Robert Johnson, known by many as the very archetype of a “bluesman,” is to both musicians and listeners highly influential for his recorded body of unique and highly powerful songs.
While highly lauded for his idiosyncratic, complex guitar stylings, he was also a wonderful singer and lyricist with a brilliant ear for music; he was highly influenced by and mastered the styles of Peetie Wheatstraw, Lonnie Johnson, Kokomo Arnold, Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, Bumble Bee Slim, and many of the best/most popular blues artists of the day, as well as local influences like Son House.
Johnson’s small body of recordings, to many, serve as a textbook example of 1930s blues, as well as a musical virtuoso who transformed a multitude of styles into his own.
Highly influenced by his Dockery peers, Johnson learned and adapted the licks of Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown to a tee, while also incorporating other sounds. For example, that classic Robert Johnson turnaround which is featured in so many of his songs (the intro of 32-20 Blues, the ending of Kindhearted Woman, and so on) actually uses the same descending bass-run as the lick used in Willie Brown’s Future Blues. As well, Rollin’ & Tumblin’ by Hambone Willie Newbern would later inspire Johnson’s riff played on Travelling Riverside Blues.
On top of that, many of the Spanish tuning shapes Johnson used (whether for chords or single note lines), on songs like Crossroads, Travelling Riverside Blues, Walkin’ Blues and others, are quite traceable (if not starkly similar) to ones used by Patton, House, and Willie Brown; for instance, the chord shapes he chooses to strum the V chord on those Spanish tuning songs. So, it’s quite clear where his influence lied.
On the other hand, unlike that trifecta of players, Johnson had his own licks. That descending bass-run turnaround he played, though inspired by Brown, was his own — he added in a treble-side octave note, and phrased it uniquely. Also, travelling to Texas quite a bit (perhaps being the reason why), he’d also use Texas style single-note, monotone basslines, as shown on 32-20 Blues.
Being a product of his time, having the advantage of learning from these skilled predecessors, Johnson was a great amalgamator of these styles, weaving them into his own guitar sound, slanted by his fascination for devilish themes. This great combination of artfully drawing upon his surroundings and adding his own stories to them (with lyrics sung with his harrowing vocals) he was able to craft his own unique style out of it all.
He was born Robert Leroy Johnson in Hazlehurst, Mississippi to Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson on May 11, 1911. His mother Julia was formerly married to Charles Dodds, a fairly successful landowner with whom Julia had ten children with. Due to a fiery dispute between Dodds and white landowners, he was chased and forced out of Hazlehurst by a lynch mob. Julia left Hazlehurst as well, and two years later sent Johnson, a toddler, to Memphis, TN to live with Dodds, who had by that point changed his name to Charles Spencer. Around 1919, Johnson rejoined his mother in the Mississippi Delta area near Tunica and Robinsonville, residing on the Abbay & Leatherman Plantation. At this time, Julia was re-married to Dusty Willis (twenty-four years her junior); Robert was known by many residents as “Little Robert Dusty” and registered at Tunica’s Indian Creek School as Robert Spencer. A school friend of Robert’s at this time, Willie Coffee, recalled in an interview that Johnson was already noted for playing both the harmonica and the jaw harp at around this time.
After school, Robert adopted the surname of his biological father In February of 1929, he married the sixteen-year-old Virginia Travis and signed his name on the birth certificate as “Robert Johnson.” Shortly after, Travis tragically died in childbirth. About this same time, archetypal Delta blues musician Eddie James “Son” House moved to Robinsonville, the residence of his close friend and fellow bluesman Willie Brown. Johnson gained great interest in the style of blues played by House, Brown, and others; he would later come to be a master of them and incorporate them into his own style. According to Son House’s account, Johnson was an incompetent guitar player. In search of his biological father, Johnson moved to around Martinsville and there found a mentor of sorts in Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman who helped Johnson, presumably along with hours of practice and painstakingly listening to and learning from blues records, gain mastery of his instrument.
