August 16, 1938 – Robert Leroy Johnson was allegedly born on May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi.
Charles and Harriet Dodds and Gabriel and Lucinda Brown Majors were all born into slavery–Mr. Dodds in North Carolina, all the others in Mississippi. Their children, Charles Dodds, Jr. and Julia Ann Majors, were married in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in February 1889.
Charlie Dodds, Jr. became a successful and well-respected, land-owning farmer, carpenter, and wicker furniture maker, and he and his wife raised six daughters and a son. Illness put an early end to the lives of two of the daughters, and Charlie’s mistress, Serena, gave birth to two sons before a personal vendetta by the prominent Marchetti Brothers forced Dodds to flee Mississippi and take up residence in Memphis around 1907 under the assumed name of Spencer.
After his successful, yet clandestine departure, he sent for Serena and her sons, as well as some of Julia’s children, and they all joined the new “Mr. ‘C. D.’ Spencer” in Memphis and began a new life. Julia and two daughters remained in Hazlehurst, but the Marchetti’s soon uprooted them from their house and displaced them from their land.
In the meantime, Robert Johnson was born May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, to Julia Dodds and Noah Johnson, the man whom she favored in Mr. Dodds’ absence. However, little Robert didn’t stay in Hazlehurst long. Still a babe-in-arms, his mother took him and his baby sister, Carrie, and signed on with a Delta labor supplier. After a couple of very hard and unsettling seasons in migrant labor camps, they all were living in Memphis with, and as, the family of Charles Spencer.
It was a full house at the Spencers’ in 1914. Charlie had a wife and a mistress and children by both of them, in addition to Robert. And although no friction between the two women is recalled, Julia decided to leave her children and make her own way elsewhere.
And so, Memphis became Robert’s home for the next couple of years. He lived with the Spencers in their Handwerker Hill residence until around 1918, when it became apparent that he needed more supervision than they were capable of giving him. He was a strong-willed child; his obedience was waning and Mr. Spencer eventually decided that he would do better under his mother’s care.
He took the Spencer name with him to Robinsonville, a small but thriving northern Mississippi cotton community some 20 miles south of Memphis. He lived there with his mother and new stepfather, Willie “Dusty” Willis, a hardworking little dark fellow whom Julia had married in October of 1916, and the two of them raised him to manhood.
In his early teens, Robert Spencer took an interest in music. His initial attraction to the jew’s harp was soon supplanted by the harmonica, which became his main instrument for the next few years. He and his pal, R. L. Windum, traded verses of songs and accompanied each other on harps until they were both young men.
As a teenager, Robert was told of his real father and began introducing himself as a Johnson, although he retained the Spencer name through the mid-1920s while he received the rudiments of an education at the Indian Creek School at Commerce, Mississippi, also known as the Abbay & Leatherman plantation, on which the Willis’ were living.
Not being a zealous student, problems with his eyesight afforded Robert an excuse to quit school. It was a malady that plagued him over the years. His half-sister Carrie had bought his first glasses for him in the early 1920s in Helena, Arkansas, but he didn’t wear them much. In later years, many of his associates would recall that he had “one bad eye.” Reportedly, a small cataract afflicted him from time to time, but later disappeared.
The guitar became an interest during the late 1920s. He made a rack for his harp out of baling wire and string and was soon picking out appropriate accompaniments for his harp and voice. Leroy Carr’s 1928 “How Long-How Long Blues” in recalled as being one of his favorite songs at that time.
As in the case with any aspiring musician, he looked to the closest source for information and help. Willie Brown, a musician of some renown and abilities, lived in Robinsonville in those days, and he tried to help and show Robert all he could. The then omnipresent and now ultra-legendary Charlie Patton regularly visited Robinsonville, playing “jook” houses, sometimes in the company of Brown, and between the two of them, Robert got all the help and inspiration he could handle.
Robert’s private life got serious about this time as well. A good looking boy, he had very little trouble making himself popular with the girls. In fact, he had more trouble keeping his hands off them, his arms from around them, and himself away from them. Eventually, it would be his downfall, but for the time being, most of the ladies were single. One particular one, however, caught his eye, and he asked her to be his wife.
