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Robert Johnson

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Robert Johnson
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Robert Johnson

Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911August 16, 1938) is probably the most famous Delta blues singer and guitarist in history. He is also generally regarded (somewhat problematically) as the most influential one.

Contents

Life

Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. The commonly accepted birthdate is almost certainly in error. Records from during his lifetime (school and marriage records) or immediately thereafter (a death certificate) suggest various dates including 1909 and 1912, although none support the 1911 date.

Robert Johnson recorded only 29 songs on a total of 42 tracks in two recording sessions in San Antonio, Texas in November 1936 and Dallas, Texas in June 1937. Thirteen of the songs were recorded twice. Notable among these tracks were Come On In My Kitchen, Love In Vain, Sweet Home Chicago, Cross Road Blues, Terraplane Blues, and Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil), all frequently remade and imitated by other artists.

Popular legend says that Johnson died after drinking whiskey poisoned with strychnine, supposedly given to him by the jealous husband of a lover. Actually, he recovered from the poisoning initially, only to contract pneumonia and die three days later on the 16th August 1938 in Greenwood, Mississippi. His death certificate simply states "No doctor" under cause of death.

A recurring legend says that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads of U.S. Highway 61 and U.S. Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi in exchange for prowess in playing the guitar. The legend was told mainly by Son House, but finds no corroboration in any of Johnson's work, despite titles like Me and the Devil Blues and Hellhound on my Trail. The older Tommy Johnson, by contrast, actually did claim to have sold his soul to the Devil. The 1986 film Crossroads starring Ralph Macchio and guitarist Steve Vai is loosely based on the idea of blues artists selling their soul to the devil.

Influence

Johnson is frequently cited as "the greatest blues singer of all time" or even the most important musician of the 20th century, but many listeners are disappointed by their first encounter with his work. This reaction may be because of their unfamiliarity with the raw emotion and sparse form of the Delta style or because of the thin sound of the recordings when compared to modern music production standards. While his guitar work was exquisite, few people today would consider his high pitched voice an asset.

Exaggerated claims are sometimes made for Johnson's originality. He certainly did not invent the blues, which had existed on record for over fifteen years before he recorded. Johnson's importance lies in his recasting of earlier traditions into something new and better. His primary influence was the inimitable Son House, who more than anyone else can claim to have invented the Delta blues, with his rough voice and searing slide guitar riffs played on a steel-bodied National guitar. But Johnson added to this the keening whimsy of Skip James and the jazzy inventiveness of Lonnie Johnson. Indeed, a couple of his songs are nothing other than imitations of his famous namesake. Johnson had also listened to Leroy Carr, who was probably the most popular blues singer of the time, although seldom played today. He may also have heard the more obscure Peetie Wheatstraw.

What Johnson did with these and other diverse influences was create a new sound that was at once immediate and artful. His use of the bass strings to create a steady, rolling rhythm can be heard on songs like Sweet Home Chicago. His penchant for strange snatches of melodic invention on the upper strings, mingling with a quite different vocal line, appears on Walking Blues. Johnson played with the young Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II (who claimed to be present at the fateful night when Johnson was poisoned, and even warned him against taking an open bottle of whiskey!). He also acted as mentor to Elmore James, and inspired the young Muddy Waters to take up the blues. All of these musicians and others who created the Chicago style of electric blues in the 1950s were essentially playing the music of Robert Johnson, plugged in. There is thus a direct line of influence from the early blues to post-war blues to early rock and roll and later rock music. "All blues seem to revolve around Robert Johnson", according to modern bluesman Keb' Mo'.

Years after his death, his fan club grew to include rock stars such as Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. When Keith Richards was first introduced to Johnson's music by his bandmate Brian Jones, he replied, "Who is the other guy playing with him?", not realizing it was all Johnson playing on one guitar. Clapton described Johnson as "the most important blues musician who ever lived. ... His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice".

Johnson's recordings have remained continuously available since John Hammond convinced Columbia Records to compile the first Johnson LP, King Of The Delta Blues Singers, in 1961. A sequel LP, assembling all that could be found of Johnson's surviving efforts, was issued later in the decade. An omnibus CD set was released in the early 1990s.

Samples

Songs

  • .32-20 Blues
  • Come On In My Kitchen [two versions]
  • Cross Road Blues [two versions]
  • Dead Shrimp Blues
  • Drunken Hearted Man [two versions]
  • From Four Till Late
  • Hellhound On My Trail
  • Honeymoon Blues
  • I'm A Steady Rollin' Man
  • I Believe I'll Dust My Broom
  • If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day
  • Kind Hearted Woman Blues [two versions]
  • Last Fair Deal Gone Down
  • Little Queen Of Spades [two versions]
  • Love In Vain [two versions]
  • Malted Milk
  • Me And The Devil Blues [two versions]
  • Milk cow's Calf Blues [two versions]
  • Phonograph Blues [two versions]
  • Preachin' Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)
  • Rambling On My Mind [two versions]
  • Stones In My Passway
  • Stop Breakin' Down Blues [two versions]
  • Sweet Home Chicago
  • Terraplane Blues
  • They're Red Hot
  • Traveling Riverside Blues [two versions]
  • Walkin' Blues
  • When You Got A Good Friend [two versions]

Books about Robert Johnson

Films about Robert Johnson

  • Crossroads, 1986
  • The Search for Robert Johnson, 1992
  • Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life and Music of Robert Johnson, 1997
  • Hellhounds On My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson, 2000

Other

  • Currently, a manga running in the Japanese magazine Afternoon called 俺と悪魔ブルーズ(Me and the Devil Blues) is clearly influenced by events of Johnson's life, and the protagonist is named "RJ". However, it is not attempting to be a biography.

External links

de:Robert Johnson fy:Robert Johnson fr:Robert Johnson it:Robert Johnson nl:Robert Johnson sl:Robert Johnson

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