On This Day in 1911: a Music Legend Was Born
Meet Robert Johnson- America’s late, often forgotten musician who powered the blues, the foundation of rock and roll and the legend of selling one’s soul to the Devil.
Robert Johnson was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included four of Johnson’s songs in their compilation of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll. In 2000, Johnson became a member of the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame and in 2006 became the winner of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1990, his album recorded in 1936 and 1937, “The Complete Recordings” won a Grammy for Best Historical Blues Album and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1992. In 1998, his 1936 single “Cross Road Blues” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. At the Blues Foundation Awards in 1991, “The Complete Recordings” won in the category of Vintage or Reissue Album. Johnson’s blues guitar and soulful voice has effected generations and established a new paradigm in music, influencing prominent musicians such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, Peter Green, Rory Block and Eric Clapton.
Wikipedia illustrates his legacy:
“Robert Johnson has had enormous impact on music and musicians, but outside his own time, place, and even genre for which he was famous. His influence on his contemporaries was much smaller, due in part to the fact that he was an itinerant performer—playing mostly on street corners, in “juke joints,” and at Saturday night dances—who worked in a then undervalued style of music, and who died young after recording only a handful of songs. Johnson, though well-traveled and admired in his performances, was little noted in his own time and place; his records even less so.”
But what is just as legendary as Johnson’s Delta Blues music, is his mysterious aura. Not very much at all is known about Johnson’s early life. His sister, Carrie Thompson, once reported that his mother acknowledged his birthday as May 8, 1911.
Martin Scorcese stated in 1993 within “Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson”,
“The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend…the script represents this possession as a literal pact with the devil- this was the legend of Johnson’s extraordinary guitar skill- only speaks to the existential predicament of all artists- and one of the cruel paradoxes of human nature- that our finest art is born from the wellspring of pain,”
His days spent recording were actually, some of his only days clearly documented: Monday, Thursday and Friday, November 23, 26, and 27, 1936, at a session in San Antonio, Texas in addition to another session seven month later which occurred on Saturday and Sunday of June 19 and 20, 1937 in Dallas.
The few, rare confirmed images of Johnson were located in 1973 in the possession of Thompson. The November 2008 issue of Vanity Fair suggests there may be more. His death certificate from 1938 was discovered in 1968, which lists his death’s date and location. The cause of his death, at the age of 27 years, remains unknown with the majority of his biography. Some associate Johnson and his death as the third inductee to the theorized “27 Club” which allegedly includes artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
According to faustian legend, the young Mississippi man had an insatiate appetite to become a renowned blues musician. An unknown source suggested the young man take his guitar to a crossroads near Dockery Plantation in what is now Clarksdale, Mississippi, at midnight. Upon the fulfillment of this request, Johnson was allegedly confronted by a large black man alluded to as being the Devil who then passed on to Johnson the mastery of playing guitar. While this story is acknowledged to as a myth, let that not be accepted at face value. Countless members of the entertainment and music industries have attributed their fame to this very same metaphor of selling one’s soul to the Devil through interviews and their music.
Satanic allegories appear in Johnson’s lyrics as well, as evident as such tracks fueling the mystery as “Cross Road Blues” “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” “Hellhound on my Trail” and “Me and the Devil Blues.”
“Me And The Devil” begins:
“Early this morning when you knocked upon my door/Early this morning when you knocked upon my door/And I said, ‘Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go,'” and continues with, “You may bury my body down by the highway side/You may bury my body down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.”
“Hellhound on my Trail” was considered one of Johnson’s best known and most admired performances:
“I got to keep movin’, I’ve got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
Umm-mm-mm-mm, blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
And the day keeps on worrin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail…”
17 They’re Red Hot
1-04 Walkin’ Blues