Even though Robert was playing music a great deal at this time–mainly the popular recorded blues of the day–and learning even more from Brown, Patton, Myles Robson, Ernest “Whiskey Red” Brown, and other locals, he was reluctant to consider himself anything but a farmer when he married Virginia Travis in Penton, Mississippi, in February, 1929. They began their life together sharing a home with Robert’s older half-sister Bessie and her husband, Granville Hines, on the Kline plantation just east of Robinsonville.
Virginia became pregnant in the summer of 1929, and Robert was not only a proud expectant father, but, naturally, a protective one as well. During a ride through the country in Granville’s old car, Robert is humorously recalled warning Granville when he took a bad spot in the road just a little too fast for Virginia’s comfort, “Man, be careful! My wife’s percolatin.”
Robert’s pride was short-lived, however. Whatever hopes and dreams he may have had for his wife and family-to-be were all dashed in one fell swoop. Both Virginia and the baby died in childbirth in April 1930. She was 16 years old!
If anything soothed Robert’s wounds, it may have been his music. Less than two months later, close to the first of June, Son House came to live in Robinsonville at the request of Willie Brown, with whom, along with Charlie Patton and Louise Johnson, he had traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin, and recorded for Paramount Records.
House, a precarious combination of bluesman and preacher, brought with him an intensity in his music that was shared with no one, not even Patton. It was the rawest, most direct pure emotion Robert had ever heard, and he followed House and Brown wherever they went. There were four jook joints in and around Robinsonville in those days, and against his folks’ wishes, Robert would find out at which one they were going to be and slip off from home to take it all in. He had been able to play some of Brown’s music for some time, especially “The Jinx Blues,” but now he had someone even more to his liking to study. Son’s impressions upon the youngster became permanently etched in his musical mind and style. They could still be distinctly discerned by 1936 and 1937, when he recorded, and mark much of his finest, most powerful work.
Before too long, though, Robert realized that if he ever wanted to be anything other than a sharecropper, he needed to get himself and his music together. With that in mind, when wanderlust took hold of him, he decided to leave home to try and locate his real father. All he had to go on was his birthplace, the small, lush town some 210 miles to the south whence his mother had brought him in a bundle.
Hazlehurst, Mississippi, named after the chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad, George H. Hazlehurst, was to provide Robert, in addition to a good living for the next couple of years, an ideal proving ground for his talents.
The whole country was deep in the Depression at that time, but Hazlehurst, as well as the whole of central Mississippi, was fortunate to have the WPA building highways through its territories, not only providing work for all that wanted it, but some cash money on which to have a good time come Saturday night.
The jook joints of the road gangs and lumber camps set the stage for Robert, and bluesman Ike Zinnerman became his coach and mentor. By then, Robert had found out that women would provide everything else for him and in Martinsville, a lumber camp a few miles south of Hazlehurst, he singled out a kind and loving woman more than ten years his senior, who had been married twice before and had three small children.
Robert and Calletta “Callie” Craft were married at the Copiah County courthouse in May 1931 and kept their marriage a secret from everyone. She idolized Robert, fussed over him, cooked for him, worked for him, treated him like a king, even served him his breakfast in bed! She trusted him away from her, too, and had no qualms about him staying all night at Zinnerman’s to learn what he could about music.
Ike Zinnerman was born in Grady, Alabama, in the early years of the century and had always told his wife that he had learned to play guitar in a graveyard at midnight while sitting atop tombstones. In any event, he could really play the blues and Robert knew it–he attached himself to Ike for the next couple of years and kept the older man up late into the night learning what he could about the guitar and the blues Ike played on it.
When he wasn’t at home with Callie or with Ike, Robert, on a slim chance, might be found working, picking cotton, but more often than not, he would be sitting alone and to himself going over what Ike had been teaching him. He began keeping a little book to write his songs in and he’d go off into the nearby woods and sing and pick the blues to himself. He’d play the same tune over and over until he got it just like he wanted it and thought it should be.
On Saturdays, he’d practice his lessons by performing for the public on the steps of the courthouse during the day and at any number of local jook joints from Saturday evening about dark, sometimes until late Sunday night. At first he and Ike played together, and occasionally he might have played with local favorites, Tommy Johnson and his brothers (no kin) from nearby Crystal Springs, but as time went by, and he became more confident of his own abilities, he played more by himself.
