The Grandfather of Rock-n-Roll: Part 1

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.

Click the image to go to Amazon’s
Crossroads page.

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.

Ralph Macchio meets Old Scratch

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

Robert L. Johnson
1911-1938

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.

Check out Part 2 of my Grandfather of Rock-n-Roll series 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.”

Thank you for your interest in this article. I often receive requests for further information on these articles. Please understand my knowledge of this topic is limited to what you’ve read in this article. I have no plans to update or expand these articles. I am currently focusing on my fiction writing career and am no longer writing or researching for non-fiction articles. If you’re interested in seeing what else I write, please check out the My Fiction page on this website or visit my Amazon Author Page on amazon.com. 

Sources:

(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!)

Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl (video)

The Search for Robert Johnson (video) 

Rolling Stone: 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time 

Deal with the Devil: Understanding Robert Johnson, His Music and His Impact

Cross Road Blues Meaning

Robert Johnson Wiki — This wiki is worth reading.  It is well documented and presents a ton of information.

Johnson’s Peers:

Ike Zimmerman More Details Around the Legend

David “Honeyboy” Edwards 

Johnny Shines Wiki

Son House Wiki

38 thoughts on “The Grandfather of Rock-n-Roll: Part 1

  1. This is so interesting. The history of blues is rich, and many people forget it’s the parent of modern rock and roll. It’s amazing how much has changed in just a century. I wonder what those Christians would call today’s music?

    Looking forward to Friday’s post!

    • I’m in my late 30s, and I remember people telling me rock-n-roll was satanic. That tied in with the whole satanic panic of the 80s. Groups like Judas Priest, Slayer, Black Sabbath–those were all “of the devil.” So, even though we’ve come a long way, we are not too much different than we were 100 years ago.

      So glad you enjoyed the post, and do stop back by Friday. IMHO, Friday’s is by far the more interesting of the two posts.

    • on ,
      Dave said:

      Us “Christians” would call it junk!……………Just like everyone over thirty. Ha!
      ………..Just joking. Honest.

      Anyway I got a real kick out of this post…..

      Classical, blues, jazz, and rock and roll were all the work of the devil at one time or another. The only music that was actually fit was music that glorified God. The term ”rock and roll’ was coined before the music and it referred to physical intimacy. It was sung about by vocal groups back in the twenties and thirties even. Eventually the subject matter became associated with the idiom as the music evolved. So I understand why the sexually charged world of rock has its opponents.

      I love the song “Crossroads”. I have probably played it onstage several dozen times but I have yet to rehearse it with anyone. It’s one of those tunes that falls into any groove quite nicely so you don’t need to practice it.

      It’s nice to learn to learn about Robert Johnson. He may have been a hack on the guitar but that’s not what it’s all about anyhow. These days there is such a wealth of musical knowledge available that anybody can become reasonably good it they are willing to put in the effort.

      • I loved reading your comment. I have also read that “Jazz” was a term for physical intimacy. Because of this, Jazz was considered sinful music. I agree that every kind of music has had its opponents.

        How cool that you can play “Crossroads.” One of the things I really wish I had learned to do (before arthritis started in my hands) is play the guitar.

        Thanks for stopping by.

        • on ,
          Dave said:

          I would like to learn guitar as well but it would take too much time away from drum practice. It’s fun to play a tune like “Crossroads’ because every singer/ guitar player approaches it differently. As a drummer you’re required to lock up the groove and drive the music. it’s an awesome feeling.

    • B.B. King is an interesting guy. I like that he names Blind Lemon Jefferson as one of his influences because Blind Lemon is considered the father of Texas style blues. Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for stopping by.

  2. I don’t know Robert Johnson’s music by his name, but I would probably recognize at least something. The older I get, the more and more I like the blues. I’m actually itchin’ to get back to New Orleans for the food and music.

    • New Orleans is so neat. I love the history and architecture. We haven’t been since 1997 or 1998, though. Part of me would love to go back, but I’ve gotten where I love getting out of the city when I go on vacation.

      As for Robert Johnson, do a You Tube search. You’ll turn up most of his recordings that way. Keep in mind, his music is different. He sings with only guitar accompaniment. But he’s worth listening to. :D

  3. It’s been said that music died on Feb 3, 1959 – the day Buddy Holly died. I don’t know about that, but I believe rock and roll died six years later, on Feb 9, 1964. That’s the day Ed Sullivan introduced The Beatles to the world, ushering in the age of rock music. As a child of the 1950s – the heyday of rock and roll, I see little or no relation between it and rock. Two totally separate genres to me. Since the musicians you mentioned – Eric Clapton, et al, are from the later era, I would say this is about rock, not rock and roll.

