Robert Johnson is one of the most celebrated figures in blues history. Although he died when he was just twenty-seven years old, his impact on
blues culture and blues mythology, as well as his influence on the development of blues guitar styles, has been substantial to say the least. A half-century after his death, Johnson still possessed the power
and magnetism to play a major role in the latest blues revival. In 1990, Columbia Records kicked off its prestigious Roots 'n' Blues Series with The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson, a two-disc boxed
set with extensive liner notes, rare photos, and a fresh view of his music. According to series producer Larry Cohn, the set was expected to sell some 20,000 copies. Incredibly, it sold nearly a half-million
units. It also won a Grammy Award, inspired a number of Robert Johnson cover stories in the music press, launched a brand new fascination with Johnson's music and his contribution to blues guitar, and
hastened the reissuing of classic blues albums on compact disc by dozens of other companies.
If Robert Johnson had never been born, the blues might have seen fit to invent him, as his story has become the
archetype of blues life. It reads so much like a film that it inevitably became one. Based loosely on the always sketchy details of his life, the mid-1980s movie Crossroads is something no true blues fan
would ever consider anything more than mere entertainment. But that the Johnson legacy was compelling enough to warrant a full-length feature film tells us much about the impact he has had on our view of the
Johnson's recording catalog adds up to a grand total of only twenty-nine tracks; it is criminally lean when compared to those of such blues giants as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin Hopkins,
and others. Yet most blues scholars and critics agree that there is more than enough musical evidence available to proclaim Johnson a musical genius, while his lyrics have been analyzed more closely perhaps
than those of any other blues composer.
According to the myth, Johnson obtained his amazing guitar skills by selling his soul to the Devil. (That Johnson wrote songs about the Devil and explored in
his music the fight of good against evil strengthened the myth, which endured after his death and grew larger as the years passed.) Aside from this Faustian explanation, we know little about how Johnson came
to acquire his compelling skills, as both a songwriter and guitarist, in such a remarkably brief time.
He certainly had the physical tools to forge an unusual blues guitar style. A careful look at the
photo that appears on the box of The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson reveals the guitarist to have had extraordinarily large hands. Some of the chordal movements and note selections that grace his
songs are practically impossible to achieve with normal-size fingers. Yet this physical trait doesn't explain where Johnson's inspiration came from.
Some of it can be indirectly traced and some
perhaps inferred. Johnson's use of walking bass notes probably came from hearing first-generation boogie-woogie piano players. He certainly must have learned about guitar tone and texture from listening to
Lonnie Johnson. And Delta greats such as Charley Patton, Willie Brown, and Son House undoubtedly influenced his approach to the slide guitar. With all the traveling Johnson did in his short life, surely he
picked up melodic and rhythmic ideas from other bluesmen he met. Yet what made all these influences jell was his blues passion and deeply rooted intensity. In the end, these are the things that made
Johnson's guitar work truly special.
A few historians believe the influence of Johnson's guitar playing has been overstated. While his style has worked its way into modern blues and rock and has touched
Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Johnny Shines, John Hammond, Jr., Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards, to name a few prominent blues and rock guitarists, bluesmen other than Johnson have
exerted far more sweeping influences. T-Bone Walker and B.B. King, for instance, have had a greater impact on the course of blues guitar history. Nonetheless, Johnson remains a vital source of inspiration,
not to mention frustration, for those who seek to take blues guitar to a new, more spectacular level. Few other blues guitarists are held in higher esteem. It is also safe to say that no one who has surfaced
since his passing has been able to match his unconventional guitar accomplishments, save, perhaps, Jimi Hendrix.
Johnson was born illegitimate in 1911 to Julia Ann Majors Dodds and Noah Johnson. When he
was three or four, Johnson's mother sent him to live with her husband, Charles Dodds, who was residing in Memphis and had taken a new name, Charles Spencer. As a youth, Johnson was known as Robert Spencer
and Robert Dodds, but when he learned the identity of his real father, he assumed the name Johnson.
Before he absorbed the rudiments of the guitar, mostly by watching his older brother Charles play,
Johnson had taught himself how to play harmonica. He learned, too, from watching Son House, Charley Patton, and Willie Brown play guitar at Delta picnics and parties. Not much is known about Johnson's
personal life other than that by 1930 he had married and lost his wife, who died during childbirth, and that he had decided to become a bluesman. Johnson remarried in 1931, but spent most of his time
wandering the Delta. Around 1933 or so, Johnson met up again with Son House and Willie Brown. What they heard Johnson play on guitar startled them.
In an amazingly short time, Johnson had turned into a
blues guitar master, hence the myth that he made a deal with the Devil. Johnson's reputation as a guitarist spread as he worked as an itinerant bluesman, roaming the Delta. He also traveled to Memphis, St.
Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and even to New York. Occasionally he traveled with fellow bluesman Johnny Shines and often met David Honeyboy Edwards and Robert Jr. Lockwood on the road. Most of the time, however,
he traveled alone.
Johnson's only two recording sessions occurred just a couple of years before his death. The first session took place in November 1936 in a San Antonio, Texas, hotel room. During
the three-day session Johnson cut sixteen sides for the American Record Company, including "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," "Sweet Home Chicago," "Terraplane Blues," "Cross
Road Blues," "Come on in My Kitchen," and "Walkin' Blues" -all acknowledged classics.
The second session occurred in June 1937 in a Dallas warehouse, producing still more
Johnson classics, such as "Traveling Riverside Blues," "Love in Vain Blues," "Hell Hound on My Trail," "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Stones In My
Passway."(108 k, 10 sec.) After this last session, Johnson resumed his wandering ways, ultimately winding up in Greenwood, Mississippi, where, on Saturday night, August 13, 1938, he was poisoned
with strychnine-laced whiskey after a brief fling with the wife of a local juke-joint owner. Three days later he died.
Johnson was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.