Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) was an American blues singer and musician. His landmark recordings from 1936–37 display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced later generations of musicians. Johnson’s shadowy, poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend, including a Faustian myth. As an itinerant performer who played mostly on street corners, in juke joints, and at Saturday night dances, Johnson enjoyed little commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime.
His records sold poorly during his lifetime, and it was only after the first reissue of his recordings on LP in 1961 that his work reached a wider audience. Johnson is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly of the Mississippi Delta blues style. He is credited by many rock musicians as an important influence; Eric Clapton has called Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “Early Influence” in their first induction ceremony in 1986. In 2003, David Fricke ranked Johnson fifth in Rolling Stone ‘s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Rolling Stone’s 2011 list ranks him at number seventy-one.
Life and career
Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, possibly on May 8, 1911, to Julia Major Dodds (born October 1874) and Noah Johnson (born December 1884). Julia was married to Charles Dodds (born February 1865), a relatively prosperous landowner and furniture maker with whom she gave birth to 10 children. Dodds had been forced by a lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst following a dispute with white landowners. Julia herself left Hazlehurst with baby Robert, but after some two years, sent him to live in Memphis with Dodds, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer.
Around 1919, Robert rejoined his mother in the area around Tunica and Robinsonville, Mississippi. Julia’s new husband was known as Dusty Willis; he was 24 years her junior. Robert was remembered by some residents as “Little Robert Dusty.” However, he was registered at the Indian Creek School in Tunica as Robert Spencer. He is listed as Robert Spencer in the 1920 census with Will and Julia Willis in Lucas, Arkansas, where they lived for a short time. Robert was at school in 1924 and 1927 and the quality of his signature on his marriage certificate suggests that he studied continuously and was relatively well educated for a boy of his background. One school friend, Willie Coffee, has been discovered and filmed. He recalls that Robert was already noted for playing the harmonica and jaw harp. He also remembers that Robert was absent for long periods, which suggests that he may have been living and studying in Memphis.
After school, Robert adopted the surname of his natural father, signing himself as Robert Johnson on the certificate of his marriage to sixteen-year-old Virginia Travis in February 1929. She died shortly after in childbirth. Surviving relatives of Virginia told the blues researcher Robert “Mack” McCormick that this was a divine punishment for Robert’s decision to sing secular songs, known as ‘selling your soul to the Devil’. McCormick believes that Johnson himself accepted the phrase as a description of his resolve to abandon the settled life of a husband and farmer to become a full-time blues musician.
Around this time, the noted blues musician Son House moved to Robinsonville where his musical partner, Willie Brown, already lived. Late in life, House remembered Johnson as a ‘little boy’ who was a competent harmonica player but an embarrassingly bad guitarist. Soon after, Johnson left Robinsonville for the area around Martinsville, close to his birthplace Hazlehurst, possibly searching for his natural father. Here he perfected the guitar style of Son House and learned other styles from Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman. Ike Zimmerman was rumoured to have learned supernaturally to play guitar by visiting graveyards at midnight. When Johnson next appeared in Robinsonville, he had seemed to have acquired a miraculous guitar technique. House was interviewed at a time when the legend of Johnson’s pact with the Devil was well known among blues researchers. He was asked whether he attributed Johnson’s technique to this pact, and his equivocal answers have been taken as confirmation.
While living in Martinsville, Johnson fathered a child with Vergie Mae Smith. He also married Caletta Craft in May 1931. In 1932, the couple moved to Clarksdale in the Delta. Here Caletta fell ill and Johnson abandoned her for a career as a ‘walking’ (itinerant) musician.
Robert Johnson was not unique in choosing to be a full professional musician pursuing audiences where and when they had money to spend, rather than a semi-professional like his celebrated neighbour Son House. He was, however, remembered as exceptional in his restlessness, in the number of places he stayed in and, by some accounts, in his determination to avoid agricultural labour. From 1932 to his death in 1938, Johnson lived his life in a manner that makes biography scarcely possible. He moved frequently between such large centers as Memphis, Tennessee and Helena, Arkansas and the smaller towns of the Mississippi Delta and neighboring regions of Mississippi and Arkansas. On occasion, he travelled much further. Fellow blues musician Johnny Shines accompanied him to Chicago, Texas, New York, Canada, Kentucky, and Indiana. Henry Townsend shared a musical engagement with him in St Louis. In many places he stayed with members of his large extended family, or with women friends. He did not marry again but formed some long term relationships with women to whom he would return periodically. One was Estella Coleman, the mother of the blues musician Robert Lockwood, Jr. In other places he stayed with a woman seduced at his first performance. In each location, Johnson’s hosts were largely ignorant of his life elsewhere. He actually used different names in different places; the most recent count is eight different surnames. Biographers have looked for consistency from musicians who knew Johnson in different contexts: Shines, who travelled extensively with him; Lockwood who knew him as his mother’s partner; David “Honeyboy” Edwards whose cousin Willie Mae Powell had a relationship with Johnson.