He worked the little country suppers that were regularly held at Martinsville and neighboring Beauregard and Galatin. Occasionally he’d hitchhike out east to Georgetown or up to Jackson to play with Johnny Temple and his friends, but he usually stayed around home. In later years, he was content to be at home wherever he was, but at that time, home was where his wife was.
Callie loved to dance and she frequently went with him on his playing jobs. Sometimes she’d sit on his knee while he played a number or two, but usually his legs and feet were too busy keeping time. He’d flail his legs up and down and back and forth at the same time and his feet would get a terrific rhythm going in accompaniment to his music. When somebody else played, though, Robert might dance. He liked to tap dance and his agility is still recalled with a certain respect.
But respect wasn’t something Robert received in abundance. Upon becoming a professional musician, his respectability, in the eyes of those who had to put in many hours’ work in the heat of the sun every day, was replaced by a mild contempt. He wasn’t a rough-and-tumble guy. Robert Johnson was a small man, small boned. He had long delicate fingers, beautiful hands, enviably wavy hair, and appeared a good deal younger than he acted. Physically, he wasn’t the type of man who commanded much respect. In addition, it eventually became clear that he wanted more out of life than most others could think of for themselves and, of course, more than he alone could provide for himself. To attain his ends, he allowed himself to be kept by an older woman, who no one knew was his wife, while always sporting nice clothes and well-shined shoes. Occasionally, he would go to church, but Sundays usually found him wearing off Saturday night getting ready for Sunday’s fun. All told, what respect Robert did receive was due to his abilities as a blues player and singer. He was good at that and everyone knew it–everyone from the good-time, Saturday-night-every-night people to the wide-eyed youngster and the hero-worshiping kid. And despite all the social marks against him, Robert developed quite a local following around Hazlehurst and was known to everyone as simply “R.L.”.
He told everyone that asked that the initials stood for Robert Lonnie, the latter like another, more famous musician named Johnson. That was only half right–his mother had named him Robert Leroy. (She liked the name Leroy and also gave it to her other son, Charles Melvin Leroy Dodds, Robert’s older half-brother.) But he liked the way Lonnie played and he liked associating himself with him–an affinity which was distinctly displayed many years later in two of his own recordings.
This extended sojourn to southern Mississippi in the early 1930s was a very important stage in Robert Johnson’s life. During his stay in Copiah County, whether he was successful in locating his father or not, he developed the personal traits that marked him as the man he was to be the rest of his life. Most importantly though, his musical talent flowered and bloomed in Hazlehurst, and when he thought he was ready for more exciting territory, he packed up Callie and the kids and slipped away to the Delta, unbeknownst to her family and friends.
Mrs. Johnson, despite her full body and well-roundedness, was not a strong, healthy woman. Her efforts to maintain her small family eventually got the best of her in Clarksdale. Evidently, her breakdown got the best of Robert, too, for when she called home to Hazlehurst for her family to retrieve her, it was in desperation–Robert had deserted her. Callie died a few years later and though Robert returned to Copiah County in later years, neither she nor her family ever saw him again.
A trip home was in order, and Robinsonville was made to stand up and take notice of Robert. Son House and Willie Brown were very surprised at his musical development since he’d been gone, and they openly acknowledged his improvements with acceptance and praise. They had to–both they and their audiences were acutely aware that Robert had been able to surpass them, both in abilities and appeal.
He’d returned to Robinsonville to see his mother and kin as well as to show himself off to Willie and Son, and he stayed around for a couple of months playing on the street corners and in the jook joints. He would continue to return and stay a few months at a time, but it would never be his home again. Robinsonville was a farming community, and he was finally no farmer. He had to move on–on to something more in line with what he had in mind for himself–more in keeping with what he thought about himself.
One of the most wide-open, musically active towns in the Delta in those days was on the Arkansas riverside, and it became Robert’s home base for the rest of his short life. Although he traveled up and down the river playing in levee camps, for road gangs, and in the jook joints of the surrounding countryside, visiting family and friends in Robinsonville and Memphis, and even as far afield as Canada and New York in later years, he took the little town of Helena, Arkansas, to be his own.
