Of all the great blues musicians, Robert Johnson (1911-1938) was probably the most obscure. All that is known of him for certain is that he recorded 29 songs; he died young; and he was one of the greatest bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta.
There are only five dates in Johnson's life that can undeniably be used to assign him to a place in history: Monday, November 23; Thursday, November 26; and Friday, November 27, 1936, he was in San Antonio, Texas, at a recording session. Seven months later, on Saturday, June 19 and Sunday, June 20, 1937, he was in Dallas at another session. Everything else about his life is an attempt at reconstruction. As director Martin Scorsese says in his foreword to Alan Greenberg's play 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."
Robert Johnson was born in the Mississippi Delta (Hazlehurst, Mississippi) sometime around May 8, 1911, the 11th child of Julia Major Dodds, who had previously born 10 children to her husband Charles Dodds. Born illegitimate, Johnson did not take the Dodds name.
Twenty two-year-old Charles Dodds had married Julia Major in Hazlehurst, Mississippi—about 35 miles from Jackson—in 1889. Charles Dodds owned land and made wicker furniture; his family was well off until he was forced out of Hazlehurst around 1909 by a lynch mob following an argument with some of the more prosperous townsfolk. (There was a family legend that Dodds escaped from Hazlehurst dressed in women's clothing.) Over the next two years, Julia Dodds sent their children one at time to live with their father in Memphis, where Charles Dodds had adopted the name of Charles Spencer. Julia stayed behind in Hazlehurst with two daughters, until she was evicted for nonpayment of taxes.
By that time she had given birth to a son, Robert, who was fathered by a field worker named Nonah Johnson. Unwelcome in Charles Dodds' home, Julia Dodds became an itinerant field worker, picking cotton and living in camps as she moved among plantations. While she worked in the fields, her eight-year-old daughter took care of Johnson. Over the next ten years, Dodds would make repeated attempts to reunite the family, but Charles Dodds never stopped resenting her infidelity. Although Charles Dodds would eventually accept Johnson, he never would forgive his wife for giving birth to him. While in his teens, Johnson learned who his father was, and it was at that time that he began calling himself Robert Johnson.
Around 1914, Johnson moved in with Charles Dodds' family, which by that time included all of Dodds' children by Julia Dodds, as well as Dodds' mistress from Hazlehurst and their two children. Johnson would spend the next several years in Memphis, and it was reportedly about this time that he began playing the guitar under his older half-brother's tutelage.
Johnson did not rejoin his mother until she had re-married several years later. By the end of the decade, he was back in the Mississippi Delta living with his mother and her new husband, Dusty Willis. Johnson and his stepfather, who had little tolerance for music, did not get along, and Johnson had to slip out of the house to join his musician friends. Eventually he decided to run away.
It is not known whether Johnson attended school in the Delta during this time. Some later accounts say that he could neither read nor write, while others tell of his beautiful handwriting. In any case, everyone agrees that music was Johnson's first interest, and that he had gotten his start playing the jew's harp and harmonica.
By 1930, Johnson had married and become serious about playing the guitar. During the time that he was married, he lived with his sister and her husband. But his wife died in childbirth at the age of 16. By some accounts, Johnson briefly moved back with his mother and stepfather, where he encountered the same problems that he had found intolerable when he was growing up and soon left. In 1931, he married for a second time. By then, his fellow musicians were beginning to take note of his precocity on the guitar.
Johnson began traveling up and down the Delta, travelling by bus, hopping trains, and sometimes hitchhiking. When he arrived in a new town, he would play on street corners or in front of the local barbershop or a restaurant. He played what his audience asked for—not necessarily his own compositions. Anything he earned was based on tips, not salary. With an ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, Johnson had no trouble giving his audiences what they wanted. Also working in his favor was an ability to establish instant rapport with his audiences. In every town he stopped, Johnson would establish ties to the local community that would serve him in good stead when he passed through again a month or a year later.
