Welcome to Wild Card Wednesday! We are going to spend this week talking about the music and myth of Robert Johnson. Even if you’ve never heard of this man, stick around. He was interesting, and I’m starting from the beginning.
This is a two-part post. Today, we’ll talk about Robert Johnson’s early life right up to the point where his music changed for the better.
[Note: My blog posts are usually full of pictures and graphics. There are only two known pictures of Robert Johnson in existence. So today's post might be a little lacking in visuals.]
I first learned about Robert Johnson because of the movie Crossroads (1986), which starred Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca, and Steve Vai. Yes, that Steve Vai.
Watch the trailer here. Sorry for the Spanish subtitles. It was the best quality trailer I could find on You Tube. The soundtrack of Crossroads featured Ry Cooder and Steve Vai on guitar with harmonica by Sonny Terry.
Here’s my homemade summary:
Classical guitar student Eugene Martone (Macchio) becomes fascinated with the story of how Robert Johnson came by his talent–a pact with the devil himself.
Then, there is Robert Johnson’s lost song. Eugene can’t quit thinking about it and wants to learn it.
Eugene learns the whereabouts of an elderly man named Willie Brown (Seneca), who was a blues playing peer of Robert Johnson’s. Together, the two embark on an odyssey that will take them from New York City to the Mississippi Delta…and all the way to a showdown with the devil.
Even after the credits from Crossroads rolled off the screen, I kept thinking about Robert Johnson. That was back before the days of You Tube, so I didn’t hear his music until many years later. But I thought about him a lot.
One day, I started researching and got hooked. I’m going to present a very limited picture of Robert Johnson to keep this week’s blog posts at a reasonable length. I’m posting my sources. If you get hooked, you’ve got a starting place.
Let’s start this post with a quote from Johnny Shines who traveled with Robert Johnson during the final years of Robert’s life. Johnny Shines was a hell of a blues guitar player in his own right.
“You can’t hear a blues tune or a rock tune that don’t have some of Robert’s chords in it because he made them all.” ~ Johnny Shines, blues singer and guitarist
Listen to enough interviews with guitar greats like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards (of the Rolling Stones), and you’ll hear them mention Robert Johnson’s music. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin credits the existence of Led Zeppelin—of rock ’n roll, no less—in part to Robert Johnson.
Both Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones have covered Robert Johnson songs and given them new life. Listen to Eric Clapton play “Crossroads,” a Robert Johnson song:
The legacy of Robert Johnson is quite small. He recorded 29 original songs. Alternate takes exist of some of these songs, bringing the grand total of recorded music by Robert Johnson up to 41 songs. (I will talk about the recording sessions on Friday.)
That’s not a lot of music, but what’s there has the power to make my skin pucker into goosebumps when I listen to it. The music is intense and beautiful and emotional. It’s real, and it’s sort of spooky.
[Robert Johnson’s] music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice. ~ Eric Clapton
Not much is known for sure about Robert Johnson.
His mother remembered his birth date as May 18, 1911. The age listed on his death certificate, however, would indicate his birth year was 1912. Some census records say he was born in 1913. That small fact–a birthdate–illustrates the many contradictions surrounding Robert Johnson.
Robert Leroy Johnson was born to Noah Johnson and Julia Ann Majors Dodd in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. Noah Johnson was a man with whom Julia Dodd had taken up after her husband, Charles Dodd, abandoned her and their children after he had a dispute with a white landowner.
Noah’s and Julia’s relationship did not last long. Robert’s earliest memories would have been of traveling farm to farm where his mother picked up migrant farm work.
Robert, his mother, and his half-siblings eventually lived with Charles Dodd in Memphis, Tennessee. Julia’s first husband had changed his surname to Spencer and started a new family. Julia eventually became uncomfortable with the situation and moved on.
Robert rejoined his mother and her new husband, Dusty Willis, around 1919 in the area near Robinsonville, Mississippi . Robert quickly became aware of two things: he didn’t like farm work and he wanted to be a blues man. Dusty Willis, Robert’s stepfather, decided his new stepson was lazy. The two had a great deal of conflict.
Robinsonville was a popular stop for traveling—or itinerant—blues players. In an attempt to realize his dream (and avoid farm work) Robert began playing harmonica. He fashioned his first guitar out of wire stretched between nails on a wall. A bottle stuck underneath the wires created a sound much like a guitar when Robert plucked the strings.
[Note: Robert went by many names throughout his life. In the 1920 census, he was listed as Robert Spencer. He also used this name in school. It is interesting to note that Robert was literate, which is rare for a poor African-American man at this point in history.]
To avoid his stepfather, Robert frequently traveled around Mississippi. He stayed with relatives throughout the state. All the while, he worked on his musical skills.
In 1929, though, Robert changed directions. He married a young girl named Virginia Travis and took up farming to support his wife and unborn child. However, things ended sadly. Virginia and Robert’s son died in childbirth.
People interested in Johnson’s deal with the devil note this as a turning point for Robert Johnson. They say he shucked any effort to be respectable and became a full time blues man—a man who played the devil’s music.
However, other accounts say that at the time of Virginia’s death, Robert was already traveling again as an itinerant blues musician. Virginia had gone home to her family to have their child and died there without Robert by her side.
Virginia’s family berated Robert, telling him that Virginia’s death was a punishment for him playing the devil’s music.
[Note: At this time in history, blues was considered by good Christians to be the devil’s music.]
Whatever really happened, Robert became even more serious about his music at this point and wanted to improve. Early blues musicians Son House, Charlie Patton, and Willie Brown were living in Robinsonville ay this time.
Robert and his guitar started hanging out wherever these blues men could be found. Son House, Charlie Patton, and Willie Brown did not believe they’d found a prodigy.
On the contrary, Johnson’s idols remembered him as an okay harmonica player but an incredibly unskilled guitar player. Crowds would actually ask the more accomplished musicians if they couldn’t get Robert to put his guitar down and quit making those awful noises.
So how did Robert Johnson become the guitarist Eric Clapton idolizes? Come back Friday to learn about Robert Johnson’s supposed bargain with the devil and his unsolved murder.
For now, listen to my favorite Robert Johnson song, “Come on in my Kitchen.”
Are you a Robert Johnson fan? How about a fan of the devil’s blues?
(Note on sources: I’m just running the same ones today as I will Friday. I didn’t feel like trying to split them up. Enjoy!)
Robert Johnson Wiki — This wiki is worth reading. It is well documented and presents a ton of information.