Robert Johnson is perhaps the greatest figure in the history of the blues. Although he only recorded 29 songs in his career, he influenced not only the blues musicians of the generations that followed him, but rock musicians from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton, who feels that "Robert Johnson is the most important blues musician who ever lived. I have never found anything more deeply soulful. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice." Rock critic Dave Marsh believes "Johnson's salty sexuality and sense of fear and disaster are a crucial part of vocal black music's heritage, up to and including today's rap and hip-hop."

Robert Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911. He never met his father, but took his name as a teenager, after being known as Robert Dodds or Robert Spencer most of his life. Johnson married at age eighteen and his wife died in childbirth in 1930. He spent much of his life traveling from town to town, playing on streetcorners and at picnics and juke joints. Because of his diverse audiences, he performed a variety of styles and genres, but his original work is unique. Robert Johnson was poisoned at a juke joint in Greenwood, Mississippi and died three days later on August 16, 1938. Unaware of his death, John Hammond sent a representative to search for him, so that Johnson could be invited to play at the inaugural "Spirituals To Swing" concert in Carnegie Hall.

Recordings

The only recordings of Robert Johnson's music come from two sessions: three days in a hotel room in San Antonio in November of 1936 and two days in the back of a Dallas office building in June of 1937. Many of these recordings were released as 78 rpm singles on Vocalion Records. Robert Johnson's 78s were considered "race" records. They were marketed to blacks in the rural South, and were not available in the record stores of the North. They were often only printed in volumes of hundreds or low thousands. Any record that sold over 5,000 copies was considered a hit. Johnson's first release, "Terraplane Blues" was his most popular, and sold between 3,000 and 4,000 copies.

A collection of some of these singles, entitled "King of the Delta Blues Singers" was released in 1961, and was the first widespread recognition of Robert Johnson. Before its release, he was a mysterious legend to even die-hard blues fans, who had only heard one or two of his tracks on compilations. A collection of all of his recorded output, including multiple versions of several tracks was released in 1990 as "The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson". Sony expected to sell 20,000 copies, but it ended up selling over one million units. It was the first blues recording to do so, winning a Grammy in the process.

Influences and impact

Robert Johnson played Delta blues or Country blues, which was acoustic and considered more direct and intense than City blues, which often included piano, bass, guitar and drums. Robert Johnson was influenced by Charley Patton and Son House, two early Delta blues artists with very different styles and attitudes. Charley Patton played the role of a showman, and was very popular in his time both as a performer and as a recording artist. Son House's demeanor was somber and his songs dealt with more traditional blues themes. Both had unique guitar styles, incorporating slide techniques and popping bass strings. The race records of Patton, House and Robert Johnson, as well as many others, influenced the blues rock music that came out 20 or more years after its recording. This in turn influenced more tame elements of pop music.


Son House

Robert Johnson's music was more unique than that of many of his contemporaries, who often carried on the tradition of performers from the generations before them. Robert Johnson's work was more thoughtful and artistic, contained a distinctive edge, and incorporated revolutionary guitar techniques. Robert Johnson's large hands also made it possible for him to achieve very challenging chordal movements and note selections. Robert Johnson's most important musical contribution was accompanying himself with a boogie bass line on the bottom strings of the guitar. One-time travelling partner Johnny Shines said, "Some of the things that Robert did with the guitar affected the way everybody played. He'd do rundowns and turnbacks. He'd do repeats. None of this was being done. In the early '30s, boogie on the guitar was rare, something to be heard. Because of Robert, people learned to complement theirselves, carrying their own bass as their own lead with this one instrument." Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones exclaimed "When I first heard [him], I was hearing two guitars, and it took me a long time to realize he was actually doing it all by himself."Many people consider Jimi Hendrix to be the only guitar player to match Robert Johnson's unconventional guitar accomplishments. Robert Johnson's songs have been recorded by artists diverse as George Clinton, The Judds and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as a host of blues and classic rock artists.

Johnson was not initially an exceptional player and after returning from a year on the road, Son House and Willie Brown were astonished by his newfound skills. The only explanation they could find is that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for other-worldly guitar playing and song writing gifts. A more plausible explanation is that he learned his skills from a year studying under Ike Zinneman, a bluesman who was never recorded. Johnson's lyrics may have added to the Faustian myth, as they show that he was haunted by personal demons. His intense emotional vocals and stark imagery embellish a lyrical base that stands up to both literal and figurative interpretation.

Other quotes

[Robert] Johnson is part of why I am what I am. - Robert Plant
...Ravi Shankar and Robert Johnson are the only guitar players I listen to. - George Harrison
Robert Johnson's music sent me reeling. I couldn't even imagine how someone could play the guitar the way he did and sing at the same time. - Bonnie Raitt
...to the magnificent Woodie Guthrie and Robert Johnson who sparked it off. - Bob Dylan

Links

AMG All Music Guide (http://www.allmusic.com/) includes a biography, discography and more.
Can't You Hear The Wind Howl? (http://www.robertjohnsonfilm.com/) gives details and support documents on the documentary film of the life and music of Robert Johnson.
The Robert Johnson Notebooks (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MUSIC/rjhome.html) contain lyrics and essays from a college course at the University of Virginia.

THE SAN ANTONIO SESSIONS

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 23, 1936 
Kind Hearted Woman Blues
(I Believe I'll) Dust my Broom
Sweet Home Chicago
Rambling on my Mind
When You Got a Good Friend
Come on in my Kitchen
Terraplane Blues
Phonograph Blues

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 26, 1936
32-20 Blues

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 27, 1936
They're Red Hot
Dead Shrimp Blues
Cross Road Blues
Walking Blues
Last Fair Deal Gone Down
Preaching Blues
If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day


THE DALLAS SESSIONS

SATURDAY, JUNE 19, 1937
Stones in my Passway
I'm a Steady Rollin' Man
From Four Till Late

SUNDAY, JUNE 20, 1937
Hellhound on my Trail
Little Queen of Spades
Malted Milk
Drunken Hearted Man
Me & the Devil Blues
Stop Breakin' Down Blues
Traveling Riverside Blues
Honeymoon Blues
Love in Vain
Milkcow's Calf Blues

Essential Questions

Does music cause violence?
In 32-20 Blues, Robert Johnson discusses the benefits of using his gun, yet this did not result in a major increase in violent crime or in people's acceptance of crime.

How does non-commercial music influence pop?
"Race" records

The themes that Robert Johnson uses in his music reflect his time and culture in several ways. His lyrics often reflect the hard times that befell many people during the Depression, and the itinerant lifestyle that many people, especially black men, took up in order to survive. The apparent misogyny of some of Johnson's lyrics reflect the lack of respect that many men had for women and the widespread acceptance of such attitudes. Many of Johnson's songs contain references to the Devil and demons, which reflects the prevalence of Christianity in its stories in the Bible Belt area where he was raised.