Black History Month: Robert Leroy Johnson

Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) was an American blues singer-songwriter and musician. His landmark recordings in 1936 and 1937 display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that has influenced later generations of musicians. Johnson’s shadowy and poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend. One Faustian myth says that he sold his soul to the devil at a local crossroads of Mississippi highways to achieve success. As an itinerant performer who played mostly on street corners, in juke joints, and at Saturday night dances, Johnson had little commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime.


Robert Johnson, the songwriter, guitarist, and singer was known as “The King of the Delta Blues.” The Best of Robert Johnson: Crossroad BluesMany of Robert’s songs help reveal the kind of life he led. There was a myth about Robert selling his soul to the devil in a crossroads bargain. People believed that Robert had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for learning how to play (Bianco 127). On the other hand, Awmiller says that it was House who taught Robert to play so well. Although, according to Bianco, “Johnson never confirmed the story” (Bianco 127). Some referred to this rumor as the “Black Arts.”

There are at least three versions explaining how and why Robert Johnson was killed. Robert became too close or too friendly with the companion of the man who hired him to play, and the man poisoned Johnson with whiskey. August of 1938, Robert Johnson and Honeyboy Edwards were playing at a house party in Three Forks, Mississippi. One version says Johnson was “stabbed to death by a jealous husband. ” Another version says he was “stabbed by a women or poisoned by parties unknown.” Whatever the case, Johnson died three days later at the age of twenty-seven. According to Johnny Shine, “I heard that it was something to do with the Black Arts. Before he died, Robert was crawling along the ground on all fours; barking and snapping like a mad beast. That’s what the poison done to him” (Bianco 126).

Johnson was buried in a small cemetery on the edge of town. The “King of the Delta Blues” was gone, but today his music remains popular. Love in Vain: : A vision of Robert Johnson by Alan Greenberg is a screenplay, for an as yet unmade movie about him, that dramatizes his life, music and legend.. The movie Crossroads is about Robert Johnson and Willie Brown (Johnson sings about his ‘friend-boy, Willie Brown in his Cross Roads Blues) and stars Joe Seneca and Ralph Machio. Robert Johnson is considered one of the greatest of the Mississippi Delta blues musicians. Sources: Wikipedia, Mississippi Writers Project

Johnson has been Clapton’s steady rollin’ muse since 1966, when he cut Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind” with John Mayall. That song is not among the fourteen Clapton covers on his all-Johnson program; nor is “Crossroads,” which he turned into high-speed-guitar spectacle with Cream. In fact, Clapton keeps his solos in “When You Got a Good Friend” and “Little Queen of Spades” to a blistering chorus or two, to better show off the dirty-rubber swing of his longtime road-and-studio band. Clapton pays broad tribute to Johnson as a composer and public-domain synthesist, spicing the sorrow of “Love in Vain” with the carnal sport of “They’re Red Hot.” But he recalls his own passage through darkness in these songs, too. When he finds Satan on his doorstep in “Me and the Devil Blues,” you can hear in Clapton’s deep, scarred howl that he is confronting an old acquaintance. Source: Rolling Stone, Eric Clapton: Me and Mr. Johnson, Marc 24, 2004

 

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