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The life of Robert Johnson, one of the most influential early blues artists, in shrouded by vague details and encompassed in mystery. His emotion filled playing and singing blends to form some of the most moving, original blues music ever produced. Ironically, despite being one of the top influences to blues music, little is known about the shy, mild mannered bluesman. "Almost nothing, is known about his life he is only a name on a few recordings. " Where did he come from? Who was Johnsons family. Who inspired Robert to play the blues and who influenced his music? Who exactly was Robert Johnson?
Only the vague recollections of his friends and family link us to the mysterious life of Robert Johnson. From these accounts the story of Robert Johnson is brought to life, and the events which fueled his powerful music are pieced together. Robert Johnson was born on May eighth, 1911, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Robert was the eleventh child born to Mrs.
Julia Dodds. Roberts mother described little Robert as a playful little boy, who "Always used to be listening, listening to the wind or the chickens clicking in the backyard or me, when Id be singin round the house. And he just love church Little Robert set on my lap and try to keep time, look like, or hold on to my skirt and sort of jig up and down and laugh and laugh. " (Lomax, 14) Thus, Robert was first introduced by his church into the world of music and was forever captured by its beauty. Mrs. Johnson didnt have much trouble with Robert as a child but as he grew older, he became more and more intrigued about the extravagant life of the bluesman, and taken by the spiritual music. He started following the musicians around, staying out all night, intrigued by the bluesman's free lifestyle.
Anyone that had a guitar, little Robert would follow off according to his mother. "Sometimes he wouldnt come home, " Roberts mother recalls, "and a whipping never did him no good. " Mrs. Johnson feared the worst for Robert, she believed the guitar was the instrument of the devil and that the music he listened to was full of sin. Robert would ease her worries by playing church songs to her, yet this never erased the fear she held inside for her son. Robert was captured by the mystery surrounding the life of the bluesman.
The women, gambling, seemingly unlimited freedom, and the amazing way they turned oppression into beautiful song, intrigued Robert. As a young boy, Robert was faced by terrible oppression of all sorts. The white community utilized terror as a means to subdue the African American families of the time. "Racism held sway over the land. Like a plague destroyed the hopes, and beliefs of the black community. " (Finn, 211) As a young boy living on cotton plantations, Robert witnessed the harsh treatment of fellow black African Americans. The cruel treatment of the plantation owners continued into daily life where Johnson was received as inferior by the white general public.
He received unjust segregated treatment as a result of his black skin. As a small child he watched in amazement to the powerful music of the bluesman. In beautiful song they captured the pain of injustice which Robert, as well as most other African Americans of the time, had been forced to endure all their lives. Young Robert was intrigued by these men, and dreamed of one day singing the blues himself. His half brother Charles taught him the basics on guitar yet Johnsons most influential teacher was the famous bluesman, Son House.
Son House was a student of Charlie Patton, one of the first well known Delta Blues musicians. Son also had also learned quite a bit from a gentlemen referred to as Lemon, a name given to him for the fact that he had learned every Blind Lemon piece directly from the phonograph (Blind Lemon is was one of the first Mississippi Delta bluesman). Sons playing largely resembled that of Lemons, "The high pitch delivery, the brilliant counter melodies between phrases. " (Lomax, 13) And thus, Robert Johnson unknowingly inherited the powerful influence of a long line of famous Delta bluesman. Son House recalls how, "Wed all play for the Saturday Night Balls and there be this little boy standing around. That was Robert Johnson. He was just a little boy then.
He blew a harmonica and he was pretty good with that but he wanted to play guitar. " (Guralnick, 15) Son House recalls how Robert would sit in the corner and listen, sing, and dance along to the rhythm of the guitars. "And then wed get a break and want to rest some. Robert would watch and see which way wed gone, and he would pick one of them up. And such another racket you never heard!" . (Guralnick, 15) Son would scold Robert for playing the guitar and causing such racket yet. In latter years, House laughs at the thought, admitting flat out that Johnson had become a far more accomplished musician than he had ever dreamed. Roberts wife died at the age of sixteen during childbirth, and it is unknown exactly how this effected Robert. It is suspected that he underwent some type of emotional breakdown and as a result, Robert underwent a creative outburst.
He temporarily moved back in with his mother and step but moved out again and traveled deep into the Delta. Robert struggled to "Piece together into some kind of coherency, the evil contradictions of life." (Finn, 211) And so he turned to music. Previously captured by the seemingly magical music of blues, Johnson turned to the world of magic for an answer. He traveled deep into the bayous for nearly two years, supposedly to seek the assistance of a root doctor. An uninhabited, muddy jungle is a description fit to describe the bayous of Mississippi. A dark, forbidding place, the bayous of the Delta were regarded with awe by outsiders.
It was a common belief held by many that supernatural forces were present. Little is known of what occurred during this time. All that is certain, is that upon his return, Johnson had become one of the most skilled musicians to have ever played. Several speculations are made by fellow musicians to account for the reason of this sudden, drastic improvement, yet the most commonly held belief is that Johnson made a pact with the devil. It was not unheard of for some blues artists to return from a long leave with remarkable talent, claiming that they had sold themselves to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the guitar. Le Dell Johnson, brother of Tommy Johnson, another greatly influential early Delta blues artists, recalls his brothers superior guitar playing, " Now if Tom was living, hed tell you.
He said the reason he know so much, said he sold himself to the devil Thats the way I learned to play anything I want. " (Guralnick, 18) Son House thoroughly believed Robert Johnson had done the same. "So then he went off one day, say he goin to Arkansas and, when he come back, he was strutting, " Son House recalls Roberts return. "Guitar slung round his shoulders and four or five harmonicas stuck in a grate big broad belt round his waist. " Son and his musical companion Willie Brown laughed at first, and mockingly offered Johnson the floor. Son House and Willie Brown were taken aback by the marvelous skill that rang forth from the guitar. "And play, that boy could play more blues than air one of us. " (Lomax, 16). This was the beginning of Roberts wild, mystical life as a bluesman. And thus, Roberts travels began. He stayed for about a week in Robinsonville and then set out on the road, visiting such places as St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and New York (all the while using Memphis, Greenwood, and Robinsonville as his base). "Everywhere he went he was hailed and remembered- in Arkansas and Mississippi, hill country and Delta, city and town" (Guralnick, 20).
Johnny Shines, influential blues artist and Roberts occasional musical companion during these trips, recalls how they would travel on buses, trains, hitch rides from pickup trucks, even walk down the highways in order to reach the next town. They would set up on a street corner in front of a barber shop, or in front of a local restaurant and play for any willing listeners. Robert made an instant connection with his audience, both on personal, and musical levels. "Well Robert was one of those fellows who was warm in every aspect, every aspect, " Johnny Shines recollects. Robert was well liked by both men and women. It is true, that men very much resented him for his remarkable talent and influence over women, yet they still couldnt help but like him. "For Robert just had that power to draw, " reminisces Shines (Finn 214). Stories of about his phenomenal technique became legendary.
Robert grabbed the inner feelings of despair, grief, and a...
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