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Robert Johnson: The Most Important Bluesman Of All Time Who 'Sold His Soul To The Devil'

1900s | August 30, 2020

(Delta Haze Corporation/Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Johnson is easily the most important blues artist of all time. The influence of his simple guitar lines and somber howl can still be heard in music today, but separating Johnson's life from the myth that surrounds him isn't a simple task. Leaving us at the age of 27 with only 29 songs, Johnson's genius is distinctly tied to the Delta blues scene of the 1930s. It's been claimed that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads to gain his legendary guitar skills, but that couldn't have actually happened ... right?

Early Tragedy

Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1911. It's believed that his biological father was a field hand named Noah Johnson, but Robert never met Noah and thought successful farmer and carpenter Charles Dodds was his father for the first several years of his life.

As a child in Robinsonville, Mississippi, Johnson picked up the guitar and fiddled with any other instruments that happened to be lying around. He spent his time listening to music wherever he could, be it a juke joint, a spare room, or the front porch of a local store. After marrying Virginia Travis when he was 17, Johnson went to work in the fields to support his pregnant wife, but when she and the child died during birth, Virginia's family attributed the tragedy to Johnson's decision to play "the devil's music." With nothing tying him to the straight world any longer, Johnson dedicated his life to playing the blues, performing anywhere that would have him throughout Mississippi.

(Joe Mazzola/Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Johnson At The Crossroads

Johnson left town without telling anyone where he was going, but it's believed that he traveled to Martinsville to find his biological father, where his mythical deal with the devil supposedly occurred. According to legend, he walked the long stretch of road near Dockery Farms with his weathered acoustic guitar on his back and reached the crossroads at midnight, where he was approached by a sinister man who offered to make Johnson the best blues guitarist the world had ever heard in exchange for his soul.

It's a great story, but the truth is that Johnson mastered the guitar the boring way: ruthless, grinding practice. He reached out to guitarist Ike Zimmerman and, under his tutelage, spent the better part of a year learning how to play the six-string from morning to night. A legend inside the legend states that Zimmerman and Johnson practiced in a local cemetery in the dead of night so no one would complain about the noise.

When Johnson returned to Robinsonville around 1930, he wasn't just a competent guitarist. He'd developed an entirely new method of playing. It may seem like nothing special, but his finger picking style was revolutionary at the time. Most famously, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones copied Johnson's open tuning and finger picking to create some of the band's most well-known licks.

(Nesster/Flickr)

29 Songs

Johnson briefly settled down in Clarksdale, Mississippi after fathering a child with Vergie Mae Smith and marrying Caletta Craft, but the domestic life wasn't for him. In 1931, Johnson left home once more for the open road, a path he stayed on until his death in 1938. He wandered from Mississippi to New York and back, playing juke joints and clubs that catered specifically to black audiences, who were captivated by his hypnotic songs about the life of a lonesome traveler.

Like many of his contemporaries, Johnson was known more as a live act than a recording artist, but in 1936, he was given the chance to record in San Antonio, Texas in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel. Johnson recorded 16 songs in this makeshift recording studio, including "Come On In My Kitchen," "Kind Hearted Woman Blues," "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," and "Terraplane Blues," a song that became a minor hit after selling 5,000 copies.

On June 19 and 20 of the next year, Johnson recorded the second half of his 29-song discography in Dallas. He proved to be as visionary in the studio as he was on the guitar, performing more than one take of each song, an unusual method at the time, and creating singles that could play on one side of a 78 RPM record. "Robert Johnson certainly was very conscious of what a hit record sounded like," biographer Elijah Wald told NPR in 2011. "If you listen to something like 'Come on in My Kitchen,' he's singing very quietly, and he actually has a moment when he says, 'Can't you hear the wind blowin'?' He whispers it and then plays this very quiet riff. That never would have worked on a street corner or a Mississippi juke joint, but it sounds great on records."

(Courtland Bresner/Wikimedia Commons)

Death Of A Bluesman

The death of Robert Johnson is shrouded in as much mystery as his life. A handwritten note on the back of his death certificate states that he died of syphilis on August 16, 1938 on a plantation near Greenwood, Mississippi, where he was seeking work, and buried in a homemade coffin.

However, some believe that he died after he was poisoned in a juke joint by the jealous husband of a woman he was flirting with or from an aortic dissection. The latter supposedly stemmed from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects connective tissue and causes serious cardiovascular problems. There's no proof that Johnson suffered from Marfan syndrome, but proponents of the theory cite his elongated fingers and bad eye as evidence.

In addition to several potential causes of death, Johnson claims several potential burial plots. No grave site has ever been confirmed, but headstones for the singer have been erected in three different churches around the Greenwood area.

(Sebby 123/Wikimedia Commons)

Better Late Than Never

Most of Johnson's discography went unknown throughout the early 20th century, but in 1961, a compilation of Johnson's songs called King Of The Delta Blues Singers brought the blues to the masses and turned artists like Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton into Robert Johnson obsessives. His music influenced every great rock guitarist of the '60s, who not only covered his songs but turned the core concepts of his music—the boogie woogie bass lines he played with his thumb and intrinsically dark nature of the traveling musician—into tropes of the genre in the '60s and '70s. In 1990, a compilation of his songs titled The Complete Recordings won a Grammy for Best Historical Album, and his song "Cross Road Blues" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.

Tags: 1900s | devil | music | the blues

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.