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

By | August 27, 2020

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(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.

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(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.