Born: May 8, 1911 | Died: 1938 Primary Instrument: Vocal
“King of the Delta Blues Singers”
More than half a century after his death, Robert Johnson, the legendary Mississippi Delta blues singer, remains an enigma. A provocative and influential figure in the blues field, Johnson revealed his remarkable musical skills around the age of 20 in 1931. He completed only two recording sessions--one in 1936 and the other in 1937--prior to his untimely death in 1938. Very little was known about Johnson when his first album was released in 1961. By the time Columbia Records released “Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings” in 1990, slightly more information had come to light, but the mystery endures.
Like that of other early Delta blues singers, the music of Robert Johnson arose from an oral tradition that began with a mixture of field hollers, chants, fiddle tunes and religious music and ended up as the blues. The Mississippi Delta--two hundred miles of fertile lowlands stretching from Memphis, Tennessee in the north to Vicksburg, Mississippi in the south--was one of the primary locales in which the blues originated and developed. Johnson's sound is critically recognized as the culmination of the Delta blues tradition, as exemplified by other Delta blues artists such as Charley Patton, Son House, and Skip James. Typically, Delta blues are sung by a single artist playing an acoustic guitar, often using a bottleneck or similar instrument on the frets to achieve a distinctive sound. The next generation of musicians--and those who outlived Johnson--may have grown up in the Delta, but most left it as adults to go north and sing the city blues of Chicago. Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, two prominent Chicago bluesmen, have their roots in the Delta: both knew Robert Johnson and were heavily influenced by him.
Knowledge of Johnson, like that of his music, has come largely through recollections of musicians and others who knew him. Two of the best sources of information have been legendary Delta singer Son House, himself Johnson's elder, and Johnny Shines, a contemporary who met Johnson in 1935 and traveled with him for a while. Additional information has been uncovered by researchers, who have helped to establish Johnson's birth date as May 8, 1911. Some of the circumstances of Johnson's death remain particularly unclear; there is even a dispute over the true site of his unmarked grave.
Fortunately, the recordings remain, and the 1990 issuance of “Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings,” has refocused attention on the life and artistry of this legendary bluesman. Johnson's posthumous fame and influence on younger musicians stems largely from the power of his recordings. He is said to have been heavily influenced by early blues artists like Skip James, who was recorded in 1931, around the same time that Johnson amazed his elders with his mastery of the guitar. James's eerie, distinctive style is reflected throughout Johnson's recordings, most notably in 32-20 Blues, which he adapted from James's 22-20 Blues.
Johnson first came to the attention of modern musicians, notably the rock generation of the 1960s, with the release of “King of the Delta Blues Singers” in 1961. Due to the country blues revival of the time, older musicians who had sung as young men in the 1930s began to enjoy a second career and renewed popularity among hip, new audiences. Johnson's album contained selections from his 1936 and 1937 recording sessions, some of which had not been previously released. Revealing the artist's tremendous talent on vocals and guitar as well as his uncommon flair for lyrical composition, the album challenged younger rock musicians and showed them what the blues were all about. “King of the Delta Blues Singers” proved so popular that it was reissued in 1969; a second album followed in 1970.
Many of Johnson's compositions had also become blues standards by the 1960s, thanks to Chicago blues artists Waters and Elmore James. In 1951 Elmore James recorded Johnson's I Believe I'll Dust My Broom, making it a national hit. Sweet Home Chicago, another Johnson composition, has been played and recorded by countless Chicago bluesmen. As a traveling musician who had crisscrossed the Delta region many times and gone as far north as Detroit and Chicago in the previous six years, Johnson had ample opportunity to refine his lyrics, judging their popularity and impact by his audiences' reactions.
While these types of playing conditions provided Johnson with a means of refining his songs, it was the discipline of the three-minute 78 rpm record that drove him to hone them into a more commercial form. He crafted his songs with a self-conscious artistry; he sang of women, drinking, traveling, and the devil. His lyrics contain haunting metaphors and vivid personifications. Rather than joining interchangeable floating verses, as many other Delta bluesmen did, Johnson made each song a statement, with intentionally developed themes. Johnson recorded 29 songs for the American Record Company (ARC), which eventually became part of the Columbia Broadcasting System. His complete canon of recordings includes 29 masters, plus 12 surviving alternate takes, all recorded at two ARC sessions held in San Antonio and Dallas, Texas, in Nov. 1936.
Johnson's first session in San Antonio lasted three days. Sixteen songs were recorded in the Gunter Hotel, where ARC had set up equipment to record a number of musical acts. Kind Hearted Woman was the first song recorded. Also captured in San Antonio were I Believe I'll Dust My Broom and Sweet Home Chicago, both of which became post-war blues standards. Terraplane Blues, known for its metaphoric lyrics, became a regional hit and Johnson's signature song. Most of the selections were released on Vocalion 78s, but three songs and several interesting alternate takes remained unissued until they appeared on the Columbia albums. About six months later, in June of 1937, Johnson was called back to record. The two-day session took place in a Dallas warehouse where, once again, ARC had set up its recording equipment to capture many different acts. This time 13 songs were recorded and 10 were released during the following year.
While Johnson's professional recording career can be measured in months, his musical legacy has survived more than 70 years. Critics have written a great deal about his genius, his unusual vocal style, his innovative guitar work, and the sensibility of his lyrics.
Robert Johnson's life and music have had a carefully considered and achieved effect on his contemporaries, as well as on subsequent generations of musicians. During his life, Johnson was the subject of considerable controversy and inspired frequent conjecture; when he was murdered in 1938, at least three versions of the tragedy were given credibility--that he was stabbed to death by a jealous husband, stabbed by a woman, or poisoned by parties unknown. Subsequent research, based on eyewitness accounts, indicates that he was poisoned by a jealous husband, and indeed died in 1938.
Robert Johnson’s legend is forever entwined with going down to the crossroads to meet the devil at midnight. Folk researchers draw a parallel between the devil in the story and the African Yoruba god, Legba, the trickster, whose favorite haunt was a crossroads. It seems Johnson knew the life he sang about: his songs are rife with devil imagery, and some of his actions while performing were apparently a bit peculiar. It has been said, for instance, that he would often turn his back when he felt the eyes of another musician were watching him too closely--as if he needed to hide the secret to his extraordinary talent. All of which adds to the myth, but takes nothing away from the music of the shadowy blues artist who came to be known as the King of the Delta Blues Singers.
Source: James Nadal