, living in Mississippi on a plantation. He was told to take his guitar at midnight to a crossroads somewhere near the Dockery Plantation where he was met by the Devil disguised as a large black man. He took Robert's guitar, tuned it, played some tunes and returned the guitar to Johnson. This in effect gave Robert mastery of the guitar in return for his soul.
Whether this is true or not is a matter of opinion. I hope it isn't! What I do know, is that to be great at anything, you will first need to be blessed with raw talent, and then you will need a burning desire to practice. 'Raw talent', you are born with, but to get great, or even just quite good, requires a real desire as practice needs to be employed to capitalise on that initial 'raw talent'. You wouldn't be able to practice unless you had a burning desire to get 'good'. This part of the story therefore I do know to be true, i.e. "Robert Johnson had a burning desire to be a great blues guitarist", because he was!
As I have said before, during those times in the Deep South, and maybe even so still today, there was much fear regarding 'God', and playing any type of music that wasn't seen to be 'Christian', for many, was seen as 'Devil music', or 'inviting the Devil' etc.
One thing is for certain though; Robert Johnson was a great blues guitarist and performer. I think it came from both raw, natural ability, as well as a burning desire to be great. These two requirements for greatness will almost certainly lead to a 'quick learner', which is what Johnson was.
His ability to quickly pick up techniques and skills on the guitar, led to a rapid onset of his guitar prowess. This in turn, combined with the 'Fear of God' all around at that time, fuelled the myth and created the legend, that he acquired his skills by making a pact with the Devil. This is my opinion anyway, as I am sure you have your own.
At the end of the day, stories can escalate, excite and also create interest in a subject. The one person who could tell us the truth is the one person this page and the whole thing is all about, and sadly he is no longer here.
There are many famous artists who say they've been influenced by Robert Johnson. Many of these artists are legendary rock, blues and folk musicians from the UK as well as abroad. These celebrated musicians would become a major influence in the development and evolution of Rock and Roll. This was largely due to the expression of Johnson's artistry and original compositions that were released in 1961 (many years after his death) by Columbia Records in the compilation album entitled "King of the Delta Blues Singers".
The Rolling Stones performed Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues" in 1968 at the Rock and Roll Circus. They also recorded their own version of "Love in Vain" for their 1969 album "Let it Bleed", as well as "Stop Breaking Down" for their 1972 album "Exile on Main Street". Mick Jagger performs solo extracts from "Come on in My Kitchen" and "Me and the Devil Blues", in the 1970 film "Performance". And in 1990 Keith Richards also said, "You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it."
The British musician, Alexis Korner, who is sometimes referred to as "the Founding Father of British Blues" and a major influence in bringing together various English blues musicians, co-wrote and recorded a song entitled "Robert Johnson" on his 1979 album entitled, "The Party Album".
Eric Clapton considered Johnson to be "the most important blues musician who ever lived". Clapton recorded and released an album in 2004 entitled "Me and Mr Johnson". It's a blues-rock album consisting of songs only by Robert Johnson intended as a tribute. It was also made available as a DVD entitled "Sessions for Robert J".
Eric Clapton had previously recorded "Crossroads", in 1968, with the band "Cream". This was a version of Johnson's "Cross Road Blues". Many have said that due to Cream's massive success in the 60's, Eric Clapton and this song are the main reason Robert Johnson become so well-known.
Led Zeppelin recorded the 1937 song, "Travelling Riverside Blues", which was released as a single in 1990. The Led Zeppelin version quoted some of Johnson's songs in its lyrics. The music video for the Zeppelin recording also portrayed images of the 'Mississippi Delta' which Johnson often wrote about in his lyrics.
Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin's front man, referred to Robert Johnson on the National Public Radio in 2004 as; "to whom we all owed our existence, in some way.”
Fleetwood Mac's early blues years of the 1960's, were strongly influenced by Johnson. One of the bands guitarists, Jeremy Spencer, covered two Johnson songs for the group's early albums. The main lead guitarist Peter Green went on to record Johnson's entire catalogue of songs over two albums. The albums were entitled; "The Robert Johnson Songbook", released in 1998, and "Hot Foot Powder", released in 2000 which features blues notables such as; Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and others.
"Metal Evolution", the 2011 documentary series directed by anthropologist and film-maker Sam Dunn, quotes Robert Johnson to be "the great grandfather to all things heavy metal". On the documentary, members of the Canadian rock band Rush, and the American metal band Slipknot, recognised him to have played a major role in the future of rock music.
In Bob Dylan's 2004 autobiography "Chronicles: Volume One", Dylan referred to the time when he first heard Robert Johnson's recordings by suggesting that the process ignited his own song writing. He is quoted as saying; "If I hadn't heard the Robert Johnson record 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."
Robert Johnson is remembered for being a great blues player. The fact of the matter is however, that in his time, he was also highly respected for his ability to play such a wide variety of styles, including, country, jazz and pop. He was also widely respected for his ability to almost instantly pick out guitar pieces from songs after hearing it for the first time.
To think that this man's life was so short, and yet still managed to receive the accolades that he has from such successful and prolific musicians is incredible. I wonder what this great blues guitar legend may have achieved had his life not been cut so short? We can only imagine.
Thank you Robert Johnson.Back To Top