Johnson, Robert (1914?-1938)

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Johnson, Robert (1914?-1938)

Arguably the most influential figure in the history of the blues, Robert Leroy Johnson was at once a virtuoso guitarist, a gifted poet, and a skilled vocalist. Johnson, who emerged out of the Mississippi Delta in the early 1930s as one of the premier practitioners of the blues form, left a recorded legacy of just 41 songs. However, the tracks he laid down over two sessions in 1936 and 1937 became fundamental to the repertoires of other blues players and, after the "rediscovery" of the blues by white musicians in the 1960s, to blues-influenced rock artists everywhere. (Among the most covered and recorded Johnson compositions are "Crossroads Blues," "Sweet Home Chicago," and "Love in Vain.")

So prodigious were Johnson's skills on the six-string guitar, a legend (fostered by Johnson himself) grew up around him that he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for this particular gift. Johnson's violent and untimely demise, allegedly at the hands of the jealous husband of one of his many lovers, combines with the romance of his shadowy, itinerant life to make him one of the most celebrated folk legends of the twentieth century. His enormous talent and the dark reputation he self-consciously promoted help explain his enduring place in the popular imagination. The fact that Johnson, unlike many other talented blues musicians of the early part of the century, was recorded has further cemented his reputation as one of the all-time greats of the genre.

Born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, to Mary and Noah Johnson, "Little Robert" was fascinated with making music from an early age. As sharecroppers in the fertile but dirt-poor Yazoo basin, the Johnsons had neither the inclination nor the means to give Robert a formal musical education, and certain of his contemporaries have suggested that young Robert, while wildly enthusiastic about music, was not much of a musician. Eddie James "Son" House, Jr., one of the most respected blues performers of the generation before Johnson's, remembered the youngster as an eager apprentice, but one who did not at first show much promise. Johnson would show up at the juke joints and house parties, where House was a Saturday night fixture, and beg the older man to teach him to play. Rebuffed and mocked by the older musicians he worshipped, Johnson eventually took to the road in search of a willing mentor.

A reluctant maestro, Eddie "Son" House nevertheless made a large impression on the young Johnson. House's sometime traveling partner Willie Brown, later immortalized in a Johnson song, also affected the youngster profoundly. ("You can run, you can run," Johnson sings in the last verse of "Crossroads Blues," hinting at the cost of his infernal bargain, "Tell my friend poor Willie Brown. / Lord, I'm standing at the crossroads / I believe I'm sinking down.") Johnson's style, however startlingly unprecedented it seems in retrospect, was in fact fashioned from elements taken from such players as 1920s Texas great Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi Delta legend Charlie Patton, and, of course, House.

Johnson's brand of the blues emphasizes an intricate interplay between guitar and voice. In many of his recordings, he highlights sung lines with rhythmic bursts of guitar playing, typically playing a bass line with his thumb while picking out chords and riffs with his fingers. A major innovator of slide-guitar technique—in which the player frets the instrument with a glass or metal object—Johnson routinely makes his guitar sound like a human voice, his voice like a guitar. On such numbers as "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day," he creates a drum-like beat with slide fingerings. He pushes his plangent alto across the verses, often dropping into a speaking voice at the end of lines (e.g. "Stones in My Passway").

His early travels account in part for the mystery in which Johnson's life would always be shrouded. He traveled under both his father's and two stepfathers' names (Dodds and Spencer), but on returning to his home county was coy about where he had been. He further bolstered his mysterious reputation by bragging that he'd made a Faustian pact to become the best guitar player alive—a publicity strategy that had been used to great effect by older blues men such as Skip James, whose "Devil Got My Woman" Johnson refashioned as "Hellhound on My Trail." Johnson's wanderlust remained unsatisfied throughout his brief life, as evidenced by his two-year ramble with Johnny Shines and Walter Horton from 1933 to 1935. Two widely reproduced photographs of Johnson exist: one seems to have been taken in a coin-operated photo booth, the other, a studio portrait, features a giddy-looking Johnson in a new suit and hat. The obscure provenance and suggestive composition of the two pictures have fed the imaginations of scholars and fans alike, and have helped keep the Johnson legend alive.