From a mass of partial, conflicting and inconsistent eye-witness accounts, biographers have attempted to summarize Johnson’s character. “He was well mannered, he was soft spoken, he was indecipherable”. “As for his character, everyone seems to agree that, while he was pleasant and outgoing in public, in private he was reserved and liked to go his own way”. “Musicians who knew Johnson testified that he was a nice guy and fairly average — except, of course, for his musical talent, his weakness for whiskey and women, and his commitment to the road.”
When Johnson arrived in a new town, he would play for tips on street corners or in front of the local barbershop or a restaurant. Musical associates stated in live performances Johnson often did not focus on his dark and complex original compositions, but instead pleased audiences by performing more well-known pop standards of the day – and not necessarily blues. With an ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, Johnson had no trouble giving his audiences what they wanted, and certain of his contemporaries later remarked on Johnson’s interest in jazz and country. Johnson also had an uncanny ability to establish a rapport with his audience; in every town in which he stopped, Johnson would establish ties to the local community that would serve him well when he passed through again a month or a year later.
Fellow musician Shines was 17 when he met Johnson in 1933. He estimated Johnson was maybe a year older than himself. In Samuel Charters’ Robert Johnson, the author quotes Shines as saying:
“Robert was a very friendly person, even though he was sulky at times, you know. And I hung around Robert for quite a while. One evening he disappeared. He was kind of a peculiar fellow. Robert’d be standing up playing some place, playing like nobody’s business. At about that time it was a hustle with him as well as a pleasure. And money’d be coming from all directions. But Robert’d just pick up and walk off and leave you standing there playing. And you wouldn’t see Robert no more maybe in two or three weeks … So Robert and I, we began journeying off. I was just, matter of fact, tagging along.”
During this time Johnson established what would be a relatively long-term relationship with Estella Coleman, a woman about fifteen years his elder and the mother of musician Robert Lockwood, Jr. Johnson reportedly cultivated a woman to look after him in each town he played in. Johnson supposedly asked homely young women living in the country with their families whether he could go home with them, and in most cases the answer was ‘yes’…until a boyfriend arrived or Johnson was ready to move on.
In 1941, Alan Lomax learned from Muddy Waters that Johnson had performed in the Clarksdale, Mississippi area. By 1959, Samuel Charters could only add Will Shade of the Memphis Jug Band remembered Johnson had once briefly played with him in West Memphis, Arkansas. In the last year of his life, Johnson is believed to have traveled to St. Louis and possibly Illinois, and then to some states in the East. He spent some time in Memphis and traveled through the Mississippi Delta and Arkansas.
In 1938, Columbia Records producer John H. Hammond, who owned some of Johnson’s records, had record producer Don Law seek out Johnson out to book him for the first “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. On learning of Johnson’s death, Hammond replaced him with Big Bill Broonzy, but still played two of Johnson’s records from the stage.
Around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi, who ran a general store and doubled as a talent scout. Speir put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who offered to record the young musician in San Antonio, Texas. At the recording session, held November 23, 1936 in room 414 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio which Brunswick Records had set up as a temporary studio, Johnson reportedly performed facing the wall. This has been cited as evidence he was a shy man and reserved performer, a conclusion played up in the inaccurate liner notes of the 1961 album King of the Delta Blues Singers. Ry Cooder speculates that Johnson played facing a corner to enhance the sound of the guitar, a technique he calls “corner loading”. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played sixteen selections, and recorded alternate takes for most of these.
Among the songs Johnson recorded in San Antonio were “Come On In My Kitchen“, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues“, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Cross Road Blues“. The first songs to appear were “Terraplane Blues” and “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”, probably the only recordings of his that he would live to hear. “Terraplane Blues” became a moderate regional hit, selling 5,000 copies.
