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Robert Johnson

Often identified as being King of the Blues, JOHNSON’s foothold and legacy also spans into some aspects of contemporary blues music, although one could argue it’s purist blues based. Anyway, with the likes of black folk-blues artists such as LEADBELLY, BLIND WILLIE McTELL, JOSH WHITE, et al, finding similar paths to the ears of American folklorists, why not singer-songwriter/troubadour, ROBERT JOHNSON (b. May 8, 1911, Hazlehurst – a small industrialised railway town in the deep south of… – Mississippi, USA).
The seminal blues and Delta slide hero spent the early part of his life in a migrant labour camp after a fleeting affair with a W.A.P. worker (Noah Johnson) had forced Robert’s mother, Julia Dodds, to flee to Memphis. After moving back with her original husband, Charles Spencer, Dodds was incapable of raising young Robert due to the struggles of parenthood and his increasingly disturbing and arrogant behaviour. RJ and his mother subsequently moved to Robinsonville, a sleepy Northern cotton community 40 miles out of Memphis, where she married Willie Willis in 1916 and settled down to raise the boy properly.
Throughout his teenage years, Robert became fascinated with music and instruments: he experimented with his new found Jews harp before moving onto harmonica and then finally the guitar. His friend RL Windum occasionally augmented on harp while RJ played the popular blues on his guitar, although this relationship was very short-lived due to RJ’s subsequent attendance at the Indiana Creek school.
In the early 20s, JOHNSON left school when his eyesight frequently failed him during exams and important lectures. Heading nowhere, he acquired the help of Willie Brown, a talented local musician who introduced the young guitarist to a string of “Jook” houses (blues venues) throughout the decade, enabling the talented bluesman a valid chance to broaden and advance his musical horizons.
In 1929, and rumoured to be somewhat of a ladies man, 18-year old Robert married 16-year old Virginia Travis and they subsequently bought a farmhouse when she fell pregnant. Then tragedy struck the following April: Virginia and the baby died during childbirth. This catapulted JOHNSON into extreme depression. The only way he felt he could cure his melancholia was to play raw-edged Delta blues which displayed a degree of fiery passion, not heard since Blind Willie Johnson’s (no relation) `Dark Was The Night…’.
It was said that Robert sat alone at night in the forest, engulfed in his own thoughts, strumming his guitar with an eerie, but beautiful prowess. Two months later he followed the advice of his aforementioned mentor, Brown, and set off to Wisconsin to record for Paramount Records. There he created his most vivid and stripped-down recordings with preacher-cum-bluesman SON HOUSE, a remarkable pioneer who altered Robert’s perception on standard blues playing. After a short stint on the road, he returned back to his home town of Hazlehurst, where he met Ike Zinnerman, an eccentric gothic blues guitarist, who claimed that he had self taught himself the blues whilst sitting on gravestones in the local crematorium in the dead of night!
JOHNSON subsequently remarried in 1931 to Calletta Craft who was 10 years his senior, although he abandoned her after she had a nervous breakdown. He began playing the “Jook” houses in the early 30s and enjoyed acclaim from a huge group of people who packed out venues wherever he played. However, this attraction made the man deranged and paranoid; he would never reveal the chords or notes to any of his songs and he could be seen frequently leaving the stage midway through a set because he claimed the audience were eyeing him too closely!
He continued traveling and after a brief residency in Arkansas he was approached by Ernie Oertle, a talent scout for the deep south who took him to San Antonio to record, during which time he produced the awesome `Terraplane Blues’. A feast of slide and fast-handed guitar, with Robert’s falsetto ramblings a highlight, the song became a huge success in America, providing this new found blues hero with instant fortune and a mass following. Tours of dancehalls, camps and “Jook” houses followed, along with the arrival of no less than eleven single/78 rpm records: a total of 41 recordings. The tour path led JOHNSON through Detroit, New York City, New Jersey, St. Louis, Canada, Windsor and back to the south. By this time he had grown fond of drinking and was said to be the “life of the party” when drunk.
His final excursion came in the summer of 1938 when he stopped off in Greenwood County to play in a bar called Three Forks. According to sources, Robert had become infatuated with the owner’s wife, which caused a bad atmosphere within the joint. He was handed an open bottle of whiskey by the proprietor which was immediately slapped out of his hand by a friend who told him: “Don’t ever take a drink from an open bottle, you don’t know what could be in it!”. Robert took another bottle, and less than an hour later he was struggling to sing on stage. Leaving halfway through his set, he was found outside vomiting violently. It was then evident that he had been poisoned by the jealous barman. He lay sick that night in bed, contracting pneumonia before he finally passed away three days later on August 16, 1938.
Remembered as one of the great blues guitarists of his time, ROBERT JOHNSON’s influence still remains to this day. Among BOB DYLAN, MUDDY WATERS, KEITH RICHARDS and ERIC CLAPTON, the inexplicable artist has never failed to wow audiences and musicians alike; his warped interpretation of blues guitar and his haunting vocals have provided a catalyst for many inspired guitarists and vocalists who could not shake the sound of his exploding originality from their mind; Richards wrote in the booklet which accompanied THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS OF ROBERT JOHNSON (1991) {*10}: “I have never heard anybody before or since use the form and bend so much to make it work for himself… he came out with such compelling themes… it was almost like listening to Bach, you know, you think you can handle the blues until you’ve heard Robert Johnson…”.
© MCS Strong 2000-2004/AS & MCS // rev-up MCS May2013

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