Fellow musician Johnny Shines was 17 when he met Johnson in 1933. He estimated that Johnson was maybe a year older than himself. In Samuel Charters' Robert Johnson, the author quotes Shines as saying, "Robert was a very friendly person, even though he was sulky at times, you know. And I hung around Robert for quite a while. One evening he disappeared. He was kind of [a] peculiar fellow. Robert'd be standing up playing some place, playing like nobody's business. At about that time it was a hustle with him as well as a pleasure. And money'd becoming from all directions. But Robert'd just pick up and walk off and leave you standing there playing. And you wouldn't see Robert no more maybe in two or three weeks… . So Robert and I, we began journeying off. I was just, matter of fact, tagging along."
During this time Johnson established what would be a relatively long-term relationship with a woman who was about 15 years older than himself—the mother of future musician Robert Jr. Lockwood. But Johnson reportedly also had someone—a woman—to look after him in all of the towns he played in. Johnson would reportedly ask young women living in the country with their families whether he could go home with them, and in most cases the answer was yes. At least until their husbands came home or Johnson was ready to move on.
Around 1936, Johnson met H. C. Spier in Jackson, Mississippi, who ran a music store and doubled as a talent scout. Spier put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who offered to record the young musician in San Antonio, Texas. At the recording session, Johnson was too shy to perform in front of the musicians in the studio, so played facing the wall. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played 16 selections. When the recording session was over, Johnson presumably returned home with several hundred dollars in his pocket—probably more money than he had ever had at one time.
Among the songs Johnson recorded in San Antonio were "Come On In My Kitchen," "Kind Hearted Woman," and "Cross Roads Blues." "Come On In My Kitchen" included the lines: "The woman I love took from my best friend/Some joker got lucky, stole her back again,/You better come on in my kitchen, it's going to be rainin' outdoors." In "Cross Roads Blues," another of his great songs, he sang: "I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees./I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees./I asked the Lord above, have mercy, save poor Bob if you please./Uumb, standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride./Standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride./Ain't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by."
When his records began appearing, Johnson made the rounds to his relatives and the various children he had fathered to bring them the records himself. The first songs to appear were "Terraplane Blues" and "Last Fair Deal Gone Down," probably the only recordings of his that he would live to hear.
In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas, Texas, for another recording session. Eleven records from this session would be released within the following year. Among them were the three songs that would largely contribute to Johnson's posthumous fame: "Stones In My Heart," "Me And The Devil," and "Hell Hound On My Trail." "Stones In My Heart" and "Me And The Devil" are both about betrayal and making a pact with the devil. The terrifying "Hell Hound On My Trail" is often considered to be the crowning achievement of blues-style music.
Interestingly, six of Johnson's blues songs mention the devil or some form of the supernatural. In "Me And The Devil," he began, "Early this morning when you knocked upon my door,/Early this morning, umb, when you knocked upon my door,/And I said, 'Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go,' " before leading into "You may bury my body down by the highway side,/ You may bury my body, uumh, down by the highway side,/So my old evil spirit can get on a Greyhound bus and ride."
In the last year of his life, Johnson is believed to have traveled to St. Louis and possibly Illinois. He spent sometime in Memphis and traveled through the Mississippi Delta and Arkansas. By the time he died, at least six of his records had been released.
His death came on August 16, 1938, at the approximate age of 26 at a little country crossroads near Greenwood, Mississippi. He had been playing for several weeks at a country dance in a town about 15 miles from Greenwood when, by some accounts, he was given poisoned whiskey at the dance by the husband of a woman he had been seeing.
Johnson was buried in the graveyard of a small church near Morgan City, Mississippi, not far from Greenwood, in an unmarked grave. His life would be short but his music would serve as the root source for an entire generation of blues and rock and roll musicians.
Among the Mississippi Delta bluesmen believed to have exerted the strongest influences on Johnson's music are Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Howlin' Wolf, Tommy Johnson, and Son House. Peter Guralnick, in Searching for Robert Johnson, quotes Son House, "We'd all play for the Saturday night balls, and there'd be this little boy standing around. That was Robert Johnson. He was just a little boy then. He blew harmonica and he was pretty good with that, but he wanted to play guitar."
Charters, Samuel, Robert Johnson, Oak Publications, 1973.
Greenberg, Alan, Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, DaCapo Press, 1994.
Guralnick, Peter, Searching for Robert Johnson, E.P. Dutton, 1989.