All the great musicians of the era came through Helena. “Sonny Boy Williamson” (the latter, then known as Little Boy Blue), “Robert Nighthawk”, Elmore James, “Honeyboy” Edwards, “Howlin’ Wolf”, “Hacksaw” Harney, Calvin Frazier, Peter “Memphis Slim” Chatman, Johnny Shines, and countless others performed in Helena’s and West Helena’s many night clubs and hot spots. Robert had his chance to meet and play with them all–an he did–and left his mark on most of them, too.
There was one special young fellow to whom Robert took a liking, undoubtedly as a result of his living with the boy’s mother. (Estella Coleman was good to Robert. She loved him and cared for him. Robert more than repaid her kindness and became a mentor to her son.) He was named Robert, too, and wasn’t much younger than him. Although named Robert Lockwood, Jr. after his real father, he was soon known as “Robert, Jr.”, after his “stepdaddy”, Robert Johnson.
The youngster displayed a natural aptitude for music even before he met Johnson, but it began to take definite shape under his tutelage. Johnson showed much of what he knew to the younger man and over the next four or five years imparted to him, so that it would become his own, many of the characteristics of the Johnson style.
While basing himself in Helena with Stella and Robert, Jr., Johnson played all over the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta- -Clarksdale, Rosedale, Friars Point, Lula, Coahoma, Midnight, Inverness, Moorhead, Itta Bena, Tchula, Drew, Jonestown, Yazoo City, Hollandale, Greenville, Leland, Shaw, Gunnison, Beulah, Lobdell, Lamont, Winterville; and Tunica, Robinsonville, Clack, and Walls in the northern Delta as well as Marianna, Hughes, Brickeys, Marvell, Arkansas and some little places that didn’t even have names! The word would go out that Robert Johnson was going to be at such and such a place and the people would come. They knew they’d have a good time and hear some fine music if they went where he was. From all reports, they were right.
Robert Johnson was protective about his style of playing music and was acutely aware of overly watchful eyes. He wouldn’t show aspiring musicians how to play his songs–that was his business and his living. If he was asked how he played something, he might say, “Just like you”, and be through with it. If someone was eyeing him too closely for his comfort, he might get up in the middle of a song, make some feeble excuse to leave the room, and be gone for months. This reported practice of protection and disappearance all seemed very quirky until research undertaken in the early 1990’s has revealed that Johnson may have been guarding a method of tuning his guitar that he wanted no others to discover, not even his own student.
In any event, and for whatever reason, Robert Johnson became a stone traveler. He developed a penchant for it. Awake or asleep, anytime of the day or night, he was ready to go anywhere, even back the way he’d just come. Traveling was, in and of itself, the main thing.
Moving around the way he did and playing in so many different places to so many different people all the time, he had to, out of necessity, be able to play almost anything which was requested of him. In addition to the blues for which he was known, he developed a very well-rounded repertoire that included all the pop tunes of the day and yesterday, hillbilly tunes, polkas, square dances, sentimental songs, and ballads. Among the more common pieces he played were, “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby,” “My Blue Heaven,” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”!
In having to learn the many kinds of music which he had to play, Robert developed a very unusual talent. He could hear a piece just once over the radio or phonograph or from someone in person and be able to play it. He could be deep in conversation with a group of people and hear something–never stop talking–and later be able to play it and sing it perfectly. It amazed some very fine musicians, and they never understood how he did it. Johnny Shines reported that Robert never had to practice, by the time he got ready to play something he already knew it.
Robert came in contact with a great many people in his travels and they all helped to spread his fame. Naturally, at least half of them were women, and most of them were crazy about him. The other half, the men, would go crazy if their women liked him too much. Robert was pretty hard on “working girls”–they were too tough for him, too–but if he was going to be in any one place for a while, he developed a technique of female selection that generally kept him out of trouble and well fed and cared for, to boot.
As soon as he hit town, he’d find the homeliest woman he could. A few kind words and he knew he’d have a place to stay anytime. His reasons were threefold: 1. She probably wouldn’t have a man. 2. No one was likely to be after her or upset if he was with her. 3. Just a little attention would bring him nearly anything he wanted. Accordingly, Robert could be the nicest guy in the world to the ugliest witch in town.
He never stopped loving all the women, though, and out having fun, he might put his arm around anybody’s old lady. More than once it got him in a scrape that, being small and no scrapper to begin with, somebody else would have to help him finish.
