King of the Delta Blues Singers: Robert Johnson The life of Robert Johnson, one of the most influential early blues artists, in shrouded by vague details and encompassed in mystery. His emotion filled playing and singing blends to form some of the most moving, original blues music ever produced. Ironically, despite being one of the top influences to blues music, little is known about the shy, mild mannered bluesman. “Almost nothing, is known about his life he is only a name on a few recordings.” Where did he come from? Who was Johnsons family.
Who inspired Robert to play the blues and who influenced his music? Who exactly was Robert Johnson? Only the vague recollections of his friends and family link us to the mysterious life of Robert Johnson. From these accounts the story of Robert Johnson is brought to life, and the events which fueled his powerful music are pieced together. Robert Johnson was born on May eighth, 1911, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Robert was the eleventh child born to Mrs. Julia Dodds. Roberts mother described little Robert as a playful little boy, who “Always used to be listenin, listenin to the wind or the chickens cluckin in the backyard or me, when Id be singin round the house. And he just love church Little Robert set on my lap and try to keep time, look like, or hold on to my skirt and sort of jig up and down and laugh and laugh.
” (Lomax, 14) Thus, Robert was first introduced by his church into the world of music and was forever captured by its beauty. Mrs. Johnson didnt have much trouble with Robert as a child but as he grew older, he became more and more intrigued about the extravagant life of the bluesmen, and taken by the spiritual music. He started following the musicians around, staying out all night, intrigued by the bluesmans free lifestyle. Anyone that had a guitar, little Robert would follow off according to his mother. “Sometimes he wouldnt come home,” Roberts mother recalls, “and a whippin never did him no good.” Mrs.
Johnson feared the worst for Robert, she believed the guitar was the instrument of the devil and that the music he listened to was full of sin. Robert would ease her worries by playing church songs to her, yet this never erased the fear she held inside for her son. Robert was captured by the mystery surrounding the life of the bluesmen. The women, gambling, seemingly unlimited freedom, and the amazing way they turned oppression into beautiful song, intrigued Robert. As a young boy, Robert was faced by terrible oppression of all sorts.
The white community utilized terror as a means to subdue the African American families of the time. “Racism held sway over the land. Like a plague destroyed the hopes, and beliefs of the black community.” (Finn, 211) As a young boy living on cotton plantations, Robert witnessed the harsh treatment of fellow black African Americans. The cruel treatment of the plantation owners continued into daily life where Johnson was received as inferior by the white general public. He received unjust segregated treatment as a result of his black skin.
As a small child he watched in amazement to the powerful music of the bluesmen. In beautiful song they captured the pain of injustice which Robert, as well as most other African Americans of the time, had been forced to endure all their lives. Young Robert was intrigued by these men, and dreamed of one day singing the blues himself. His half brother Charles taught him the basics on guitar yet Johnsons most influential teacher was the famous bluesman, Son House. Son House was a student of Charlie Patton, one of the first well known Delta Blues musicians.
Son also had also learned quite a bit from a gentlemen referred to as Lemon, a name given to him for the fact that he had learned every Blind Lemon piece directly from the phonograph (Blind Lemon is was one of the first Mississippi Delta bluesmen). Sons playing largely resembled that of Lemons, “The high pitch delivery, the brilliant counter melodies between phrases.” (Lomax, 13) And thus, Robert Johnson unknowingly inherited the powerful influence of a long line of famous Delta bluesmen. Son House recalls how, “Wed all play for the Saturday Night Balls and thered be this little boy standing around. That was Robert Johnson. He was just a little boy then.
He blew a harmonica and he was pretty good with that but he wanted to play guitar.” (Guralnick, 15) Son House recalls how Robert would sit in the corner and listen, sing, and dance along to the rhythm of the guitars. “And then wed get a break and want to rest some. Robert would watch and see which way wed gone, and he would pick one of them up. And such another racket you never heard!”. (Guralnick, 15) Son would scold Robert for playing the guitar and causing such racket yet. In latter years, House laughs at the thought, admitting flat out that Johnson had become a far more accomplished musician than he had ever dreamed. Roberts wife died at the age of sixteen during childbirth, and it is unknown exactly how this effected Robert.
It is suspected that he underwent some type of emotional breakdown and as a result, Robert underwent a creative outburst. He temporarily moved back in with his mother and step but moved out again and traveled deep into the Delta. Robert struggled to “Piece together into some kind of coherency, the evil contradictions of life”. (Finn, 211) And so he turned to music. Previously captured by the seemingly magical music of blues, Johnson turned to the world of magic for an answer.
