Who Was Robert Johnson?

In the decades after his death, Robert Johnson has become known as the King of the Delta Blues Singers,his music expanding in influence to an unfathomable point.

Blues fallin’ down like hell, And the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail

Robert Johnson really was the most entrancingly scary and affecting and emotional and technically accomplished Delta blues singer ever recorded. His landmark recordings from 1936 to 1937 display a remarkable combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced generations of musicians. Johnson’s shadowy, poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend. Believe it or not, he only recorded 29 songs and 12 alternate takes. They were enough though to quarantee him an induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to quote him the “Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, to rank him fifth in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, to influence a broad range of musicians – including Muddy Waters,Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones,Jeff Beck, Jack White and Eric Clapton who called Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived”.

Indeed, his recordings are musical art of the highest order, as rich and transcendent as anything produced by an American musician in this century – surely only a racist or classist would argue otherwise. Was he really the greatest blues singer-guitarist-songwriter of all? Johnson was a great one, all right, and a bluesman to the bottom of his soul. But at his most original, when he is also most chilling, Johnson blows genre considerations and invidious comparisons right out the window.

I’m gettin’ up in the mornin’, I believe I’ll dust my broom

Technically, Johnson the guitarist was an anomaly. He could sing and play cross-rhythms on the guitar, relating the parts in such complex syncopations that, as Richards notes, “You think, ‘This guy must have three brains!'” Johnson also occasionally “breaks time,” dropping a half beat or a half bar, apparently without realizing it (“Traveling Riverside Blues,” “Honeymoon Blues“), which caused more technically conventional bluesmen to snicker. Yet could any of them have brought off the hesitations, sprung the offbeat accents and other polyrhythmic byplay – mercurial figures derived from sources as diverse as Son House, the recordings of Kokomo Arnold and Johnson’s own teeming imagination – that Johnson had mastered? More important, could any of his contemporaries have come close to equaling the sheer force and the haunted immediacy Johnson communicated? This, finally, is his bid for status as “the greatest”: No other bluesman left a studio portrait that seems to come moaning and howling from the darkest recesses of his soul. The music has a power that age cannot dim. Familiarity with his work, even over many years, breeds only a finer appreciation and a more acute sense of awe.

Johnson left his mark on popular music primarily during two eras. On steady-rocking dance tunes like “Sweet Home Chicago,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man,” he crafted complete orchestral guitar accompaniments that set a driving shuffle rhythm, accented with stinging treble-string bottleneck leads, sketched in a bass line and even suggested figures suitable for piano chording. In Chicago in the Forties and early Fifties, Muddy Waters and Elmore James, among others, realized these arrangements-in-embryo as full band numbers and made “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Dust My Broom” postwar standards. These songs had their effect on rock & roll, but they did not equal the impact of the first Johnson LP reissue, “King of the Delta Blues Singers”, on the first generation of Sixties blues-based white rockers.

You might still be wondering what all the fuzz is about. It ain’t just because he was a musical prodigy. There’s a myth surrounding the man, strongly enhanced by the fact that we know very little about him and his life. There are only two known images of Johnson, which were located in 1973, in the possession of the musician’s half-sister Carrie Thompson, and were not widely published until the late 1980s. Furthermore, there are only five significant dates from his career that are documented: Monday, Thursday and Friday, November 23, 26, and 27, 1936 at a recording session in San Antonio. Seven months later, on Saturday and Sunday, June 19–20, 1937, he was in Dallas at another session. His death certificate was discovered in 1968, and lists the date and location of his death. Two marriage licenses for Johnson have also been located in county records offices. The ages given in these certificates point to different birth dates, as do the entries showing his attendance at the Indian Creek School. However, most of these dates can be discounted since Robert was not listed among his mother’s children in the 1910 census. Carrie Thompson claimed that her mother, who was also Robert’s mother, remembered his birth date as May 8, 1911.

Early this morning when you knocked upon my door, And I said hello Satan I believe it’s time to go

According to a legend known to modern Blues fans, Robert Johnson was a young black man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi. Branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician, he was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery’s plantation at midnight. There he was met by the Devil who took the guitar from Johnson and tuned it. After tuning the guitar, the devil played a few songs and then returned it to Johnson, giving him mastery of the guitar. This in effect sold Johnson’s soul; and in exchange Robert Johnson became able to play, sing, and create the greatest blues anyone had ever heard. In another version, friend Ledell Johnson placed the meeting not at a crossroads but in a graveyard. Recent research by blues scholar Bruce Conforth uncovered Ike Zimmerman‘s daughter and the story becomes much clearer, including the fact that Johnson and Zimmerman did, in fact, practice in a graveyard at night (because it was quiet and no one would disturb them) but that it was not the Hazlehurst cemetery as had been believed. Johnson spent about a year living with, and learning from Zimmerman who ultimately accompanied Johnson back up to the Delta to look after him.

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees

As far as his death is concerned, there are a number of accounts and theories regarding the events preceding it. One of these is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance. One version of this rumor says she was the wife of the juke joint owner who unknowingly provided Johnson with a bottle of poisoned whiskey from her husband, while another suggests she was a married woman he had been secretly fucking. When Johnson was offered an open bottle of whiskey, his friend Sonny Boy Williamson knocked the bottle out of his hand, informing him that he should never drink from an bottle that has already been opened. Johnson allegedly said, “don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.” Soon after, he was offered another open bottle, and it was that bottle that was laced with strychnine. Over the next three days, his condition steadily worsened and witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain—symptoms which are consistent with strychnine poisoning. Strychnine was readily available at the time as it was a common pesticide and, although it is very bitter-tasting and extremely toxic, a small quantity dissolved in a harsh-tasting solution such as whiskey could possibly have gone unnoticed but still produced the symptoms (over a period of days due to the reduced dosage) and eventual death that Johnson experienced.

Oddly enough, the precise location of his grave remains a source of ongoing controversy, and different markers have been erected at supposed burial sites outside of Greenwood. One in the graveyard of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist church near Morgan City, in an unmarked grave. Also, one under a big pecan tree in the cemetery of the Little Zion Church north of Greenwood along Money Road (Sony Music has placed a marker on this one).