He had developed a taste for booze, gambling, and an occasional smoke, too, and although he never became habitual with any of them, he did drink to excess more than a few times. He couldn’t handle his liquor at all, and when he did drink too much, he would often talk loud, curse his maker, and get in fights, but he was never a sloppy or messy drunk!
Sober, Robert Johnson frequently became a pensive man. Often he could be found sitting alone in a deep study. Over the years, his behavior became progressively moody and erratic, but a drink or two, especially if he had purchased them for himself and a few friends, transformed him into the life of the party.
By the middle 1930’s Robert Johnson had been a professional musician for quite a few years. He was very well known all through the Delta areas and had followings in southern Mississippi and eastern Tennessee, too. He had wanted to make records for some years, as his mentors Willie Brown, Son House, and Charlie Patton had done. He wanted to join the ranks of the musicians to whom he had listened and from whom he learned off phonograph records, Kokomo Arnold, Leroy Carr, Skip James, Lonnie Johnson, and others. And so he made contact with the one fellow in Mississippi that he knew would know how he should go about it.
H. C. Speir ran a music store in Jackson, Mississippi, and had an informal studio for making records for personal use on the premises. He was also employed from time to time as a talent scout by various record companies. Paramount recorded a great many people upon his recommendation and he was known in the industry as the possessor of an acute ability to be able to determine on what black people would spend their money. During the times when hardly anybody knew what anyone would buy, this was a great and useful talent, and Speir was constantly in demand for his advice and services.
By the time Robert Johnson was ready to record, Speir had just concluded a deal with the American Record Company that left him rather embittered. His agreement with them included a payment schedule based on the number of sides released, and of the 178 sides he helped them cut in Jackson and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, ARC chose to issue a mere 40! Speir was so discouraged about it that when Robert contacted him and auditioned for him at his music store, all he was willing to do was take his name and pass it along to someone who might do him some good.
Ernie Oertle was the ARC salesman and informal talent scout for the mid-South in the late 1930s, and surprisingly, it was to him that Speir gave Johnson’s name and address. After an audition, Oertle decided to take Johnson to San Antonio to record.
Robert’s first session in November 1936 yielded the song for which he is most widely remembered, “Terraplane Blues.” It was his best seller and a fair-sized hit for Vocalion Records. He was recalled to Texas to cut some more sides the following June, but although Don Law was able to get some very decent material from him–in fact, some of his best–nothing sold as well as “Terraplane.” Although six of Johnson’s eleven records were still in the Vocalion catalog by December 1938, he wasn’t recalled that spring nor even the following summer. Vocalion did release one final 78 in February 1939, but that was probably due to a great deal of interest in him by John Hammond.
The recordings, especially “Terraplane,” provided Robert additional fame, and through personal appearances, an increased fortune. He was able to go nearly anywhere and find an eager, expectant crowd. He soon found out that this was true not only in his own area of concentration, but around the country as well.
Robert left Helena with Johnny Shines and Calvin Frazier, who really had to leave–he had killed a couple of men in Arkansas–and they struck out on a trip that lasted about four months. They took Highway 51 north to Chicago through St. Louis, where they met many of the city’s famous bluesmen–Peetie Wheatstraw, Henry Townsend, Roosevelt Sykes, Teddy Darby, and others–and Decatur, Illinois, where they played for a square dance.
In Detroit, their next stop, they hooked up with a broadcasting preacher and appeared with him on radio as well as in his personal appearances, both there and in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Calvin stayed in Detroit, where he settled and later recorded for the Library of Congress in 1938, clearly displaying his musical affinity with Johnson, who, with Shines in tow, visited the East Coast briefly, playing in New York and New Jersey. Their return through St. Louis and Memphis reinforced newly-made friendships and renewed old ones, while the whole trip served to spread Johnson’s name considerably and widen his audience as well as his own awareness and personal horizons.
During this excursion with Shines, Robert displayed a certain uneasiness with his traveling companion. Frequently he would slip away from him, and Shines would have to guess which way he went and try to catch up with him. It was an uncomfortable feeling for Shines, but he knew of no one better to follow and learn from, so he stuck with it to Memphis.