He traveled deep into the bayous for nearly two years, supposedly to seek the assistance of a root doctor. An uninhabited, muddy jungle is a description fit to describe the bayous of Mississippi. A dark, forbidding place, the bayous of the Delta were regarded with awe by outsiders.
It was a common belief held by many that supernatural forces were present. Little is known of what occurred during this time. All that is certain, is that upon his return, Johnson had become one of the most skilled musicians to have ever played. Several speculations are made by fellow musicians to account for the reason of this sudden, drastic improvement, yet the most commonly held belief is that Johnson made a pact with the devil. It was not unheard of for some blues artists to return from a long leave with remarkable talent, claiming that they had sold themselves to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the guitar. LeDell Johnson, brother of Tommy Johnson, another greatly influential early Delta blues artists, recalls his brothers superior guitar playing, ” Now if Tom was living, hed tell you. He said the reason he knowed so much, said he sold hisself to the devil Thats the way I learned to play anything I want.
” (Guralnick, 18) Son House thoroughly believed Robert Johnson had done the same. “So then he went off one day, say he goin to Arkansas and, when he come back, he was struttin,” Son House recalls Roberts return. “Guitar slung round his shoulders and four or five harmonicas stuck in a grate big broad belt round his waist.” Son and his musical companion Willie Brown laughed at first, and mockingly offered Johnson the floor. Son House and Willie Brown were taken aback by the marvelous skill that rang forth from the guitar.
“And play, that boy could play more blues than air one of us.” (Lomax, 16). This was the beginning of Roberts wild, mystical life as a bluesman.
And thus, Roberts travels began. He stayed for about a week in Robinsonville and then set out on the road, visiting such places as St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and New York (all the while using Memphis, Greenwood, and Robinsonville as his base).
“Everywhere he went he was hailed and remembered- in Arkansas and Mississippi, hill country and Delta, city and town” (Guralnick, 20). Johnny Shines, influential blues artist and Roberts occasional musical companion during these trips, recalls how they would travel on buses, trains, hitch rides from pickup trucks, even walk down the highways in order to reach the next town. They would set up on a street corner in front of a barber shop, or in front of a local restaurant and play for any willing listeners. Robert made an instant connection with his audience, both on personal, and musical levels. “Well Robert was one of those fellows who was warm in every aspect, every aspect,” Johnny Shines recollects. Robert was well liked by both men and women. It is true, that men very much resented him for his remarkable talent and influence over women, yet they still couldnt help but like him.
“For Robert just had that power to draw,” reminisces Shines (Finn 214). Stories of about his phenomenal technique became legendary. Robert grabbed the inner feelings of despair, grief, and anxiety, feelings borne from a life of oppression and hardship, to fuel some of the most moving, emotion filled music ever heard. “His guitar seemed to talk- repeat and say words like no one else in the world could,” recalls one of Roberts former friends. “This sound affected most women in a way I could never understand.
One time in St. Louis me and Johnson were playing a party. When we had quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realized they were crying both women and men” (Finn 208) Robert Johnson could touch a crowd like none other, disciple like men began to follow him around, amazed at his guitar skills. Robert secured several places along his travels (homes of various girlfriends) in which he would live with briefly at different times. He would stay at these womens homes until it was time to move on to the next town or if he was simply chased out by a husband returning home. According to his traveling partner Shines, many of these women were of older age than Robert.
Robert preferred the older women because they would gladly pay for the expenses of traveling. Accounts from these women describe Robert as shy, polite, yet direct. He would talk to them in quite, simple statements such as ” May I come home with you”, or “May I be with you.” (Guralnick 25) It is within these remote homes where Johnson would awake in the middle of the night to practice and perfect his music. A former girlfriend recalls how she snuck through the hallway to catch a glimpse of Robert silently fingering and strumming the guitar. He never let anyone see him practice, as if hiding some kind of secret only to be enjoyed by himself. Much of the reason little is known about the life of Robert Johnson is due to his nomadic lifestyle, traveling from home to home and never quite settling down. Robert never quite formed any solid relationships with people, always keeping a shadowy distance.
The world of which Robert was part of was based almost solely around verbal communication, with very little documentation, thus adding to the mystery surrounding Robert. Yet, one very permanent part of Johnson has survived and is still with us today, his recordings. “His voice still rings out over the scratchy records of the twenties like a rooster crowing before day, and his guitar, tuned in the Neo-African styles of his tunes, is as subtle as moonlight on the Mississippi” (Lomax 13). Robert Johnson began his recording career in the “roaring days of the race record business” (Lomax 13).