    I’m sure to all you people who are 20 to 40 years younger than I am, this sounds like needless picking, but to me the difference is immense. I still love you, though, Catie.

    • You are welcome to your opinion, David. And it doesn’t have to match mine.

      It’s interesting that you liked Buddy Holly but not the Beatles. (If you did, in fact, like Buddy.) The Beatles named Buddy Holly as one of their biggest influences. John Lennon was encouraged to wear his glasses onstage because Buddy did so with such great success.

      Though I am not extremely fond of The Beatles’ music (as my mother is), I don’t think they took the roll out of rock. I love studying the evolution of rock-n-roll, and The Beatles are just part of it.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your opinion.

  4. I love Blues. (Those Christians missed out on some good music denouncing the whole kit-and-kaboodle that way. Go figure.) I wish I could ask my grandparents about Robert Johnson since we listened to jazz and blues. They would probably have remembered him. Interesting post, Catie. Looking forward to more!

    • How cool that you listened to jazz and blues with your grandparents. My maternal grandfather *loved* Hank Williams, Sr. I wish I had been more interested in Hank while Papaw was alive.

      Like you, I love blues. It’s so…expressive. And that’s not even a good word. When I’m in the mood for it, I can listen for hours.

      Have you ever played with Pandora radio? It is a free online streaming radio. You can create your own radio station by putting in whose music you want to influence your station. For instance, if I wanted an antique blues station, I’d put “Son House,” “Robert Johnson,” “Blind Lemon Jefferson,” “Willie Brown,” etc. And, I’d have a continuous music stream that sounded like a 30s era blues station.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  5. The life and music of Robert Johnson is a fascinating story surrounded in dark mystery and tall tales. I remember buying his box set many years ago and sitting by the stereo for hours locked in a trance listening to his music. Two excellent books for those interested in the blues: Chasin’ That Devil Music by Gayle Dean Wardlow and The Land Where The Blues Began by Alan Lomax. For those interested in the history of this culturally rich music these are excellent books. Without Blind Lemon or Son House or Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters there would be no rock or roll. Great topic today Catie and I can’t wait for Friday’s post!

    • So glad you enjoyed the topic, Tim! And thanks for the book recommendations. When I was researching this post, I found a book that was based on Mack McCormick’s Robert Johnson research. I am still undecided on buying it. It could be really great or just go over stuff I’ve already heard/read.

      I’ll look forward to seeing you Friday, Tim. Thanks for stopping by.

    • on ,
      Shein Die said:

      Hi, Tim…. and I’d have to add the Great Hubert Sumlin… lead guitar for the Howlin’ Wolf (Chicago Blues) …although Howlin’ Wolf was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (and won many awards, due to Mr. Sumlin’s outstanding guitar playing imo), Hubert Sumlin was not ..Keith, Mick, Clapton and so many others point to HIM as their inspiration ….and yeah, Ike Zimmerman, Son House, Charlie Patton and he who taught Charlie Patton (aka Charley Patton) should also be lauded – note: Muddy’s ‘idol’ was Son House!.. Best In The Blues, Shein

  6. on ,
    Shein Die said:

    Hi :) … totally enjoyed reading .. by the way, tdBlues (@thedeltablues ) did an interview with me (Sheindie) and features a few of my Blues photos (Robert Johnson’s Birth House, his Original signature on his Marriage License to Virginia Travis etc.) – have a look around? comment? … more of my Blues Photos/info are on my flickr (Shein Die) .. with link provided in interview ….Thank you so much!!!… Best in the Blues, Sheindie

  7. on ,
    Shein Die said:

    sorry…. forgot to mention … 2 more photos of Robert Johnson have been located … I believe they’re both in possession of his son Claud Johnson – one features one of his brothers with him… the other is a ‘full face’ …ok… got to be going :D Shein

    • Neither of those two alleged photos have been sufficiently substantiated as Johnson. Most blues scholars, myself included, do not believe either is Johnson

      • on ,
        Shein Die said:

        … that’s interesting.. thanks for commenting :)

  8. Ooohhh….I can’t wait until Friday for more. I love the blues and the song you linked to is great. :-).

    • on ,
      Shein Die said:

      Hi, Rhonda … sooo, “Come On In My Kitchen” was the tune that Mississippi Fred McDowell put to a Church Psalm … and called it “You Got To Move” – that was in the 1920s .. The Mississippi Sheiks took that tune, changed the words, and called it … “Sitting on Top of the World” (in the ’30s ..) Robert Johnson took the tune from the MS Sheiks, changed the words and … you got ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ ..it’s so interesting how songs evolved .. Mr. McDowell got 75% copyright for his song =) Best In The Blues, Shein (Blind Rev. Gary Davis got the 25% – The Rolling Stones used Fred’s song on ‘Sticky Fingers’ album and credited him)

    • Thanks for sharing the link. I couldn’t figure out how to get to the interview, and I felt like such a doofus! I grasp what I as misunderstanding. And thanks also for all the other interesting information you’ve taken the time to share.

