When Robert Leroy Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi on or around May 8, 1911, his life was already atypical. His mother, Julia Dodds, had birthed ten children ahead of him – all with her sharecropper husband, Charles. But Robert was born out of wedlock; fathered by a plantation worker named Noah Johnson. Ahead of Johnson’s birth, Charles Dodds was forced to relocate to Memphis and change his name, after being chased out of town by prominent, white landowners. When Johnson was just three or four, he joined Dodds (now Spencer) in Tennessee. In the city, the young boy’s world opened up. He attended school and discovered popular music, while his older brother taught him how to play the guitar. After several years, he returned to the Mississippi Delta, where he joined his mother and her new husband, Dusty Willis. But Johnson had already been bitten by the music bug, and was much more interested in his craft than working the fields. At 19, Johnson married Virginia Travis. Sadly, just one year later, Travis died during childbirth. Not long after, in 1931, Robert married his second wife, Colleta Craft. Sadly, she too would pass away within a few years. After his foundational years in Memphis, Johnson continued to practice the guitar, while classmates remembered him playing the jaw harp and the harmonica in school. One of the earliest accounts of Johnson as a musician comes from Delta blues pioneer Son House, who first encountered the young artist around 1930 in Robinsonville, Mississippi. House recalled that Johnson “blew a harmonica and he was pretty good with that, but he wanted to play guitar.” Johnson’s guitar skills, according to House, were less than stellar. In fact, the elder musician referred to his attempts as “such a racket you’d never heard!… ‘Get that guitar away from that boy,’ people would say, ‘he’s running people crazy with it.’” Just two years later, when Johnson returned from his travels across the Delta, he played once again for Son and fellow musician Willie Brown. This time, however, they were staggered by his improvement. “He was so good,” marveled House. “When he finished, all our mouths were standing open.” Johnson soon ventured beyond the Delta region, performing across the South, as well as in such blues hotspots as Chicago, New York, Detroit, and St. Louis. As legend has it, the artist often concentrated his performance on just one woman in the audience; a risky business in a world where men were happy to fight when they felt aggrieved.
The artist often toured with fellow bluesman Johnny Shines, who later recalled that Johnson was always neat and tidy, despite days spent traveling dusty Delta highways. Shines also shared that Johnson was just as likely to perform other people’s songs, as well as his own growing repertoire. On any given night, his set might have included material from Bing Crosby, Blind Willie McTell, Lonnie Johnson, or Jimmie Rodgers. Like many of his peers, Johnson performed songs that his audience requested; songs that earned him money. Around 1936, Johnson paid a visit to H.C. Speir, a record shop owner and talent scout in Jackson, Mississippi. Like many of his contemporaries, Johnson wished to put his music on tape. Speir connected the artist with ARC records and producer Don Law, who would go on to oversee Columbia Records’ Country Music division and work with the likes of Johnny Cash, Jimmy Dean, and Ray Price. On November 23, 1936, Johnson traveled to San Antonio, TX to record the first of his 29 sides with Law. The artist was allegedly paid around $100.00 for several days of work. The following June, he returned to Texas, this time working with Law at a studio in Dallas. These sessions – taking place over a total of five days – produced Robert Johnson’s entire catalog of recordings, nearly all of which have become standards in the blues canon. While 12 double-sided singles were released between 1937-1939, a larger collection of alternate takes would be unearthed long after Johnson’s death. Johnson’s first 78 record (“Terraplane Blues” coupled with “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”) was a moderate, regional hit, and proved to be the most commercially successful release of his lifetime. Other highlights include “Love in Vain” (later adapted by The Rolling Stones), the oft-covered “32-20 Blues,” and “I’ll Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” which Elmore James famously recorded in 1951. James’ version was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, and the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. “Sweet Home Chicago” became another favorite of Johnson’s, while his powerful performances of “Come on in My Kitchen” and “Hell Hound on My Trail” have long been admired by musicians and historians alike. “Cross Road Blues” would also be covered by Elmore James, and later, by Eric Clapton and Cream. Clapton’s first vocal recording, meanwhile, was a cover of Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” and appeared on John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers’ 1966 LP, Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. As was the tradition in blues music, many of Johnson’s compositions borrowed elements from other artists’ songs.
His singular talents, however, are what made these recordings so remarkable. Johnson’s vocal delivery was complex and highly emotive, thanks in part to his subtle, yet effective, pitch inflections (known as microtonality). He was also admired by future generations of singer-songwriters for his deft lyricism. In Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One, the folk legend wrote that Johnson’s tunes “weren’t customary blues songs. They were so utterly fluid. At first they went by quick, too quick to even get. They jumped all over the place in range and subject matter, short punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story-fires of mankind blasting off the surface of this spinning piece of plastic.”
The final element that made Johnson’s recordings so unique was his extraordinary guitar technique. The artist, who was often associated with Gibson guitars, used his instrument like a second voice. His eclectic style offered a full sound – one which prompted Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards to declare, “Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself.” While the source of Johnson’s dexterity was shrouded in mystery (and was a significant part of his legend), he has long been considered to be one of history’s greatest guitarists. After his final recording session in 1937, Johnson performed around Texas, accompanied by Johnny Shines. They played informal “juke joints,” parties, and dances, just as they had always done, before heading back to Mississippi. Details of the rest of this year are slim, although it is known that Robert spent some time in Memphis and Helena, Arkansas. What is known is that Robert died near Greenwood, MS on August 16, 1938. He was 27 years old. His death remained unreported for 30 years, and, without a formal autopsy, the public has been left to speculate on the cause of his death, adding to the lore that surrounds Johnson. Through a variety of accounts, including those by fellow blues artists David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Sonny Boy Williamson, we know that Johnson spent the last weeks of his life playing regularly at a juke joint attached to The Three Forks Store, just outside of Greenwood. In one version of the story, Johnson flirted with a woman at the party (possibly the wife of the store’s owner) and was poisoned by her jealous husband. He became so sick that he had to be taken into Greenwood, where he perished.