Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 8 May '11, Hazlehurst MS; d 16 Aug. '38, Greenwood MS) Blues singer, songwriter, guitarist. Raised on a farm; ran away from home to work with Son House c'30; also worked with Johnny Shines, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James. In a San Antonio hotel room '36 and in a back room of a Dallas office building '37 he made a total of 45 sides for ARC labels, incl. alternate takes (but some were probably remasterings of existing takes). Only 'Terraplane Blues' was anything like a hit in the restricted 'race' market of the time; 'I Believe I'll Dust My Broom' was adapted by James and became a post-war anthem of electric blues. When John Hammond tried to locate Johnson for his Spirituals to Swing concert of Dec. '38, he was already dead. Son House heard three versions of his death: that he had been stabbed by a jealous husband, stabbed by a woman, and poisoned; and Shines said, 'I heard that it was something to do with the black arts.' In fact he seemed to have been given poisoned whiskey by a man whose woman Johnson may have been trifling with. He was known to have been casually murdered at the time, just a visiting guitar player; but the harrowing imagery and superb guitar playing on his recordings made him the most influential of all the classic bluesmen. Titles such as 'Hellhound On My Trail' and 'Me And The Devil Blues' are his most revealing: House also recalled that Johnson was not a very good guitar player when he was younger, but that he disappeared for a time and suddenly turned up greatly improved. In a genre depending on the guitar not so much supporting the voice as simultaneously singing with equal intensity, he had become the greatest of all; Julio Finn (who played harmonica with Muddy Waters, and on Art Ensemble LP Certain Blacks) published the typical embroidery in his book The Bluesman '86: Johnson went 'to the crossroads' and made a deal with the devil in order to be able to express himself as a helpless Mississippi Negro. Others believe on the musical evidence that Johnson was in fact a considerably more sophisticated man than we have thought; like Skip James he was probably more than a folk singer, the sort of artist who knew exactly what he was doing. Whatever the white blues revivalists of the '60s believed, they could not resist covering 'Terraplane' (Captain Beefheart), 'Crossroads' (Cream), 'Love In Vain' and 'Stop Breakin' Down' (the Rolling Stones), though they knew they could not approach Johnson's genius. Thirty-two Johnson tracks were issued on Columbia/CBS on two LPs '61 and '70 as Robert Johnson: King Of The Delta Blues Singers; when 41 tracks incl. alternates over 50 years old were issued as The Complete Recordings '90 the two-CD set reached the top 100 of the Billboard album chart; the transfers were not as good as the earlier ones, and Columbia did it again '97. Thirty-eight tracks also compiled as Delta Blues Legend on Charly UK. Books are Robert Johnson '69 by Bob Groom, Robert Johnson '73 by Samuel B. Charters, Searching For Robert Johnson '89 by Peter Guralnick. Researcher Mack McCormick has discovered more about Johnson than anybody, but his work could not be published because the probable murderer was still alive. Film Crossroads '86, with music by Ry Cooder and Sonny Terry, was based loosely on what was known of his life.