His first recorded song, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”, was part of a cycle of spin-offs and response songs that began with Leroy Carr‘s “Mean Mistreater Mama” (1934). According to Wald, it was “the most musically complex in the cycle” and stood apart from most rural blues as a through-composed lyric, rather than an arbitrary collection of more-or-less unrelated verses. In contrast to most Delta players, Johnson had absorbed the idea of fitting a composed song into the three minutes of a 78 rpm side. Most of Johnson’s “somber and introspective” songs and performances come from his second recording session.
In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas, Texas, for another recording session in a makeshift studio at the Brunswick Record Building, 508 Park Avenue. Eleven records from this session would be released within the following year. Because Johnson did two takes of most songs during these sessions, and recordings of those takes survived, more opportunity exists to compare different performances of a single song by Johnson than for any other blues performer of his time and place.
By the time he died, at least six of his records had been released in the South as race records.
Playback issues in extant recordings
The accuracy of the pitch and speed of the extant recordings has been questioned. In The Guardian‘s music blog from May 2010, Jon Wilde states that “the common consensus among musicologists is that we’ve been listening to [Robert] Johnson at least 20% too fast;” i.e., that “the recordings were accidentally speeded up when first committed to 78 [rpm records], or else were deliberately speeded up to make them sound more exciting.” He does not give a source for this statement. Former Sony music executive Lawrence Cohn, who won a Grammy for the label’s 1991 reissue of Johnson’s works, “acknowledges there’s a possibility Johnson’s 1936–37 recordings were sped up, since the OKeh/Vocalion family of labels, which originally issued the material, was ‘notorious’ for altering the speed of its releases. ‘Sometimes it was 78 rpms, sometimes it was 81 rpms,’ he says. It’s impossible to check the original sources, since the metal stampers used to duplicate the original 78 discs disappeared years ago.”
Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, near Greenwood, Mississippi. He had been playing for a few weeks at a country dance in a town about 15 miles (24 km) from Greenwood. Differing accounts and theories attempt to shed light on the events preceding his death. A story often told is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance, the wife of the juke joint owner, according to rumor, unaware that the bottle of whiskey she gave to Johnson had been poisoned by her husband. In another version, she was a married woman unrelated to the juke joint owner. Johnson was allegedly offered an open bottle of whiskey that was laced with strychnine. Fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson allegedly advised him never to drink from an offered bottle that had already been opened. According to Williamson, Johnson replied, “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.” Soon after, he was offered another open bottle of whiskey, also laced with strychnine, and accepted it. Johnson is reported to have begun feeling ill the evening after drinking from the bottle and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. 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.
Musicologist Robert “Mack” McCormick claims to have tracked down the man who murdered Johnson, and to have obtained a confession from him in a personal interview. McCormick has declined to reveal the man’s name, however.
In his book Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, Tom Graves uses expert testimony from toxicologists to dispute the notion that Johnson died of strychnine poisoning. He states that strychnine has such a distinctive odor and taste that it cannot be disguised, even in strong liquor. He also claims that a significant amount of strychnine would have to be consumed in one sitting to be fatal, and that death from the poison would occur within hours, not days. This observation was also noted in a recent Guitar World comment from contemporary David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who said that it couldn’t have been strychnine, since he would have died much sooner than the three days he suffered.
The exact location of his grave is officially unknown; three different markers have been erected at possible church cemetery burial sites outside of Greenwood.
- Research in the 1980s and 1990s strongly suggests Johnson was buried in the graveyard of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City, not far from Greenwood, in an unmarked grave. A one-ton cenotaph in the shape of an obelisk, listing all of Johnson’s song titles, with a central inscription by Peter Guralnick, was placed at this location in 1990, paid for by Columbia Records and numerous smaller contributions made through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund.
- In 1990 a small marker with the epitaph “Resting in the Blues” was placed in the cemetery of Payne Chapel near Quito, by the cemetery’s owner. This alleged burial site, in an apparent attempt to strengthen a claim, happens to be located in the center of Richard Johnson’s family plot.
- More recent research by Stephen LaVere (including statements from Rosie Eskridge, the wife of the supposed gravedigger) indicates that the actual grave site is 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 at this site.
An interviewee in the documentary The Search for Robert Johnson (1991) suggests that due to poverty and lack of transportation Johnson is most likely to have been buried in a pauper’s grave (or “potter’s field“) very near where he died.