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Robert Johnson

Robert Leroy Johnson

(May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938)

In life, he was largely unknown outside of the musical circles of Mississippi and elsewhere in the South. After his passing he became known as the "King of the Delta Blues singers" through the tremendous influence of his guitar playing, singing and compositions on several generations of blues and rock musicians. He was born in Hazelhurst and lived in Memphis and later in the Delta region near Tunica and Robinsonville while still a youth. When he was 18, he married 16 year old Virginia Travis, but she died in childbirth around the same time that Son House moved to the area. Along with House, Charlie Patton and Willie Brown were also big influences. At this time, Johnson was known as a capable harp player but a mediocre guitarist, having been chased off the stage by House, who was at that time the big star of the area. He returned to Hazelhurst for two years, learning much from local bluesman Ike Zimmerman, who had a penchant for practicing in local graveyards. Returning to the Delta, Johnson amazed everyone with his mastery of the instrument; years later his remarkable progress was sensationalized by several writers who erroneously claimed that he had somehow “sold his soul to the devil”. Honeyboy Edwards recalled that Johnson was not just a blues player, but also played popular music and jazz. He could also play piano well. Johnson was literate and informed about current events of his time (he referenced Ethiopia, the Philippines and China in his classic song, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom).

He married Caletta Craft in 1931, settling in Clarksdale for a while, but she died in 1933. Johnson continued traveling and performing widely throughout the next six years, beginning his recording career with ARC in 1936. He did not live to hear most of the music he recorded; he died in Greenwood, MS only two years later. Honeyboy Edwards himself recounted to me that the night Robert died, saying that they were drinking in a juke joint in Greenwood, Mississippi whose owner suspected Johnson of flirting with his wife. She was also a server in the establishment. Johnson ordered a drink and when the woman brought the bottle to the table, Edwards noticed the seal had been broken. He told Robert not to drink it, but Johnson is said to have replied, “shut up, ni%#a, don’t tell me what to do.” An alternate version told by Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) has him knocking the bottle out of Johnson’s hand and being admonished by Johnson, who was said to have told the harp player, “don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.” When a second bottle appeared at the table, he drank it. Before long he was howling in pain and crawling around on the floor. We may never know which version of the passing of this mythical figure is true. Johnson died three days later at only 27 years old from suspected poisoning.

Robert Johnson's musicianship and his compositions have today made him a household name. His influence can be heard in the music of Elmore James, Robert Jr. Lockwood (his protege), Johnny Shines and Muddy Waters. Though he remained unknown outside of southern Black communities for years after his passing, the recordings he left behind eventually influenced millions. His sound blended elements of jazz, blues, and popular music to arrive at a totally original style that is often imitated but never duplicated. He was a true blues legend.

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