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The Story of Robert Johnson - The Delta Blues Guitarist

May 2, 2008
Robert Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911 and passed away in Greenwood, Mississippi on August 16, 1938. During those twenty-seven years he recorded twenty-nine songs that influenced modern blues and paved the way for the future of blues-based rock.

He was a street singer whose repertoire covered more than the blues. But his persona and songs credits like "Dust My Broom," "Sweet Home Chicago," "Ramblin' on My Mind," "Terraplane Blues," and "Love in Vain," to name only a few turned him into the first and most influential Delta bluesman.

Early Childhood

Robert was the product of an extramarital affair that his mother, Mrs. Julia Dodds, had with Noah Johnson. He then lived his boyhood in many homes with his mother and baby sister. Usually his mother would be the mistress of Robert's new stepfather.

He began playing the Jew's harp and later harmonica. With little interest in education and poor eyesight, he quit school. He then began playing guitar as a teenager-the facts are sketchy as to when he exactly started playing guitar.

Influences

His earliest influences were Charley Patton and Willie Brown as well as many of the journeyman musicians that he came into contact with.

When Robert was 17 he married Virginia Travis, the year was 1929. But, in April of 1930 she passed away as did their baby; both during childbirth. Later, he met Son House, who would be a major influence on Robert. It was after this meeting that Robert decided to leave the sharecropper's life that he was destined to lead for the open road. So, he returned to his place of birth where he met an obscure bluesman by the name of Ike Zinneman-who would become Robert's mentor.

Formative Years

While in Hazelhurst, Robert married for a second time to Calletta Craft. Calletta reportedly worshiped Robert and tolerated his spending days and nights with Ike. This is where the legend begins. Apparently, Ike learned to play the blues by sitting on top of tombstones. It was also during this time that Robert was working picking cotton, but he devoted his free time to writing songs and performing in local juke joints or on the courthouse steps. Sometime in the early 1930s, Robert left Calletta and Hazelhurst for the Mississippi Delta. His wife then had a breakdown and returned to her birthplace where she died shortly thereafter.

Robert then returned to Robinsonville for a short time until he settled in Helena, Arkansas where he met and played with Elmore James, Honeyboy Edwards, Hacksaw Harney, Johnny Shines, Robert Nighthawk, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Memphis Slim-a veritable who's who list of country blues greats. Also at this time, Robert shacked up with Estella Coleman and unofficially adopted her son, future bluesman Robert Lockwood Jr. Robert Johnson was now on the road full-time, traveling up and down the Mississippi as far north as New York and Canada. As his reputation grew, he became more and more protective of his playing style.

The Legend

His stature and playing ability weren't the only things growing at this time. His ability to attract women was also becoming prominent. But along with the women came jealous husbands and boyfriends as well as resentful fellow musicians. Although Robert was very ambitious, he was also becoming more and more moody and unpredictable. It was during this time that he claimed to have learned how to play the guitar from the Devil himself.

Robert had always wanted to record but it wasn't until November 23, 1936 that he finally got the chance. The first tune that he recorded was "Terraplane Blues" and it became a best-selling hit for Vocalion-a specialty label for Columbia. During the 3 sittings that he recorded that November, Robert laid down the most-influential catalog in rock and blues history for a individual artist: "Kind-Hearted Woman Blues," "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," "Sweet Home Chicago," "Ramblin' on My Mind," "Come On in My Kitchen," "Me and the Devil Blues," "Malted Milk," "When You've Got a Good Friend," "Walking Blues," "Cross Road Blues," "Milkcow's Calf Blues," "Last Fair Deal Gone Down," "They're Red Hot," "Drunken Hearted Man," "Hellhound on My Trail," "Little Queen of Spades," "I'm a Steady Rollin' Man," "From Four Till Late," "If I Had Possession over Judgement Day," "Stop Breaking Down," "Traveling Riverside Blues," "Love in Vain," "Honeymoon Blues," "Dead Shrimp Blues," "Stones in My Passway," "Preachin' Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)," "Blues" and "Phonograph Blues."

Johnson played his last show in August 1938 while attempting to re-ignite a kinship with the roadhouse owner's wife. Legend has it that Robert died barking like dog. However, further investigation described that Sonny Boy Williamson, who was with Robert at the time, cautioned him to not drink out of an open whiskey bottle that was circulated. He didn't heed the warning. Rumor has it that Robert was deliberately poisoned for his advances towards the roadhouse owner's wife. Three days later he died of strychnine poisoning and pneumonia. And, the poisoning explains his reaction, being on all fours barking like a dog. He was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.
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