Robert Johnson – King of the Delta Blues Singers
Robert Johnson is considered one of the greatest acoustic blues musicians to have lived. His music has been a major influence on generations of blues players and enthusiasts.
But little is really known about the man.
It is said that he was born, Robert Leroy Johnson born May 8, 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi.
His mother, Julia Major Dodds was married to Charles Dodds. Charles left Hazlehurst and fled to Memphis, Tennessee to avoid being lynched. Story has it that Dobbs disguised himself as a woman to escape Halzehurst.
It was during this time that Julia had an affair with a lumber worker Noah Johnson and Robert was born out of wedlock. Julia had no where to go and spent time as an itinerant field worker, picking cotton on plantations.
Johnson spent a few years living with Dodds and his family but rejoined his mother when she remarried to a man named Dusty Willis.
Robert loved music and first learned the jew’s harp and then the Didliey Bow.
Robert and Dusty did not get along as Dusty was not a fan of music. Especially the kind of music that Robert loved to listen to.
Robert would sneak out at night to the juke joints, front store porches and private places where the local black community would drink and dance to the wee hours of the mornings.
He spent a lot of time watching early Delta blues pioneer legends the likes of Willie Brown and Son House. It was during this time that it is said Robert started to learn the guitar.
He had a strong desire to make a living playing music.
Robert married Virginia Travis when he was 17 years old. Virginia was 14 but story has it that they lied on their marriage certificate. It is said that Robert loved Virginia very much and when she became pregnant he promised to to give up his love of music.
Robert began working on the fields to support his wife and upcoming family. Virginia moved home to upper Mississippi to be with her family when the baby was born. Robert was supposed to follow.
During his travels to Virginia’s home Robert made stops to play his music. It is said that at this time Robert was not a good guitar player.
When Robert arrived to Virginia’s house both Virginia and the baby had been buried. They both had died from complications.
Story has it that Virginia’s religious family saw Robert with his guitar and blamed him and the Devil’s music for their deaths. This hit Robert hard and many believe that is pushed Robert back in to music.
Robert spent a lot of time busking the streets and corners.
He would also try to get people to listen to him in between Son House gigs. But nobody thought that Robert was any good or had any talent.
It is said that Robert got discouraged and left town. No one heard from Johnson for months. He showed up later with a style and sound that blew everyone away. People were amazed and wondered how did he get so good, so fast?
Johnson went on traveling around the Delta playing blues for what ever money he could earn. He took up with another woman Virgie Cain who became pregnant. She how ever was banned from seeing Johnson by her religious family.
Johnson became a hard drinker and womanizer. He had many affairs with single and married women. He traveled the Delta, playing his music, getting drunk and bedding many women. So the story goes.
Robert began to record his songs around 1935 or 1936. He went to San Antonio, Texas and recorded around sixteen songs. Some of the songs are considered blues classics. They include Come On In My Kitchen, Cross Roads Blues, Kind Hearted Woman & Terraplane Blues.
Terraplane Blues is said to have at the time to have sold over 5,000 copies. Johnson faced the corner in the recording booth, so that no one could see what he was playing.
Johnson would continue to travel and play his music where ever he could. He would make another trip to Texas, this time Dallas for another recording session. This would be one of his last ones.
Johnson spent time traveling and perfuming in St. Louis, Memphis, Arkansas and all over the Mississippi Delta. He would stay with friends, family or get a woman to take him home, sleep with him and hide him from their husbands if they were married.
In August of 1938, Robert was hanging around and playing in Greenwood, Mississippi when he died.
Story tells it that he had been messing with another mans wife and and was poisoned. He was given poison whiskey at a dance by the jealous husband.
Did Robert Johnson really go down to the crossroads and sell his soul to the Devil?
As legend goes, a young Robert was booed of the stage one night while playing in the town of Robinsonville. He was so down that he went to a Mississippi crossroads around midnight.
This is where he summoned the devil and made a deal that is return for his soul, the devil would give Robert supernatural musical abilities that couldn’t be matched.
Robert agreed and of course the rest is history. Or fairy tales and legend.
More believable stories tell that when Robert disappeared, during that time he learned to play his guitar from a named Isiah “Ike” Zimmeran.
There are those that believe Ike helped write some of Roberts songs.