During his time in Martinsville, Johnson fathered a child with Vergie Mae Smith. He then married Caletta Craft in May of 1931. In 1932, the couple moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi. Caletta then died in childbirth, leaving Johnson to then leave and pursue life as an itinerant/traveling musician — playing for tips on street corners and entertaining audiences playing multiple types of music, not limited to blues. From 1932 until his death, Johnson frequently traveled between the cities of Memphis and Helena, as well as the smaller surrounding towns in the Mississippi Delta and Arkansas, as well as St. Louis, Texas, New York, Kentucky, Indiana, even going so far north as Canada. Tagging along with Robert in such journeys were bluesmen such as Johnny Shines, Henry Townsend, and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. This period in Johnson’s life came to typify him as a “rambling bluesman” in the minds of many, constantly moving from place to place and staying with family members and multiple female friends, forming a few long-term relationships with women, including the divorced mother of Robert Lockwood Jr. (who would come to be a legend in his own right). Johnson would come to mentor Lockwood, the only person who Johnson is ever known to have taught.
During 1936, Johnson sought out H.C. Speir, a talent scout (formerly of Paramount records) who ran a general store. Speir put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, a salesman for the ARC group of recording labels, who in turn introduced him to Don Law, the head of Columbia Records’ country division, produced Robert Johnson’s first session, held from November 23-27, 1936 in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio.
Johnson recorded sixteen tunes, with alternate takes: including “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” (a derivation of “Mean Mistreater Mama”), “Come On In My Kitchen” (a chilling eight bar, bottleneck blues tune reminiscent of “Sitting On Top Of the World” by the Mississippi Sheiks and “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way” by Tampa Red), “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”( one of the first blues guitar tunes to pioneer the ‘E shuffle,’ a simple, percussive pattern on the low strings of the guitar which imitated the left hand of a piano and later became the staple of the playing/repertoires of Jimmy Reed, the Aces, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Eddie Taylor, etc.), “Terraplane Blues” (a wonderful blues, largely derived from the style Peetie Wheatstraw, which became Johnson’s biggest hit during his lifetime), “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” “Sweet Home Chicago” (another ‘E shuffle’ which later became another staple of many repertoires, further made famous by Magic Sam, and later the Blues Brothers), “Walkin’ Blues” (a typical ‘Delta’ blues ala “My Black Mama” by Son House), “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” (ala “Rollin’ & Tumblin’” by Hambone Willie Newbern), etc. This first session, off the bat, shows brilliant talent in arranging, songwriting, as well as singing/guitar playing.
Johnson’s second and last session, on June 19-20, 1937, further showcased Johnson’s genius and musical versatility. He recorded tunes which greatly showcased his influence from bluesmen of the day, and slightly before, as Lonnie Johnson, Kokomo Arnold, Leroy Carr, Skip James, and Blind Lemon Jefferson: such as “Drunken Hearted Man,” “Milkcow’s Calf Blues,” “I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man,” Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil),” “Love In Vain Blues,” (a wonderful tune influenced by Carr’s “In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)” which also used a chilling recycled lyric from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Dry Southern Blues”: “When the train left the station, with two lights on behind, the blue light was my blues and the red light was my mind”), “Hell Hound On My Trail” (derivation of Skip James’ “Yola My Blues Away”), “Me And The Devil Blues,” “Honeymoon Blues,” “Stones In My Passway” (essentially a reworking of “Terraplane Blues”), etc.
On August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, Robert Johnson died near Greenwood, Mississippi of unknown causes. His death was not reported publicly and he merely disappeared from historical record for years. In 1938, Columbia Records producer John H. Hammond, who owned some of Johnson’s records hoped to book him for the first “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall, which would showcase the history of jazz music. Hammond learned of Johnson’s death and replaced Johnson with Big Bill Broonzy, however he played two of Johnson’s records on stage.
In 1941, folklorist Alan Lomax traveled to Mississippi in hopes of recording Robert Johnson, only to find he was deceased. This, however, led to the very first session of legendary bluesman McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield, which would inspire Waters to pursue music as a career, and a second session of Son House featuring Willie Brown. Due to the folk revival and his popularity amongst British rock bands, he gained immense posthumous fame and even won a Grammy for a reissue of his discography.
To this day, his influence strongly prevails. Despite his life being shrouded in mystery, romanticism, and mythology, the music is still just as incredible as it was years ago and should forever be celebrated.