Robert Johnson
(1911 - 1938)

All his music fits on two CDs, yet this small collection of songs has moved more listeners and inspired more musicians than any other blues legacy. For years Robert Johnson was wrapped in a romantic fog of mystery and legend. Nobody even knew what he looked like, and in desperation, researches asked a police artist to sketch a hypothetical portrait from the descriptions of men who had met him. Robert Johnson seemed to float through blues history like a ghost, often glimpsed, but never really tangible.

Now that we know more about him, a few illusions still remain to be dispelled. He was extraordinary, but not otherworldly. There is a place for him in the stylistic genealogy of the blues, between the musical generation of Charlie Patton and Son House and that of Muddy Waters and Elmore James. He was an original, but many of his ideas were borrowed from other artists.

The fact that we can trace his musical sources and inspirations does nothing to weaken Johnson's standing as a remarkable guitarist and singer. What strikes every listener is how organic Johnson's music is, how the vocal and guitar lines echo each other. It is difficult to imagine Johnson singing with a band, but tempting to try! Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, from a brief union between his mother and a farm-worker, and used several surnames before settling on that of his natural father. As a teenager in Robinsonville, he learned guitar and harmonica, hanging around Patton, House and Willie Brown. He returned to Hazlehurst for a year or two, and when he returned to Robinsonville, he showed the older men how he'd improved. "When he got through", House remembered, "all our mouths was open." He would often add, "He musta sold his soul to the devil to get to play like that." People often said that about blues guitarists. It was widely believed that should you acquire a great skill or wealth or sexual success, you had made a deal with the devil at a crossroads at midnight.

Johnson was notoriously restless. "If you'd wake him up in the middle of the night and tell him there was a freight train comin' through, why he'd say, 'Let's catch it,' and he'd take hold of his guitar and go", said Johnny Shines, who travelled with him to Canada and New Jersey. Johnson also went to Texas on two occasions for recording sessions, cutting 16 tracks in San Antonio in 1937 and another 13 in Dallas the following year. The sexy Terraplane Blues was a good seller, but other songs seem more doubtful commercially, particularly Hell Hound On My Trail, which bears out Shine's description of Johnson as "close to a split personality." Upon hearing the song, Johnson sounds ill-at-ease, and his playing is peculiar, but perhaps these are deliberate devices to create a totally absorbing performance which, as Alexis Korner wrote, "communicates the kind of delirious vision one associates with William Blake."

One summer Saturday in 1938, Johnson was playing at a juke-joint outside Greenwood Mississippi. The proprietor, whose wife he was having an affair with, gave him poisoned whisky. He died in great pain some days later, and was buried in the graveyard of a small church in a nearby town. A few months later, the producer John Hammond looked for him for his Spirituals to Swing concert in New York. Learning of his death, Hammond looked up Big Bill Broonzy instead. It's interesting to wonder how the entire future of the blues might have differed had Johnson sung Cross Road Blues at Carnegie Hall.

Copyright 2003 by Tony Russell/

Blues Beginnings: The Blues in Popular Music