The Blues According to Robert Johnson
Almost everyone has heard the story of the amazing guitar player/singer from the northern Delta region of Mississippi who, according to legend, sold his soul to the devil for his undeniable talent. And what a talent he was - the legendary Robert Johnson (1911-1938). He was the founder of the "27 Club" - a group of musicians who died at this young age. He was the writer of such blues staples as "Sweet Home Chicago", "Love In Vain", "Terraplane Blues", "Come On In My Kitchen", and "They're Red Hot". He also authored the mysterious and haunting "Me And The Devil Blues", "Hellhound On My Trail", "Cross Road Blues", and "Stones In My Passway". In total, he is credited with 29 known recorded compostions, where it's just him playing a guitar and singing. He also recorded 13 alternate versions, so there are officially 42 recorded tracks in total, recorded during two sessions - November 1936 in San Antonio, TX, and June 1937 in Dallas, TX.
After his fabled Faustian transaction with the devil, which most likely occurred in 1930 (a year after his 17-year-old wife and newborn died during childbirth), he worked as a traveling musician in the southern states, before alledgedly being poisoned by a jealous husband in August 1938 near Greenwood, MS. When he died, he had six 78 rpm records (front/back, total of 12 songs) in circulation, issued by the Vocalion label, and was a minor local celebrity.
Despite the local popularity of his Vocalion 78 records released in 1936-37, most of the world would not learn of (and fully appreciate) Robert Johnson until the release of the 1961 Columbia record, King of the Delta Blues Singers. This album consisted of 16 songs, which dramatically fueled the blues resurgence in England in the early 1960s - see The Yardbirds, Cream, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc. This release was followed up in 1970 with King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II, which included 14 "new" Johnson songs, along with two tunes from the 1961 release. Several compilation CDs have been released over the years, beginning with the two-CD release, The Complete Recordings in 1990. Johnson was elected into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday, Sony released the two-CD Centennial Collection remastered set in 2011, which contains all 42 known Johnson tracks.
There are several theories as to why Johnson is so popular so many years after his death:
- The story regarding the selling of his soul for his amazing talent and then the devil collecting on the deal with Johnson's early death. Details like this sure got my attention when I was a teenager and first read up on Johnson.
- Eric Clapton and Keith Richards – along with other highly respected guitarists – lauding genuine praise since the 1960s and continuing to honor him in interviews and dedicated music releases through the present. For me, when Edward Van Halen stated many years ago that he was a huge Clapton guy, it made me want to dig into everything from the Yardbirds to Cream to his solo career. And when Clapton says Johnson is the greatest, it made me want to do even more digging back.
- Any celebrity who dies early benefits from a polished legacy; music fans and blues enthusiasts never saw him grow old and fade away. This is true for any celebrity – see JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Randy Rhoads, etc.
- Because next to nothing is known about his life (it's amazing that we even have 42 of his tracks to listen to!), it has been a cottage industry among many to speculate about the missing details of his short life. This is a good point – in addition to the "selling his soul" story, there's not a whole lot of info about Johnson. We just have a few pictures and some incomplete tales. So the constant "research" and speculation about his life will never end.
While the above adds to his legacy, one thing is for certain. Without his amazing recordings and the guitar playing and singing to back all this up, we wouldn't still be talking about him. The above four points make for good reading while listening (or not listening) to his music, but it all goes back to those 29 tracks (plus 13 alternate takes). This man could play with an amazing talent and his lyrics and the way he delivered them is truly unique. It absolutely leaves the listener wanting more.
As with a lot of music, Robert Johnson is not for everyone. It's raw – just vocals and an acoustic guitar. It's old – 1936-37 is a long, long time ago. It's mournful – yes, listening to the blues can give you the blues. And Johnson's ideas have been lifted so liberally over the years they don't even sound fresh to a new listener. But when put in context – Johnson isn't the one who invented the Delta Blues, but he is the one who arguably perfected it – this is required listening to not just blues fans, but to any rock 'n roll fans. This is the music that started it all.
There are only three known photographs (100% identification) of Robert Johnson (first three below). NOTE: The third photo below was released to the public in 2020 by his half-sister as part of the "Brother Robert" book debut.
Photo #5 below is a re-touched version of the controversial photo #4 found in 2005 (with Johnny Shines?). Photos #6 and #7 have been claimed by some to be Johnson. Photo #8 is the 1994 United States Postal Service-issued stamp based on photo #2 - minus the cigarette.
Here's everything anyone needs to become an expert on Robert Johnson - his music and the mystery surrounding his life:
For more incredible, essential, old-time blues, check out these classic artists:
Big Bill Broonzy
Blind Lemon Jefferson
David "Honeyboy" Edwards
Robert Jr. Lockwood
For more on-line information about the one and only Robert Johnson, check out:
Robert Johnson Blues Foundation
Texas State Historical Association (Robert Johnson bio/sessions)
Nov 2008 Vanity Fair/Robert Johnson photos article
Robert Johnson guitars
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