Urban life presented no great challenge to Robert–he’d feigned urbanity for many years by that time–and he took St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and New York in easy stride. His musical approach was altered a bit–he began playing with a small combo. He used a pianist and a drummer in a Belzoni jook joint–the drummer had “Robert Johnson” painted in black letters across his bass drum–before a large crowd of people, a good many of them musicians. And he was able to play anything people wanted, he began to concentrate less and less on the blues. He may have gotten away from it almost entirely had it not been for some divine intervention.
It seems so ironic that for all of Johnson’s efforts to make himself known to the world through his music, better himself, and upgrade the status quo, at least for himself, he should be heard so distinctly by the one person that had his ear open, pocketbook ready and the power and ability at his beck and call to assist him. And it’s even more ironic–indeed, tragic–that it was never to be.
Sometime in June or July of 1938, Robert left Helena and swung through Robinsonville to see his people before taking up a playing offer he had further down in the Delta. There was a jook joint out from Greenwood at the intersection of Highways 82 and 49E, a little place the locals referred to as “Three Forks”, “Three Corners” or “Three Points”. It was here that Robert played his last job. During the time that he was there, he became friends with a woman on whom another had already staked his claim.
It was a dangerous occupation being a musician in those days: Musicians hated you if you played better than them. Women hated you if you cast your eye on anyone else. And the men hated you if the women loved you. A great musician had to be careful, especially if he didn’t care to whose woman he was talkin’. And, by then, Robert was notorious for that.
Robert Johnson had been in the Greenwood locale for at least a couple of weeks, sharing Saturday night plays with “Honeyboy” Edwards, who lived in Greenwood. Robert had made friends with a local woman, who happened to be the wife of the man who ran the jookhouse at “Three Forks”. She would come into Greenwood on Mondays, ostensibly to see her sister, but, in fact, to spend time with him.
On one Saturday night of in July, 1938, there was the added attraction of “Sonny Boy Williamson”. He wore a belt of harps around his waist in those days, and he was a familiar and popular rambling songster. “Honeyboy” wasn’t to arrive until after 10:30 p.m.. By that time, Robert and Sonny were through for the evening. Sonny Boy had left, and never again would Robert perform his great blues!
Musician Houston Stackhouse was not there, but having been close to Robert at one time, he was curious about Robert’s death. He was also close to Sonny Boy and so, over a period of time, he was able to obtain a more complete picture of the events of that fateful evening. The tale Stackhouse received from Sonny was verified to the best of knowledge by “Honeyboy”, and so it is that we know how Robert Johnson met his fate.
There was a great deal of music and dancing that night, what with a great Delta guitarist and an exemplary harmonicist in attendance, both of whom sang and played their own brand of Delta blues. One can imagine that there was a great deal of good-natured musical rivalry going on, too, but as the evening progressed, a different, less good-natured form of rivalry reared its ugly head.
From all reports, Robert, as he was wont to do, began displaying his attraction to the lady he had been seeing during his time in the locale. He may not have known, nor probably would it have mattered to him, that she was the houseman’s wife.
Sonny Boy had been keeping an eye on the evening’s proceedings. He had noticed both the attraction Robert displayed for the lady, as well as the marked tension on the countenances of certain persons in the house. He knew that it was a potentially explosive predicament. He was ready.
And so, during a break in the music, Robert and Sonny Boy were standing together when someone brought Robert an open half-pint of whiskey. As Robert was about to drink from it, Sonny Boy knocked it out of his hand and it broke against the ground. Sonny admonished him, “Man, don’t never take a drink from a open bottle. You don’t know what could be in it.” Robert, in turn, retorted, “Man, don’t never knock a bottle of whisky outta my hand.” And so it was. When a second open bottle was brought to Johnson. Sonny could only stand by, watch, and hope.
It wasn’t too long after Robert returned to his guitar that he soon could no longer sing. Sonny took up the slack for him with his voice and harmonica, but after a bit, Robert stopped short in the middle of a number and got up and went outside. He was sick and before the night was over, he was displaying definite signs of poisoning; he was out of his mind. It seems the houseman’s jealousy finally got the best of him and someone laced Robert’s whisky with strychnine. It got the best of Robert, too!
