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Robert Johnson


As a great blues player of the 1930’s, Robert Johnson is the earliest guitarist to make Rolling Stones Magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Times. He comes in at number five on the list for good reason. Many of the other guitar guys that made the cut cite him as one of the primary influences of their professional lives. The Allman brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, and Jimmy Page all give Robert Johnson credit for inspiring their careers. Even though he died at a young age and only recorded 29 known songs in 1936 and 1937, Johnson is still given recognition for laying the foundation of the whole genre we now call rock and roll. There are many mysteries about his early life and times, but they only add to the mystique of his talent, and make us more curious about who he was and how he lived.
Robert Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi in 1911 to parents who were migrant farm laborers. His mother, Julia Dodds was not married to his father, Noah Johnson. Julia’s husband was a man named Charles Dodds, who left her to take his mistress and her children to Memphis in order to avoid some trouble with white vigilante groups. While Robert was still an infant, Julia and Noah took him through a variety of work camps in the south, seeking ways to earn a living. After a couple of hardscrabble years, Noah, Julia, and Robert all ended up living with Charles (now known as Charles Spencer) and his family in Memphis. It was a unique family unit, to say the least, with a husband, wife, both of their lovers, and all of their various children living under one roof. By 1918, Julia had moved about 40 miles away to a Mississippi town named Robertsonville and married a man named Willie Willis. Robert came to live with them that year, and began his pursuit of music.
As a teenager, Robert became an accomplished harmonica player, and also learned the Jews’ Harp. He had a friend called R.L. Windum who began to sing with him, and the two of them were known for making up verses to the popular tunes of the time and accompanying each other on the harp. Robert’s only formal education came while he attended the Indian Creek School for a few years. Problems with his eyesight soon gave him an excuse to drop out. Some documents say that he had a lazy eye, and others indicate that the problem was cataracts, but whatever the diagnosis, he found a reason to leave the classroom and concentrate fully on his music.
During the late 1920’s Robert became interested in the guitar. He was considered to be a handsome young man and was well liked by the ladies. In 1929, when he was only 17, he married Virginia Travis, but was devastated when she and her child died during childbirth the next year. The tragedy gave him a reason to focus even more of his energies on his music and his guitar. His fondness for women, however, continued unabated throughout his career.
While living in Robertsonville, Robert Johnson became acquainted with a local blues musician called Willie Brown. He was friendly with Charley Patton (often called the Father of the Delta Blues), who came through the area often, playing gigs at local roadhouses and taverns. As a school boy, Robert used to sneak out of the house at night in order to listen to them play, and when he matured, he began to work seriously at emulating them. In 1930 another famous blues man came through Robertsonville. His name was Son House, and he was a former preacher who brought an almost spiritual zeal to his music. Robert was quoted as saying that House was one of his biggest musical influences. Watching Son play his guitar with unbridled passion inspired Johnson to put more effort into learning the instrument himself. Unfortunately, he was not very good. Son House, himself used to tell a story about how Johnson was always hanging around listening to him and Willie Brown play and begging for a chance to join in. When they did let him participate, he was likely to break a guitar string or commit some other error that did not please the audience.
Johnson decided he should move to another area where his less-than-sterling reputation would not haunt him, so he took the opportunity to try to find his real father, Noah Johnson. He went back to Hazelhurst, MS where he had been born, and kept playing the blues. Even though the whole country was deep into the Great Depression, there were enough WPA projects in the Hazelhurst area to provide folks with a little money for entertainment on Saturday nights. Ike Zinnerman, another Delta Blues musician, took Robert under his wing and became his musical mentor. He worked sporadically in the cotton fields, but Johnson spent more and more of his time in the woods playing blues songs over and over on his guitar until they sounded the way he thought they should. He played some gigs with Ike and other musicians passing through the area, but as his confidence increased, he did more and more work as a solo act.
Johnson is famous for the way he used his feet and legs to stomp out a rhythm part while he was playing, and eyewitnesses said it looked almost like he was flailing around, but the sounds he produced were catchy crowd pleasers. He spent a couple of years traveling from town to town playing for tips on the courthouse steps or wherever people gathered. His skills as a musician continued to improve, to the point that he felt ready to return to Robertsonville and prove to Son House and Wille Brown that he was their equal.
When he arrived back in his hometown, Brown and House were very impressed with the advances they saw in Robert’s ability. It was obvious to both of them and to their audiences that Johnson had not only equaled them but also surpassed them with his knack for singing and playing the blues. He could run his fingers up and down the entire length of the fret board and produce licks and riffs that left the older guitarists shaking their heads in awe. He had even mastered the slide technique that had once been the pride of Son House.
It was about this time that a well-known legend about Robert Johnson emerged. Music fans in the region were so impressed with the great strides he had taken in his musicianship during such a short period of time that the rumor began that he had sold his soul to the Devil in return for musical talent. Some versions of the tale had Robert meeting with Satan at a Mississippi crossroads at midnight where the deal was struck. Other times it was said that the bargain was made in a graveyard. Johnson never confirmed these stories, but he did little to deny them, and thus the legend grew. As his career advanced, he realized the advantages of being surrounded with such an air of mystery and recorded some songs to help promote the myth, such as “ Hellhound on My Tail,” and “Me and the Devil Blues.”
While traveling around the South, Johnson was always conscious of the need to please his audience. He was not intent on playing his own compositions alone, but had such an accurate musical ear that he could perform just about any popular melody after hearing it only once. He loved to take requests from the people in the crowds that came to hear him play. He became more and more adept at styles beyond the blues like ballads, pop tunes, and country songs.
In 1936, Robert Johnson recorded his first song, ‘Terraplane Blues,” which was followed by the release of 28 others during ’36 and ’37. They were all recorded at 78 rpm and he received somewhere between ten and fifteen dollars for each one. He was never paid any royalties.
In 1938, Johnson’s habit of womanizing caught up with him. While he was playing in a juke joint in Greenwood Mississippi to a packed house, and flirting with all the women in attendance, he chose the wrong gal to focus his attention on. She was the wife of the joint’s owner and he was a jealous man. After Johnson was passed an open bottle of whiskey and took a long pull, it took only a few moments for everyone in the place to realize that he had been poisoned. He became violently ill with a high fever accompanied by delusional ranting. Johnson never recovered from the strychnine poisoning, and died three days later at the age of 27.
For decades, the music of Robert Johnson was out of print until Columbia Records re-released its first volume of his music in 1961 called King of the Delta Blues Singers. Volume II followed in 1970, and these two recordings provided inspiration for many rock musicians who were enchanted with Johnson’s talent. When the recordings were re-mastered for release on CD in 1998 and 2004, even more guitar fans came to appreciate Johnson’s skill. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones is said to have thought that he was hearing two guitar players on the recordings and was blown away when he realized Robert was doing it all himself. Likewise, Eric Clapton gives Johnson credit as one of the main inspirational forces in his career and has done covers of 15 of Johnson’s songs. He even released a whole album with songs in Robert’s style called Me and Mr. Johnson.  Though the story of Robert Johnson is a sad one in many ways, it is still a testament to the fact that talent, ambition, and devotion to a craft can lead to near perfection.


Eddie Van Halen
Joe Satriani
Eric Johnson
Steve Vai
Paul Gilbert
Jimmy Page
Randy Rhoads
Kurt Cobain
Kirk Hammett
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Yngwie Malmsteen
Robert Johnson
Pete Townsend
Jerry Garcia
Bo Diddley
Jeff Beck
Duane Allman
Jimmy Hendrix
BB King
John Frusciante
Joe Perry
George Harrison
Chuck Berry
Eric Clapton
Dimebag Darrell
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