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... ninety, feelings borne from a life of oppression and hardship, to fuel some of the most moving, emotion filled music ever heard. "His guitar seemed to talk- repeat and say words like no one else in the world could, " recalls one of Roberts former friends. "This sound affected most women in a way I could never understand. One time in St. Louis me and Johnson were playing a party. When we had quit, I noticed no one was saying anything.
Then I realized they were crying both women and men" (Finn 208) Robert Johnson could touch a crowd like none other, disciple like men began to follow him around, amazed at his guitar skills. Robert secured several places along his travels (homes of various girlfriends) in which he would live with briefly at different times. He would stay at these womens homes until it was time to move on to the next town or if he was simply chased out by a husband returning home. According to his traveling partner Shines, many of these women were of older age than Robert. Robert preferred the older women because they would gladly pay for the expenses of traveling. Accounts from these women describe Robert as shy, polite, yet direct.
He would talk to them in quite, simple statements such as " May I come home with you", or "May I be with you. " (Guralnick 25) It is within these remote homes where Johnson would awake in the middle of the night to practice and perfect his music. A former girlfriend recalls how she snuck through the hallway to catch a glimpse of Robert silently fingering and strumming the guitar. He never let anyone see him practice, as if hiding some kind of secret only to be enjoyed by himself. Much of the reason little is known about the life of Robert Johnson is due to his nomadic lifestyle, traveling from home to home and never quite settling down. Robert never quite formed any solid relationships with people, always keeping a shadowy distance. The world of which Robert was part of was based almost solely around verbal communication, with very little documentation, thus adding to the mystery surrounding Robert.
Yet, one very permanent part of Johnson has survived and is still with us today, his recordings. "His voice still rings out over the scratchy records of the twenties like a rooster crowing before day, and his guitar, tuned in the Neo-African styles of his tunes, is as subtle as moonlight on the Mississippi" (Lomax 13). Robert Johnson began his recording career in the "roaring days of the race record business" (Lomax 13). This period, which took place during the twenties and thirties, was a period when millions of blues records were sold. Robert Johnson records rest upon the record selves with the likes of several other famous blues artist of the time, Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Skip James, Muddy Waters, Lonnie Johnson, Tommy Johnson, and Blind Willie Mc Tell, among several others. Due to the number of prominent artists of the period, Roberts music did not initially stand out. Yet as the years went on, and collectors began to gather the early blues of the twenties and thirties, Johnsons music entered a new realm of respect.
H. C. Speir, the white owner of a music shop in Jackson, scouted blues acts from the location of his store. Several of the greatest artists from this period began their exciting careers by taking a trip to the music store and auditioning for Speir, who obviously had quite an ear for blues music. "All the best performers from miles around would gather together by notices in the paper and word of mouth", describes skip James, a prominent blues artist of the time (Guralnick 33). Robert entered into the store himself in 1936 at the age of twenty five. Speir, working for the ARC label group, immediately passed the name of the young man onto Ernie Ortle, another talent scout for the label.
Ortle was instantly impressed by the technique and style of Johnson and offered him a recording session in November in San Antonio, Texas. Suffering from a bad case of stage fright, Robert recorded the session facing toward the wall. This coincides with accounts from Roberts friends Johnny Shines and Robert Lockwood, both of whom describe Johnson as being severely jealous over his technique, never quite willing to face an audience and allow them to view the magic of his fingers producing the music. It was almost as if Johnson had some dark secret to hide (which would coincide with the Devil theory). Robert recorded 16 tracks during the three day session. His first records sold about ten to twelve thousand copies that year yet all that Robert received was seventy-five to a hundred dollars.
Roberts "I Believe Ill Dust My Broom", and "Sweet Home Chicago", became postwar standards, known to virtually every bluesman. "Some of the things that he did with that guitar effected the way everybody played" (Guralnick 37). Johnson familiarized a whole generation with his walking bass (not entirely original, Robert adapted his style from that of the great Charlie Patton) which is widely used by guitarists of several genres of music including Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Eric Clapton among others. He also introduced the boogie woogie style of guitar playing, adapted from the piano played during the time period, which was later used and adapted by several bluesman including Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. Thus people began to add their own bass parts to their guitar pieces, complementing their own music by mixing both lead and bass into their pieces (Jimi Hendirx is a prime example). "Terraplane Blues, " which sold somewhere from four to five thousand copies, is probably the piece for which Johnson is remembered most. Robert again met with the recording company in Dallas, Texas to cut his final 14 tracks. The men met in the mezzanine floor of the Gunter Hotel inside a closed, hot room.
The drapes were closed to keep out the sounds of the busy Dallas public, and the room grew to immense temperatures. Robert concluded the session shirtless performing, "Me and the Devil Blues." Robert Johnson left the recording studio on Sunday, June 20, 1937. He hooked up briefly with Shines and they traveled together for a short while, performing throughout Texas. Then, while traveling through Arkansas, Shines stayed in Little Rock with his mother while Robert continued on.
He met up again with Robert shortly after and once again began traveling. Fourteen months after Johnsons final recordings in Dallas, he was murdered. There are many speculations as to how Roberts death came about. The most coherent story is that he was playing in for a house party when he was poisoned by a jealous husband.
Johnsons mother heard word of the incident and came to the bed in which Robert lay and recalls hearing him say, "I yo child now, mama, and the Lords. Yes- the Lords child and dont belong to no devil no more." Roberts mother goes mom goes on to say how he offered her his guitar, claiming it was the source of his death. "Its the Devils instrument, just like you said. And I dont want it no more. " Robert Johnson, one of the greatest blues artists to ever live, died in November of 1938, while his mother hung his guitar upon the wall. (Lomax 15) Robert Johnson contributed much to the world of blues and rock n roll. Several of his songs were redone by various artists, including the Rolling Stones ("Love in Vain"), and Eric Clapton ("Crossroads", "From Four Till Late") among others. "His walking Bass notes and poignant slide phrasing epitomize the Delta Bottleneck style", and has influenced several black men of the south to sing the blues.
In 1990 a collection of Robert Johnsons songs were put together in a two disk collection of his work. This CD set won a Grammy and sold over half a million copies. Johnson was inducted into the Hall of Fame twice, first in 1980 and again a second time as an early influence in 1986. Johnsons mysterious, shadowy life and beautiful, emotion packed songs will continue to intrigue the minds of many for years to come. Bibliography: Booth, Stanley. Rhythm Oil.
New York; Pantheon Books, 1991. Finn, Julio. The Bluesman. Brooklyn; Interlink Books, 1992.
Guralnick, Peter. Searching For Robert Johnson. New York; Obelisk Books, 1989. "Johnson, Robert. " CD-ROM. Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1996. Feb. 4. "Johnson, Robert. " Encarta Online. Jan. , 1999.
Jan 23, 1999... Lomax, Alan. The Land Where the Blues Began. New York; Pantheon Books, 1993. "Robert Johnson. " Johnson, Robert. Dec. , 1999.
Jan. 23. , 1999... "Robert Johnson. " Robert Johnson. May, 1999. Jan. 23. , 1999. Shirley, David.
Every Day I sing The Blues: The Story of B. B. King. Danbury; Grolier Publishing, 1995. "Welcome to the Crossroads" Robert Johnson. Jun. , 1998.
Jan. , 1999...
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