I don’t know a single serious blues, rock, or jazz guitar player who is not familiar with or has not studied the playing of Delta Country Blues legend Robert Johnson. Born in 1911in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and dead by the age of 27 Johnson left a mark so big that he is honored by his legacy to this day and will continue to be by future generations of musicians, singers and guitarists. His influence to blues and rock has been one of the greatest of any musician from the 20th century.
Not much is known about the life of Robert Johnson and many of those facts have been disputed, argued, and strung together, but his recordings were real and no on can deny or disregard their greatness and influence. Martin Scorsese puts it aptly in his forward to the film-script about Johnson by Alan Greenberg, “The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend.”
His mother, life, multiple stepfather’s and stepmother, his half siblings, where he lived and traveled, the women he married and had affairs with, and the children he fathered or helped to raise, all shaped Johnson creating their own history, myths, textures, teachings, and along the way provided him with his musical mentors. A few of those teachers included bluesmen Willie Brown and eventually his partner Son House, and Ike Zinnerman.
In 1936, Johnson through a talent scout in Mississippi named Spier, was put in touch with a man named Ernie Oertle who had a recording studio in San Antonio, Texas. It was there that the shy Robert Johnson recorded a three-day session that produced 16 selections. Several of those songs included the well-known “Come On In My Kitchen,” and the infamous blues song “Cross Road Blues,” which was made even more famous by Eric Clapton and his band “Crèam.” A year later Johnson went to Dallas where he recorded another 11 records.
The last year of Johnson’s life it is said that he made it north and east to play his music and that several of his records had been released in the south. At the time he was living in Arkansas but was playing for a few weeks at juke joint in Greenwood, Mississippi. Johnson supposedly had a thing for the club owner’s wife. Not taking kindly to Johnson’s advances, the club owner also the bartender, put strychnine in an open bottle of whisky, handed it to Johnson ultimately poisoning him. He survived for a period of time after the poisoning, but died soon after. Some say that in a weakened state, he contracted pneumonia and died from complications. Others say he could never have been poisoned by strychnine at all as it has such a distinct bitter taste. But the one thing all the historians and scholars can agree upon is that Robert Leroy Johnson was one of the greatest bluesmen to inhabit the planet and he was 27 at the time of his death. To this day the controversy of his death and the place of his burial are disputed, thus there are three different sites that mark his grave and hold claim to being the final resting place to this great musician and singer.
To hear Robert Johnson sing “Cross Road Blues,” either click on the link below or cut and paste it into your browser.
For a comprehensive look into the life of Robert Leroy Johnson, check out the link below.