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Robert Johnson: Biography, Songs & Legend

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will detail the life, career and legacy of the famous delta bluesman Robert Johnson. The legend surrounding Johnson will be discussed, as well as his influence on later generations.

King of the Delta Blues

Robert Johnson is probably the most famous of all delta bluesmen. He only lived for an estimated 27 years (1911-1938), and recorded only a handful of songs, but his influence on later generations was immense. Taking the various style, techniques, and traditions of his native Mississippi, Johnson fused together an important sound that defined the delta blues genre. Shrouded in mystery, amplified by legend, and immortalized by the few recordings that he left behind, Robert Johnson stands as one of the most important figures in the history of American music.

Life and Career

Because Johnson came to popularity long after his death, only fragmentary information is known about his biography. He is believed to have been born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1911. Turn of the century Mississippi was characterized by poverty, sharecropping, and grinding racial discrimination. Rather than adopt the agricultural lifestyle of most African-Americans of his generation, he became a traveling musician. The young Johnson is said to have learned his craft from two of the greatest early delta bluesmen, Charlie Patton and Son House. He spent his short life traveling across the south and Midwest, performing as far away as Chicago.

Even though Robert Johnson recorded only a grand total of 29 songs, this scanty output would end up having a huge impact on popular music. These crucial tracks were recorded over a period of five days, between 1936 and 1937. When we consider the wildly expensive recording sessions of contemporary rock stars, that can take years of studio time, Johnson's recordings seem all the more impressive.

The death of Robert Johnson is shrouded in as much mystery as his life. The most widely accepted story is that he was allegedly having an affair with a married woman, and was poisoned by her jealous husband. He died on August 16th, 1938, in Greenwood, Mississippi.

The Devil at the Crossroads

Robert Johnson is perhaps most famous for the legend of how he acquired his impressive guitar playing ability. According to that legend, Johnson went to a special crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, known by local inhabitants as a place of supernatural power, and was approached by the devil himself. The devil offered Johnson superhuman guitar skills in exchange for his soul, and Johnson accepted. From that day forward, no bluesman in American could match Johnson's musical talents.

A statue at the intersection of U.S. Routes 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil.
Clarksdale

This story is an excellent example of a folk legend. A folk legend is a traditional story told by a particular community of people over a period of time, that recounts events that may or may not be true, but which contains elements of truth and wisdom. The Johnson legend expresses the anxieties of the time about the morality of playing secular music, blues as a potentially corrupting influence, and the dangers of personal ambition. It would become an important reason for the blues and its offspring, rock 'n' roll, being known as the 'devil's music'.

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