Robert Johnson

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Robert Johnson

Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) is among the most famous Delta Blues musicians and arguably the most influential. Considered by some to be the "Grandfather of Rock-and-Roll," his vocal phrasing, original songs, and guitar style influenced a range of musicians, including Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, U2, and Eric Clapton, who called Johnson "the most important blues musician who ever lived."

Life

Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1911. His wife Virginia Travis died while giving birth on April 19, 1930.

Robert Johnson recorded only 29 songs on a total of 41 tracks extant in two recording sessions in San Antonio, Texas in November 1936 and Dallas, Texas in June 1937. Notable among these tracks are "Come on in My Kitchen," "Love in Vain," "Sweet Home Chicago," "Cross Road Blues," "Terraplane Blues," and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," all of which have been covered by other artists. Two modern collections of these recordings have been particularly influential to contemporary audiences, although many editions of his limited output have been released. King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961) helped popularize the blues for crossover audiences in the 1960s, and The Complete Recordings (1990) provided his entire opus on one dual-CD set.

Johnson was a private man of his time, this being a major factor to modern day speculation about his life, death and musical career. Rumor and mythology have embraced Johnson throughout history and accounts, stories and truths have been fabricated many times over to tailor the legend. However, some things are known and recollections tells us of his secrecy toward the sharing of his own work with other musicians. When recording the 29 compositions (his life's work) he sat with his face to the wall while the recording was in process. Only speculation can explain this (could have been simply to increase isolation of the microphone for the sound quality of the recording, or so other people couldn't see how he played guitar and steal his style, which was common back in that day). Johnson was also known to be a womanizer, a drinker, and a rambler who often hopped trains for transportation--the walking incarnation of a "bluesman."

Speculation and mythology are rife concerning Johnson, especially with regard to his untimely end. Recollection survives that Johnson died after drinking whiskey poisoned with strychnine, supposedly given to him by the jealous husband of a lover or his own jealous girlfriend. Fellow blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson II was present the night of Johnson's poisoning (even warning him against accepting a pre-opened bottle of whiskey) giving the account that he died whilst on his hands and knees "howling and barking like a dog". The fact is that Johnson recovered from the initial poisoning and survived at least a couple of weeks only to contract pneumonia and die on 16 August 1938 in Greenwood, Mississippi. Also, it was reported that it was believed that Johnson died from syphilis which has no basis in medical fact. The precise cause of death remains unknown; his death certificate simply states "no doctor" under cause of death. Johnson's last words were supposedly "I pray that my redeemer will come and take me from my grave."

The most widely known legend surrounding Robert Johnson says that he sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads of U.S. Highway 61 and U.S. Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi in exchange for prowess in playing the guitar. Actually, the location Johnson made reference to is a short distance away from that intersection. The legend was told mainly by Son House, but finds no corroboration in any of Johnson's work, despite titles like "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Hellhound on My Trail". With this said, the song "Cross Road Blues" is both widely and loosely interpreted by many as a descriptive encounter of Johnson selling his soul. The older Tommy Johnson (no relation, although it is speculated that they were cousins), by contrast, also claimed to have sold his soul to the Devil. The story goes that if one would go to the crossroads a little before midnight and begin to play the guitar, a large black man would come up to the aspiring guitarist, retune his guitar and then hand it back. At this point (so the legend goes) the guitarist had sold his soul to become a virtuoso (A similar legend even surrounded virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini a century before.)

There are very few images of Johnson; only two confirmed photographs exist. An eight-second film, which was purported to show Robert Johnson, was proved not to be him; an image of a poster in its background advertised a film which was released two years after his death.

Influence

Johnson is known as "the greatest blues singer of all time" or even the most important musician of the 20th century, but many listeners are disappointed by their first encounter with his work. This reaction may be because of their unfamiliarity with the raw emotion and sparse form of the Delta style or because of the thin sound of the recordings when compared to modern music production standards. Johnson's guitar work was adroit and his voice was high-pitched.

Exaggerated claims are sometimes made for Johnson's originality. He certainly did not invent the blues, which had existed on record for over fifteen years before he recorded. His primary influence was the inimitable Son House who, more than anyone else (except his friend Charley Patton), can claim to have invented what is now considered the mainstream of the Delta blues, with his rough voice and searing slide guitar riffs played on a steel-bodied National guitar. But Johnson added to this the keening whimsy of then-obscure Skip James and the jazzy inventiveness of Lonnie Johnson. Indeed, a couple of his songs are nothing other than imitations of his famous namesake. Johnson had also listened to Leroy Carr, who was probably the most popular male blues singer of the time, and based several songs on the records of the urban blues recording stars Kokomo Arnold (source for both "Sweet Home Chicago" and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom") and Peetie Wheatstraw.

What Johnson did with these and other diverse influences was create a new sound that was at once immediate and artful. His use of the bass strings to create a steady, rolling rhythm can be heard on songs like "Sweet Home Chicago". His penchant for strange snatches of melodic invention on the upper strings, mingling with a quite different vocal line, appears on "Walking Blues". Johnson played with the young Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II and Johnson allegedly trained his own stepson, Robert "Junior" Lockwood, as well. He also acted as mentor to Elmore James, and inspired the young Muddy Waters to take up the blues. All of these musicians and others who created the Chicago style of electric blues in the 1950s were essentially playing the music of Robert Johnson, plugged in. There is thus a direct line of influence from the early blues to post-war blues to early rock and roll and later rock music. "All blues seem to revolve around Robert Johnson", according to modern bluesman Keb' Mo'.

Years after his death, Johnson's fan club grew to include rock stars such as Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. When Keith Richards was first introduced to Johnson's music by his band mate Brian Jones, he replied, "Who is the other guy playing with him?", not realizing it was all Johnson playing on one guitar. Clapton described Johnson as "the most important blues musician who ever lived. ... His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice". The song "Crossroads" by British blues rock/psychedelic band Cream is a cover version of Johnson's "Cross Road Blues", about the legend of Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads, although Johnson's original lyrics ("Standin' at the crossroads, tried to flag a ride") suggest he was merely hitchhiking rather than signing away his soul to Lucifer in exchange for being the greatest blues musician of all time.

An important aspect of Johnson's singing, and indeed of all Delta Blues singing styles, and also of Chicago blues guitar playing, is the use of microtonality -- his subtle inflections of pitch are part of the reason why his singing conveys such powerful emotion.

Johnson's recordings have remained continuously available since John Hammond convinced Columbia Records to compile the first Johnson LP, King of the Delta Blues Singers, in 1961. A sequel LP, assembling the rest of what could be found of Johnson's recordings, was issued in 1970. An omnibus two-CD set (The Complete Recordings) was released in 1990.

John P. Hammond (the son of the aforementioned John Hammond) produced a documentary in the early 1990s about Johnson's life in the Delta area.

In the summer of 2003, Rolling Stone magazine listed Johnson at number five in their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. (Couresy of Wikipedia)

Robert Johnson, as legend has it, sold his soul to the Devil in return for a short life as a blues guitar genius. Eric Clapton calls Robert Johnson the most important blues musician who ever lived. To learn more about the best blues guitarist ever, visit the web sites below.

Lessons

Love In Vain Lesson (pdf/Fender Players Club)
Robert Johnson Lessons and Tab (About.com)
Robert Johnson's Thumb Bass Style (WholeNote)

Resources

Robert Johnson Notebook
Rock + Roll Hall of Fame
Tablature (OLGA)


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