Robert Johnson was born Robert Leroy Johnson in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, on the 8th of May, 1911.
When he was only young, Robert’s Father was forced to leave town by a mob following several disputes with white landowners. His Mother raised him for the next two years then sent him to live with his Father in Memphis.
In 1919, Robert moved to the Mississippi Delta area to rejoin his Mother and her new husband, it was here that Robert enrolled at Tunica’s Indian Creek School. Robert attended school from 1924 to 1927 and by most accounts was considered to be quite well educated for a young man of his demographic standing. Robert was also gaining attention as a competent blues harmonica player.
In 1929, Robert married 16 year old Virginia Harris and was content to live a quiet life as a husband, Father and farmer. Soon after their marriage, Virginia died giving birth to Robert’s child. Virginia’s relatives credited her death as God’s punishment for Robert’s interest in singing and playing ungodly music. The death of his wife had a profound effect on Robert, causing him to abandon his quiet life as a farmer and begin a career as a traveling blues musician.
It was around this time that Robert met blues legend Son House in Robinsonville. Son House recalled Robert as a competent harmonica player but a dreadful guitarist, he even stated instances where patrons were driven from bars and clubs from Robert’s terrible playing.
Not long after this, Robert left Robinsonville and settled in Martinsville, close to his birthplace of Hazlehurst. The time he spent here is unspecified, some accounts say two years, while Son House was quoted as saying it was only 8 months. During his stay, Robert perfected the blues guitar playing style of the Mississippi Delta and received guitar lessons from another Delta Blues master, Isiah Zinnerman, known by the nickname “Ike”.
Robert’s mentor Ike was rumoured to have gained his exceptional guitar skills through supernatural means, by playing his guitar in graveyards at the stroke of midnight, or making a pact with the devil.
After his time in Martinsville, Robert returned to Robinsonville to find Son House performing in the local bars and clubs. Son House was documented saying that Robert walked into the bar he was playing with his guitar, and after Son asked him why he bothered to return, Robert convinced Son to allow him to play.
You could imagine the surprise of Son House and the bar patrons as the young man they had walked out on a year earlier played them the greatest guitar blues of the time. Robert’s reputation as a blues guitar master spread fast and wide, from 1932 up until his sudden death in 1938, Robert traveled from city’s and towns throughout the regions of Mississippi and Arkansas playing his music.
Robert often stayed with women who became seduced by his musical performances and was said to have used different last names so the women he stayed with would remain ignorant to his life.
Robert’s rapid mastery of the guitar and his unique and technical blues style gave rise to the widely believed legend that he acquired his skill by selling his soul to the devil.
According to the legend, Robert met the Devil who appeared as a large black man at a crossroads near Dockery Plantation at midnight. In a supernatural pact, Robert exchanged his soul for his astonishing blues guitar ability.
Robert died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1938 at the age of 27, in a manner described by witnesses as a convulsive state of pain. The exact cause of Robert’s death is still uncertain, further encouraging the supernatural legends that surround him.
Some say Robert was poisoned by a bottle of alcohol containing strychnine, though toxicologists argue that the effects of strychnine would be present within a few hours, and Robert become ill over the course of a few days. Other’s believe Robert may have died from complications caused by syphilis.
According to the supernatural legend, the Devil came to claim what was his during Robert’s fateful last hours.
Techniques And Musical Concepts They Popularised
Robert Johnson is considered a master of the Delta Blues and one of the most important guitar players in the development of blues and rock music.
Robert’s Boogie-Woogie piano style bass line from his iconic song “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” was completely new for the time, but has since become an integral part of rock and blues rhythm guitar playing.
Robert’s guitar playing style was extremely advanced and deeply complex.
Keith Richards was quoted as calling Robert “an orchestra all by himself.” When Keith was first introduced to Robert through fellow Rolling Stone, Brian Jones, upon his first hearing he thought there were two guitar players instead of one.
As well as being well versed in the Delta Blues, Robert was renowned for his competent ability of other guitar styles and his uncanny ability to pick up guitar parts and guitar songs upon a single hearing.
Robert’s first ever recording “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” is praised by musicologists for it’s unique blend of Delta, Chicago and St. Louis style blues, an arrangement unheard of by any other Delta guitar player at the time.
Robert’s influence on the development of rock music was so profound that The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted four of his songs; “Hell Hound on My Trail”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Love in Vain” and “Cross Road Blues” into a collected list of five hundred historical tracks considered paramount in the evolution of rock music and guitar playing.
Robert’s 1937 track “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” was once described as sounding so far ahead of it’s time that it was more like a rock song reminiscent of the 1950’s.
Notable Rock Guitar Players They Influenced
Robert Johnson’s influential guitar playing style has spread a vast influence throughout the world of guitar playing, permeating nearly all contemporary guitar playing styles. Though none of these styles was more profoundly influenced then rock music.
Though he died decades earlier, Robert’s guitar playing capabilities inspired a revolutionary generation of rock musicians during the 1960’s who further shaped the future of rock music and electric guitar playing.
Robert’s music was an inspiration for The Rollings Stones who covered Roberts “Walkin’ Blues” in 1968, “Love in Vain” for their 1969 album “Let It Bleed” and “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” for their 1972 album “Exile on Main Street”.
In 1968 Cream released an arrangement of Robert’s “Cross Road Blues” simply entitled “Crossroads”. In 2004 Eric Clapton recorded a Robert Johnson tribute album entitled “Me and Mr. Johnson” where he covered some of Robert’s most notable tracks.
Led Zeppelin‘s song “Traveling Riverside Blues” payed homage to Robert in both it’s musical style and lyrical content quoting well known lyrics from iconic Robert Johnson songs.
Fleetwood Mac’s legendary guitar player Peter Green recorded Robert’s entire collected catalogue with two albums, while fellow Fleetwood Mac guitar player Jeremy Spencer contributed two Robert Johnson covers to Fleetwood Mac’s earlier albums.
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