Robert Johnson

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Robert Johnson

(May 8th, 1911 - August 16, 1938)

Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson is literally the stuff legends are made of. Johnson is probably the most celebrated, revered Blues man to have ever lived, and his legacy, influence and even his sales are still burning red-hot decades after his death. He is a mainstream legend, the poster boy of the faustian "selling your soul to the devil" pact, and the archtypical idea of what a true delta blues man was. There is no question Robert Johnson was a creative and skilled guitarist, however, many modern greats such as Eric Clapton (outside link), Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards prefer a different description: genius. And yet, even though a recent reissue of the only 29 songs he ever recorded sold half a million copies and won a Grammy, virtually nothing is known about Robert Johnson the man.

Bluescentric is dedicated to all things blues, and no robust Blues website would be worth it's weight in broken guitar strings without mentioning Robert Johnson. We've dedicated an entire section to the life, legend and death of the most legendary blues man to have ever walked this earth.

Robert's information in different sections:
The Search for Robert Johnson
The Devil and Robert Johnson
The Death of Robert Johnson
The Modern Legacy of Robert Johnson (under construction)
Songs covering and about Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson Lyrics
Bluescentric's Google Map of Robert Johnson's Life, Death & Graves (Google Maps link)



The Search for Robert Johnson

"The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend."
- Martin Scorsese

Countless avid fans, researchers, writers, and historians have dug with a fine tooth comb in, around, and throughout the Mississippi Delta, Texas and anywhere else Johnson was rumored to have gone for clues, facts or anything at all on Robert Johnson's life. Nearly all information, however, has come secondhand, where details are often sketchy at best. Only two known pictures have ever surfaced of Johnson. In fact, nobody can even agree on where Robert is actually even buried. No less than three different places around Greenwood, Mississippi lay claim to his final resting place. He only recorded twice, and there is some controversy as to the exact location of one of his recording sessions. In short, much of Robert Johnson's life is a legend.

Robert Johnson in his Suit
One of only two pictures of
Robert Johnson

Though much of the legend is hard or impossible to seperate from real life, occasionally there are exciting new facts and accounts. His half-sister, Carrie Thompson was tracked down a number of years ago and provided not only more relatively solid information on her brother, but she also had his picture tucked away in her bible. New discoverys still cause waves of interest and excitement. Someone came up with an all-too-convenient Robert Johnson birth certificate in 1968, and someone else recently tried to sell "Robert Johnson's Guitar" on eBay, though the details of how he knew it was Johnson's were nonexistent. A promising, (but not verified) supposed new Robert Johnson picture was recently auctioned for a pricey sum. Absolute verification of new facts are often hard or impossible to prove, and none of it so far has helped piece together much more of Johnson's life than the little we already know. In short, Johnson is a myth, a legend. Robert Johnson is the Keyser Soze of the music world.

Plenty of books have been written on Johnson's life, and though interesting, few provided much new information. The legendary folk researcher Mack McCormack reportedly compiled a whole heap of new information on Johnson, though due to unfortunate circumstances, it was never printed. One music historian, Steve LaVere, has been researching him for over 30 years!

The details of Robert Johnson's life are shrouded in mystery and clouded, probably forever, in speculation and legend. His songs and the people that knew him only added to the ghostly legend that is Robert Johnson. Maybe he sold his soul to the devil at a country crossroads to play guitar. Maybe he traveled up to Saint Louis, Chicago and other places, singing with his guitar and cutting heads wherever he went. Maybe he was a shy man, or a natural born lover. Maybe he was poisoned and killed by the jealous husband of a lover. The man, the myth and the legend are, at this point, one in the same.



The Devil and Robert Johnson

"Me and the Devil, walking side by side..."
- Me and the Devil Blues by Robert Johnson

One of the most well known details of Robert Johnson's life is the legend that he sold his soul to the devil at a country crossroads. It's embedded in our popular culture. Almost nobody brings up the idea of selling one's soul to the devil without mentioning Johnson. It's been used in movies, in the recent television show Supernatural, in cartoons, stories and media for years. It's no surprise; the tale is alluring, packed with magic, the devil, suspense, murder and music. We'll try to explain the details of the Devil and Robert Johnson.

Blues greats Son House and Charley Patton played house parties and juke joints around the Mississippi delta for fun and change. As Son House told it, when they'd stop in between sets, young Robert Johnson would go play around with their guitars, making a racket and annoying everybody around him. He simply couldn't play! Then he disappeared, (which wasn't unusual in those days) and came back a year or two later a blues guitar master. Nobody could figure out how he learned to play so well in such a short period of time. Folks said he must've sold his soul to the devil to play that well. The fact that he came back with songs about going down to the crossroads (to make a deal), walking side by side with the devil, and hellhounds on his trail only added to the mystery. Not long after that, the devil came to collect. Johnson died mysteriously at age 27.

So where did this soul-selling go down? Nobody knows, but many say it happened at Highway 61 and 49, the crossroads of two highways that played pivotal parts in the Blues and Mississippi's history. Others say it happened at Highway 8 and Highway 1 in what is now the southern tip of Rosedale, Missisisppi. Still others say it was on some country road buried deep in the delta, where if one feels so inclined, they might still be able to make a deal.



The Death of Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson's grave Robert Johnson's Grave outside of Greenwood, Mississippi

"Baby, I don't care where you bury my body when I'm dead and gone."
- Me and the Devil Blues by Robert Johnson

The day of August 13, 1938, Robert Johnson reportedly traveled to the Three Forks Store in Greenwood, Mississippi. Days later, he died, reportedly violently and painfully. Even his death is the source of controversy. Some say he was poisoned by a jealous husband, while others claim it was simply sickness or bad whiskey. Researcher Mack McCormack reportedly discovered and interviewed the individual who did the poisioning, however the interview has never been released, and blues fans may never know the truth. Though many claim to be present at Johnson's death, As Tom Graves points out in the exceptional book Crossroads: The Life and Legend of Robert Johnson, noone seem to remember anybody else being there. In truth, nobody knows. It's probably akin to the number of people who claimed to be at the original Woodstock.

Robert Johnson's grave
Robert Johnson's alleged
death certificate.
(Click for larger image)

Regardless, Robert Johnson passed away on August 16th. From there, his poor man's burial was quiet and unceremonious. In fact, it was so quiet and unceremonious that the dispute over his burial rages. One of the more striking accounts was from Rosie Eskridge of Greenwood, a gravedigger's wife. When interviewed, she claimed her husband had dug the grave for Johnson after his passing. All three sites can be seen on Bluescentric's Google Map of Robert Johnson's Life, Death & Graves, among other places of interest.