On the crossroads

On the crossroads

Monday, May 21, 2012

Robert Johnson (first part)

As I 've wrote in the first post, my first contact with the Delta Blues came some years ago when I accidentally “discovered” Robert Johnson, this legendary figure of the Blues. Although I already had a contact with the genre, this “return to the roots” was something truly amazing. Robert Johnson was a musician who changed, in his 27 years of his life, the history of blues music. With that in mind the first subject that will occupy us in deltacrossroads naturally will have to do with the great grandfather of rock. This “tribute” to Robert Johnson has been divided in three parts. In the first part there will be a short bio of his life and the second will regard his music. Finally in the third and last part we will see his legend and how these survive until today. In the third part we shall also see the myth of his contract with the Devil.

The Life of Robert Johnson

   Robert Leroy Johnson was born in May the 8th of 1911 in Hazlehurst Mississippi. His parents were Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson. When Robert was seven years old his mother and him moved in Robinsonville. During that period his mother was married again with Dusty Willis who was twenty four years younger! Robert went to school in Robinsonville. An old classmate later stated he had already had a connection with music whilst he played the harmonica. Johnson almost right after school was married, according with the customs of his times. His wife was Virginia Travis. But Johnson wasn't meant to live a normal and quiet life...Shortly after his marriage he became a widower. His wife and child died in labor and Robert was left alone. This incident as naturally devastated him.

   Around this time in Robinsonville arrived one of the pioneers of the Delta blues; Son House and with his friend Willie Brown were playing the blues in the juck joints of Robinsonville and Johnson started playing with them, or better tried to play, since his skills were very limited at the time. Son House later remembered Johnson as “a child who followed him trying to copy his style. Some other sources report that he used to fill in when House and Brown took a break. In fact we have a source that says that one time a customer told him to stop because his was “intolerable”. However these reports are disputed because as we know from other sources he had already moved back in Hazlehurst where he was married for the second time. Then Johnson disappeared with his wife in the Delta for eight months and when he came back he had transformed in a tremendous bluesman. This fact had later fueled the legend that he sold his soul to the Devil in order to acquire his skills in the guitar. According with the myth Robert Johnson bittered from his wife death traded his soul, but the myth will concern us in the last part of this short tribute...

   After his return from the Delta he started playing in various places in Mississippi and other states, a fact that forced his wife to leave him. After this turn of events Johnson is transformed into a tireless traveling musician, a lifestyle that hold on to it until the end of his turbulent life. During his travels he recorded twenty nine songs which helped making him the legend he is today. These recording took place in hotel rooms in two sessions.  Meanwhile he continued his journeys in the American south but also reached places like New York and further north like Chicago and even Ontario Canada. When he first came to a town he played sometimes in the streets and other times in juck joints, whilst we used to stay in relatives, because his extended family was very large, or in some girlfriends house. Inside one of these joints his met his death under mysterious circumstances. Johnson renowned for his lust for women was flirting with the owners wife. The owner blinded by jealousy poisoned his liqueur with strychnine. Johnson in a matter of days was dead in terrible pains and agony in the age of twenty seven...

   Robert Johnson died young but he left behind something better than just the reputation of a great musician; he left behind him a legend that it continues until today. Robert Johnson may left this world young but his music will be around for many more years to come.