He was young and virile enough to withstand the poisoning, though, and he made it through the next couple of weeks. Eventually, he was removed from his room in the “Baptist Town” section of Greenwood to a private home on the “Star of the West” plantation, where he received round-the-clock attention… but it was already too late. He lay deathly ill and in his weakened condition, he apparently contracted pneumonia (for which there was no cure prior to 1946), and succumbed on Tuesday, August 16, 1938.
When later in 1938, John Hammond began recruiting talent for his first From Spirituals to Swing concert. He called Don Law in Dallas and asked him if he could round up Robert Johnson and get him to New York for his presentation at Carnegie Hall. Hammond thought Johnson the greatest of all the country blues guys and wanted him to fill one of the opening slots in his show. Law could hardly believe his ears. He told Hammond he was making a big mistake. Johnson was so shy that he would freeze up in front of an audience. But Hammond replied that if Law would just get in touch with him, he would take care of the rest. Law got the word to Oertle, who set out to locate Johnson.
It had been more than a year since Oertle had been in contact with him, and it took some digging before he learned the bitter truth and got it back to Law–Johnson had died recently under uncertain circumstances. In truth, Robert Johnson had been poisoned for getting too close to somebody else’s woman one time too many, even though some claim it was syphilis that killed him.
Robert Johnson was buried in a wooden coffin that was furnished by the county. His mother, brother-in-law, and later his half-sister Carrie all visited his grave in, as recent research indicates, the graveyard of the Little Zion Church just north of Greenwood, Mississippi. That particular stretch of county road, which eventually delivers the traveler to the hamlet of Money, Mississippi, is commonly referred to as, “the Money road”.
Hammond, by the way, got Big Bill Broonzy for the New York show.
His death certificate simply read “no doctor”. Assuming that his birth date really was on May 8, 1911, Robert Johnson became the first official member of the infamous 27 Club, which also includes stars like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Kurt Cobain, who died at that same age.
Robert’s life is sketchy and shroaded in myths and mystery, but in his very short life he became one of the most influential delta blues singer/guitarists in modern day music, influencing the likes of Bob Dylan, Hendrix, Clapton, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Elvis Presley and so many more musicians and singers.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “Early Influence” in their first induction ceremony in 1986 and was ranked fifth in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
It is now generally accepted that his remains lie in the grounds of the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, two miles north of Greenwood. Another marker was placed at that location in 2002.
A long recollection of his life, the mystery, his work and his legacy can be found on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Johnson
While he was alive he was just one of many black musicians making their living performing in the Mississippi Delta, that wedge of land located between the towns of Clarksdale, Greenville and Greenwood and bordered by the silt-laden waters of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers.
Some historians say he was no more than a pop-singer, who made his money not from performing his own blues compositions but singing whatever was popular at the time. It was only after his death, they argue, that Johnson’s small catalogue of work was seized on by a new generation of musicians and fans who elevated his role in the development of blues to its present heights. In particular they point to the influence of the 1961 release by Columbia Records of 16 Johnson recordings under the title King of the Delta Blues Singers.
“The blues was pop music, it simply wasn’t folk music. It was reinvented retroactively as black folk music, which brought a new set of standards to bear on it and created a whole new pantheon of heroes,” says Elijah Wald, author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. “Blues musicians such as Johnson were not moaning field labourers, they were Sam Cooke, they were Snoop Dogg, they were Aretha Franklin. That’s what we’ve forgotten and that’s what a lot of white blues fans don’t want them to be.”
Correctly or not, Johnson is now considered one of the most seminal blues figures. Clapton, who in 2004 recorded an entire album of Johnson tracks and restaged one of only two known photographs of the musician, described him simply as the “the most important blues musician who ever lived”.
The noted US music critic Greil Marcus wrote of Johnson in his 1975 book, Mystery Train: “Johnson’s vision was of a world without salvation, redemption or rest … Johnson’s music is so strong that in certain moods it can make you feel that he is giving you more than you could have bargained for, that there is a place for you in those lines of his.”
For some fans, much of the allure is doubtless connected to Johnson’s fast-living, hard-drinking and womanising lifestyle. One of the most famous stories of his life concerns how he obtained his playing skills by walking out to the junction of US Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale and selling his soul to the devil in a Faustian pact.