  9. You may be interested to know that Johnson was playing, at least semi-professionally for parties, picnics, and the occasional juke joint as early as 1929, perhaps 1928, BEFORE he met Son House in 1930. I knew Son personally and heard him tell the standard story you cite that Robert couldn’t play when he met him and all he could make was noise, but this is patently untrue. Robert was probably not up to Son’s standards for sure, but he could certainly make a lot more than just noise on the guitar. People used to come looking for Johnson to play at their affairs DEFINITELY by 1929, so the Son House story is just another lovely myth about Robert. And, Son had a rather large ego, so when later, he was asked about Johnson’s abilities, it would be natural for him to try to take credit for teaching him, or having been better than he was when they met.

    Actually, Robert was off playing when Virginia died on April 10th, 1930… this is one of the reasons why she’s listed on the April 11th, 1930 census record as still living with Robert in Bolivar, Mississippi. Virginia had gone to be with her parents to give birth to their child and had died the day before the census enumeration, but Robert didn’t know because he wasn’t there either. The information was given by a neighbor who also didn’t know Virginia had died the day before. Robert was off playing and working his way up the Mississippi in various jukes and plantation jukes to finally arrive at Virginia’s parents’ home, guitar in hand, several days, or even a week or two after Virginia and their child had been buried. This caused Virginia’s family and community to take it out on Robert and blame him for her death because he was “out there playing the devil’s music.” This was a crucial turn in Robert’s life and the one that caused him to adopt the lifestyle of a “devil’s musician” – a true bluesman. It wasn’t until at least a month or two later that he met Son House because Son didn’t move to Robinsonville until May 1930.

    There’s a hell of a lot more to the story, but then that would be giving away everything from my new book on Johnson! :)

    • Thanks for commenting, Bruce. Your clarification of the Son House story about Robert Johnson’s skills and about Robert’s activity at the time of Virginia’s death is fascinating. Your explanation of events made more sense and was less convoluted than just about anything I’ve read on Robert or have seen in documentaries. How interesting that you knew Son House!

      It is comments like yours that really add depth to the limited information I post here. And you never know–some of my readers might be interested in checking out your book. Be sure to let me know when it comes out. If you like, I can even plug it here on the blog. I do a once a month post about new stuff, and I’d be happy to include you.

      If your book is written as engagingly as the information you’ve posted here, I’d be interested in reading it myself.

      • Well thanks for the kind comments Catie! I love the very fact that you’re doing this blog and topic. You mention the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in your responses… did you know I was the Founding Curator of that institution? Wow, could I tellk you stories about THAT!!!!! :)

        • Now, that is beyond cool. I bet you have some amazing stories. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is one of those places I’d love to visit. My first true love was rock and roll. Though I am not a scholar, I sincerely enjoy it.

          • on ,
            Shein Die said:

            …. question for Bruce : In your opinion, why do you think Hubert Sumlin was never inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? … thanks! :)

  10. Shein Die: There are a couple of things going on here. The first is that the Rock Hall is an industry vanity project. It’s not so much about what kind of music you made or how good a musician you were, it’s about what you did for the industry and whether you were good buds with a record company CEO and how much money you made him and the company. This is why a group like Abba – certainly not a rock group, they were pop at best – is in but so many other truly outstanding rock bands and musicians aren’t. The Rock Hall is run BY the industry, which is similar in my mind to having allowed George Steinbrenner to run the Baseball Hall of Fame. The industry CEOs should have nothing to do with the Rock Hall, but they do. To continue the baseball analogy, Hubert was also primarily a sideman, and it’s really tough for a sideman to get recognition. It’s like being a shortstop in baseball. He’s essential to the team and may be a great player, but how many shortstops are in the Baseball hall of Fame? Only a very, very few. So there are both of those things going against Hubert. Now it wouldn’t surprise me if at some point he did get in, but as long as the CEOs of the music industry can induct people who made them fortunes it probably won’t be anytime soon.

    • on ,
      Shein Die said:

      Thank you, Bruce, for explaining this to me… your analogy is apt! … I’ve always wondered by some ‘Pop’ groups are inducted while worthwhile ‘Rock & Roll’ groups, performers haven’t been… what you say makes sense, unfortunately … Best in the Blues, Shein

    • How cool! If I were friends with someone like that, I’d always want them to play their guitar for me. It would be a short-lived friendship. LOL

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