Personalities | Robert Johnson | Thirties | Jazz & Blues

While blues music has produced dozens of great, innovative musicians, vocalists and songwriters, the continuing influence of Robert Johnson over the years has shown that no other performer has succeeded in combining all the elements in quite the exceptional way that he did.

The fascination that Johnson holds for so many people lies not only in his extraordinary playing, but also in the shroud of supernatural legend that envelops his short and enigmatic life. Many blues singers, Tommy Johnson and Peetie Wheatstraw among them, claimed to have more than a nodding acquaintance with the Devil, but when Johnson wails ‘Me And The Devil Blues’ it does not sound like mere masculine posing, but as if the fear and despair rising from this Satanic connection is consuming him.

Johnson’s intricate guitar style blended boogie-inspired bass lines with a rhythmic, chordal middle register and slide-laced melodies in the treble, while his vocals were delivered with a nervous energy that further intensified his sound. While his music was largely based around the simple country blues emanating from the Mississippi plantations, the directness and inherent urgency of his performances looked forward to the citified Chicago blues of the post-war era.

An Unstable Childhood

Johnson was born Robert Leroy Johnson in May 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi to Julia Dodds and Noah Johnson. Julia Dodds was the wife of Charles Dodds Jr., a farmer forced to leave Mississippi a few years prior to Robert’s birth. Julia had taken up with Johnson in the absence of Charles, who settled in Memphis and adopted the name C.D. Spencer.

Julia remarried in 1916, to Willie Willis. Robert lived with them in Robinsonville, Mississippi and was raised as Robert Spencer. It wasn’t until his early teens that he was informed about his real father and began to call himself Robert Johnson. Little is known for definite about his upbringing, although he probably worked on the land; however, having to accept three different father figures must have been, at the very least, confusing to the young Johnson. It is suggested that he did not get on with Willis and, whether or not as a direct consequence, turned to music. Starting out on the Jew’s harp before progressing to the harmonica, Johnson soon began to take an interest in the guitar; he built a rack for his harmonica and tried picking out accompaniments on the guitar to his harp and voice. He came under the tutelage of Willie Brown, then living in Robinsonville, who introduced him to a wider range of chords and fingerings. Another mentor around this time was Charley Patton, a regular visitor of Brown’s, and a frequent performer at the area juke joints. Johnson would follow Brown and Patton and watch their performances – both solo and in duet – with a keen interest.

Johnson married Virginia Travis in Penton, Mississippi in February 1929. The couple moved in with Robert’s half-sister on a plantation in the Robinsonville area. Robert worked as sharecropper, while continuing...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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