The mundane truth, as authors Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch discovered when they examined all the available newspaper clippings about Johnson dating back to 1937, is that the story about this deal with the devil first appeared in 1966, in an interview given by fellow bluesman Son House. Indeed, the legend was first told about Johnson’s namesake, Tommy Johnson, another contemporary blues musician who may or may not have been a distant cousin. (Nor is the story limited to blues musicians: the 19th-century violinist and composer Paganini was also rumoured to have obtained his virtuoso technique by way of a Satanic deal.)
Tommy Johnson’s brother, Le Dell, once told University of Memphis ethnomusicologist David Evans, that he had once asked Tommy how he had learned to play. “He said, ‘If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and how to make songs yourself, take your guitar and go to where the road crosses that way, where the crossroad is … Be sure to get there a little before 12 that night so you’ll know you’ll be there … A big black man will walk up and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s how I learned to play anything I want’.”
But many of the musicians who became fans of Johnson were simply entranced by his playing, fascinated by how he managed to play both the chords and the riffs at the same time. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said that when he was first introduced to Johnson’s solo recordings by bandmate Brian Jones, he asked about the “other guy playing with him”. “I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realise he was doing it all by himself,” said Richards.
Others have commented on Johnson’s unique rhythm, pointing out that the strumming on tracks such as Preaching Blues gives the impression of being on a freight car – a suitable inspiration for a man who travelled from town to town by hitching a ride or else stowing away on a freight train.
The blues and roots musician Ry Cooder, another Johnson fan, has speculated that the musician obtained his comparatively clear results during those primitive recording session by facing into the corner of the room and placing the microphone between himself and the wall to get a better acoustic.
Only his family and a handful of childhood friends knew anything of significance about him, and most of those who survive have only recently come to realize his seminal importance in the world of today’s popular music.
To his half-sister, Carrie Spencer, he was the baby brother who got caught in the upheaval that her family underwent so many years ago. They became very close over the years, and upon his death, “Mama and them didn’t want to tell me about Robert bein’ poisoned. They knew it’d hurt me so. But by them not tellin’ me and lettin’ him be buried by the county, why, you know that hurt me even more.”
To his late stepfather, Dusty Willis, he was no good…because he wouldn’t get behind that mule in the mornin’, plow behind him all day long, all week long, all year long, all for nothing–to be told at the end of the year, if you did well, that you only owed the bossman $300 on next year’s crop!
To his friend R.L. Windum, he was the schoolboy with whom he used to blow harmonica and who grew up to be a fine and famous guitar player: “Robert come back here every year, wantin’ me to go with him, but I never went; just never followed that life.”
To Willie Brown, he was the little boy to whom he showed the rudiments of guitar–how to make chords, when to change, how to play anything he wanted.
To Son House, he was the little boy who could play harp pretty good and would slip off from home to hear him and Willie Brown. When the youngster tried to play the older musician’s guitar, Son scolded him, “Don’t do that, Robert. You drive people nuts. You can’t play nothin’.” Years later, Son could only stand off and blink.
To Ike Zinnerman, he was the fellow who used to stay away from his wife all weekend to learn the guitar and the blues and songs Ike played.
To Robert Lockwood, Jr., he was the man who lived with his mother. “Before Robert come along, I always wanted to be a piano player, but he got me offa that and onto the guitar. He was such an inspiration to me-he took time with me and showed me things, and he didn’t do that with nobody–I never thought about the piano again.”
To Johnny Shines, he was a living idol; someone he tagged along behind and from whom he tried to learn about music and the guitar. “When I first heard him play. I felt then that I had to learn to play like him. Here was somebody that was doin’ the things that I felt like was right and naturally I was quite inspired by it.”
To Don Law, he was the shy, young bluesman he recorded in Texas in the 1930s who “had never been off the plantation on which he was born!” Law’s other recollections of Johnson are equally distorted, inaccurate, and misleading.
But to John Hammond, champion of black music and talent scout par excellence, he was the greatest primitive blues singer of all time. “When I was selecting talent for my first Spirituals to Swing Concert, I sent for Robert Johnson. I wanted black music to make an impression on a white audience and we got the finest exponents of blues, jazz and gospel music that we could find. Can you imagine how famous Robert Johnson would be today had he been able to make it?”
And to the world at large, however unaware it might be, Robert Johnson is the most influential bluesman of all time and the person most responsible for the shape popular music has taken in the last six decades!