This period, which took place during the twenties and thirties, was a period when millions of blues records were sold. Robert Johnson records rest upon the record selves with the likes of several other famous blues artist of the time, Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Skip James, Muddy Waters, Lonnie Johnson, Tommy Johnson, and Blind Willie McTell, among several others. Due to the number of prominent artists of the period, Roberts music did not initially stand out. Yet as the years went on, and collectors began to gather the early blues of the twenties and thirties, Johnsons music entered a new realm of respect. H. C. Speir, the white owner of a music shop in Jackson, scouted blues acts from the location of his store. Several of the greatest artists from this period began their exciting careers by taking a trip to the music store and auditioning for Speir, who obviously had quite an ear for blues music.
“All the best performers from miles around would gather together by notices in the paper and word of mouth”, describes skip James, a prominent blues artist of the time (Guralnick 33). Robert entered into the store himself in 1936 at the age of twenty five. Speir, working for the ARC label group, immediately passed the name of the young man onto Ernie Ortle, another talent scout for the label. Ortle was instantly impressed by the technique and style of Johnson and offered him a recording session in November in San Antonio, Texas. Suffering from a bad case of stage fright, Robert recorded the session facing toward the wall. This coincides with accounts from Roberts friends Johnny Shines and Robert Lockwood, both of whom describe Johnson as being severely jealous over his technique, never quite willing to face an audience and allow them to view the magic of his fingers producing the music.
It was almost as if Johnson had some dark secret to hide (which would coincide with the Devil theory). Robert recorded 16 tracks during the three day session. His first records sold about ten to twelve thousand copies that year yet all that Robert received was seventy-five to a hundred dollars. Roberts “I Believe Ill Dust My Broom”, and “Sweet Home Chicago”, became postwar standards, known to virtually every bluesman. “Some of the things that he did with that guitar effected the way everybody played” (Guralnick 37).
Johnson familiarized a whole generation with his walking bass (not entirely original, Robert adapted his style from that of the great Charlie Patton) which is widely used by guitarists of several genres of music including Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Eric Clapton among others. He also introduced the boogie woogie style of guitar playing, adapted from the piano played during the time period, which was later used and adapted by several bluesmen including Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. Thus people began to add their own bass parts to their guitar pieces, complementing their own music by mixing both lead and bass into their pieces (Jimi Hendirx is a prime example). “Terraplane Blues,” which sold somewhere from four to five thousand copies, is probably the piece for which Johnson is remembered most. Robert again met with the recording company in Dallas, Texas to cut his final 14 tracks.
The men met in the mezzanine floor of the Gunter Hotel inside a closed, hot room. The drapes were closed to keep out the sounds of the busy Dallas public, and the room grew to immense temperatures. Robert concluded the session shirtless performing , “Me and the Devil Blues”.
Robert Johnson left the recording studio on Sunday, June 20, 1937. He hooked up briefly with Shines and they traveled together for a short while, performing throughout Texas. Then, while traveling through Arkansas, Shines stayed in Little Rock with his mother while Robert continued on.
He met up again with Robert shortly after and once again began traveling. Fourteen months after Johnsons final recordings in Dallas, he was murdered. There are many speculations as to how Roberts death came about. The most coherent story is that he was playing in for a house party when he was poisoned by a jealous husband.
Johnsons mother heard word of the incident and came to the bed in which Robert lay and recalls hearing him say, “I yo child now, mama, and the Lords. Yes- the Lords child and dont belong to no devil no more”. Roberts mother goes mom goes on to say how he offered her his guitar, claiming it was the source of his death. “Its the Devils instrument, just like you said. And I dont want it no more.” Robert Johnson, one of the greatest blues artists to ever live, died in November of 1938, while his mother hung his guitar upon the wall. (Lomax 15) Robert Johnson contributed much to the world of blues and rock n roll. Several of his songs were redone by various artists, including the Rolling Stones (“Love in Vain”), and Eric Clapton (“Crossroads”, “From Four Till Late”) among others.
“His walking Bass notes and poignant slide phrasing epitomize the Delta Bottleneck style”, and has influenced several black men of the south to sing the blues. In 1990 a collection of Robert Johnsons songs were put together in a two disk collection of his work. This CD set won a Grammy and sold over half a million copies.
Johnson was inducted into the Hall of Fame twice, first in 1980 and again a second time as an early influence in 1986. Johnsons mysterious, shadowy life and beautiful, emotion packed songs will continue to intrigue the minds of many for years to come. Bibliography Booth, Stanley. Rhythm Oil. New York; Pantheon Books, 1991.
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Searching For Robert Johnson. New York; Obelisk Books, 1989. “Johnson, Robert.” CD-ROM. Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1996.
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