Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) was an American blues musician, among the most famous of Delta blues musicians. His landmark recordings from 1936–1937 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. Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, probably on May 8, 1911 or 1912, 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 to whom she had borne ten 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, who was 24 years younger than she, and 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.
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.
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 boy who had followed him around and tried very unsuccessfully to copy him. Johnson then left the Robinsonville area, reappearing after a few months with a miraculous guitar technique. His boast seems to be credible; Johnson later recorded versions of "Preaching the Blues" and "Walking Blues" in House's vocal and guitar style. However, Son's chronology is questioned by Guralnick. When House moved to Robinsonville in 1930, Johnson was a young adult, already married and widowed. The following year, he was living near Hazelhurst, where he married for the second time. From this base Johnson began travelling up and down the Delta as an itinerant musician. 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 Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar 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 was, in effect, a deal with the Devil; in exchange Robert Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous.This resembles the story told to Steve LaVere that Ike Zinnerman of Hazelhurst, Mississippi learned to play the guitar at midnight while sitting on tombstones. Zinnerman is believed to have influenced the playing of the young Robert Johnson. Recent research by blues scholar Bruce Conforth uncovered Ike Zinnerman's daughter and the story becomes much clearer, including the fact that Johnson and Zinnerman 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, Zinnerman, who ultimately accompanied Johnson back up to the Delta to look after him.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. He played what his audience asked for — not necessarily his own compositions, 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, most notably Johnny Shines, 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 Johnny Shines was 17 when he met Johnson in 1933. He estimated that 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 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 who was about fifteen years his elder and the mother of musician Robert Lockwood, Jr. Around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi, who ran a general store and doubled as a talent scout. Speir, who helped the careers of many blues players, put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who offered to record the young musician in San Antonio, Texas. At the recording session, held on November 23, 1936 in rooms 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. Johnson was probably nervous during his session in the makeshift recording studio (a new and alien environment for the musician), but he may simply have been focusing on the demands of his emotive performances. In addition, playing into the corner of a wall (referred to as "corner loading" was a sound-enhancing technique that simulated the acoustical booths of better-equipped studios. 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". "Come on in My Kitchen" included the lines: "The woman I love took from my best friend/Some joker got lucky, stole her back again/You better come on in my kitchen, it's going to be rainin' outdoors." In "Cross Road Blues," another of his songs, he sang: "I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees/I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees/I asked the Lord above, have mercy, save poor Bob if you please/Uumb, standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Ain't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by. 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. "Stones In My Passway" and "Me And The Devil" are both about betrayal, a recurring theme in country blues. "Hellhound On My Trail" utilizes another common theme: fear of the Devil. Other themes in Johnson's music include impotence ("Dead Shrimp Blues" and "Phonograph Blues") and infidelity ("Terraplane Blues", "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day" and "Love in Vain").
Because Johnson did two takes of most songs during these sessions, and recordings of those takes survived, for Johnson we have more opportunity to compare two different performances of a single song than we do for any other blues performer of his time and place.
Six of Johnson's blues songs mention the devil or some form of the supernatural. In "Me And The Devil" he began, "Early this morning when you knocked upon my door/Early this morning, umb, when you knocked upon my door/And I said, 'Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go,'" before leading into "You may bury my body down by the highway side/You may bury my body, uumh, down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride." 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. There are a number of accounts and theories regarding the events preceding his death. 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, and that she was 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.
Researcher Mack McCormick asserts that he interviewed Johnson's alleged poisoner in the 1970s and obtained a tacit admission of guilt from the man. Johnson was allegedly offered an open bottle of whiskey that was laced with strychnine. Fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson, whose often-fabricated stories and half-truths warrant taking any claims lightly at best, 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. Honeyboy Edwards, another blues musician, claims to have been present as well and essentially confirms this account, though his statement is questionable.
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. Strychnine was a common pesticide and thus was readily available at the time. Although it is very bitter-tasting and extremely toxic, a small quantity dissolved in a harsh-tasting solution such as whiskey could plausibly have gone unnoticed while still producing the symptoms (over a period of days due to the reduced dosage) and eventual death that Johnson experienced. Johnson's songs, vocal phrasing and guitar style have influenced a broad range of musicians, including Muddy Waters, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Winter, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton; Clapton has called Johnson "the most important blues singer that ever lived". Johnson was among the first musicians to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "early influence" category in 1986. He was ranked fifth in Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.