More crucial to the continuation of the legend than the photographs, though, are the sound recordings Johnson cut. These were made during a boom period for so-called "race records"—78 rpm recordings of African American blues and jazz singers, aimed at the non-white market. Race records were a big business in the 1920s and 1930s, and music scouts from the white-owned record companies were commonly sent into the American south in search of new talent. Blind Lemon Jefferson, whose artistic influence on Johnson is noted above, was one of the top-selling artists of his day, and thus a model of both aesthetic and business success for Johnson. (Jefferson became so popular that Paramount, his record company, began issuing his sides with lemon-colored labels.) In 1936, Don Law, an American Recording Company (ARC) engineer tasked to find the next Blind Lemon, recorded Johnson in San Antonio, Texas. Law famously reported that Johnson suffered so badly from stage fright that the young singer recorded his songs facing the back wall of the hotel room in which the session was held.

Johnson's shyness has entered somewhat too easily into the historical record. The story of an enormously talented but bashful country boy overwhelmed and intimidated by the big city has, of course, a certain charm. But a convincing explanation for Johnson's apparently timid behavior in Law's improvised recording studio might be found in his reluctance in other contexts to show other musicians his riffs. He was, it seems, somewhat notorious among musicians in the south for his refusal to reveal his unconventional fingerings to potential competitors, and was known to conceal his hands from audiences as he played. This secrecy, of course, had the collateral advantage of enhancing his satanic reputation.

Whatever his motives for turning away from the team from ARC, Johnson managed to lay down a bona fide hit during the San Antonio session, the sly "Terraplane Blues." The song, which playfully confuses a complaint about a lover's infidelities with a car owner's frustration over a rough-running jalopy (anticipating by decades smashes such as Chuck Berry's "Mabeline" and Prince's "Little Red Corvette"), sold around 5,000 copies and established Johnson's reputation as a leading performer of the blues. Sings Johnson: "Now, you know the coils ain't even buzzin' / Little generator won't get the spark / Motor's in bad condition / You gotta have these batteries charged. / But I'm cryin' please, please don't do me wrong / Who been driving my Terraplane / Now for you since I been gone?"

Law recorded Johnson again in July of 1937, this time for Vocalion Records, in Dallas. In the second session, Johnson recorded what would become some of his best-loved, most enduring sides, "Dust My Broom" and "Love in Vain." Together with the first session, the second provided the 29 cuts which, much to the delight of blues and folk aficionados, Columbia brought out in 1961, nearly a quarter century after Johnson's death. Before the appearance of the Columbia LPs, Johnson's records were known to only a very select few—notwithstanding the 1930s juke box popularity of "Terraplane Blues." Johnson's entire recorded oeuvre, the 29 songs from the 1961 release plus 12 alternate takes, was at last released in 1991, again by Columbia.

Robert Johnson has the dubious distinction of being the only blues musician to have had a Ralph Macchio movie made about his legend (Crossroads, 1986). The film, with guitar playing taking the place of martial arts for "The Karate Kid," is significant in that it suggests the longevity and seemingly universal appeal of the Johnson legend. For better or worse, Johnson's songs have been recorded by such British rock heavyweights as Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Cream, groups whose work continues to have a considerable influence on rock musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. The mysterious circumstances of Johnson's death—some say he was knifed, others claim that, like his hero Blind Lemon Jefferson, he drank poisoned coffee—have further enhanced the romance of his story. A particularly provocative rumor that has circulated about Johnson is that just prior to his death he had been in Chicago, where he put together an electric-guitar based combo. Whether Johnson was in Chicago or not, his influence there shines through clearly in the work of, among others, Muddy Waters, viewed by many critics as the next link in the chain connecting traditional country blues to electrified blues-based urban forms such as rhythm and blues, soul, and rock and roll.

—Matthew Mulligan Goldstein

Further Reading:

Guralnick, Peter. Searching for Robert Johnson. New York, Dutton, 1989.

Lomax, Alan. The Land Where the Blues Began. New York, Pantheon, 1993.

Welding, Pete and Toby Byron. Bluesland: Portraits of Twelve Major American Blues Masters. New York, Dutton, 1991.

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Johnson, Robert (1914?-1938)

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