Robert Johnson

(1911 – 1938) 

Mythic Mississippi Bluesman Robert Johnson is generally regarded as the most distinctive, inventive and influential of all of the Delta blues artists. His haunted singing, complex guitar playing and formally ambitious songwriting give his music an emotional resonance that's made it a touchstone for multiple generations of Rock musicians. Although the handful of recordings that he left behind are now recognized as musical milestones, the records he released during his short career were never big sellers at the time, and he enjoyed little commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime. 

Many details of Johnson's life remain shrouded in mystery, giving rise to a variety of rumors and legends, most notably the persistent tale of Johnson selling his soul to the devil in order to attain his guitar virtuosity. That story was originally told about fellow Mississippi singer/guitarist Tommy Johnson (no relation) and was apparently not applied to Robert until the 1960s. What is known is that Johnson was an itinerant performer who played in juke joints, at dances and on the street. He died at the age of 27 in 1938, reportedly after drinking from a bottle of poisoned whiskey  offered to him by a jealous husband while he performed at a juke joint near Greenwood, Miss. 

Johnson's known recordings amount to 29 songs (plus alternate takes) cut for the Brunswick label in two sessions, one in 1936 in a hotel room in San Antonion, Tex., and the other in 1937 in a makeshift studio in a Dallas office building.  Several tracks from these sessions were released on a series of 78 RPM discs, but none of those releases generated much interest at the time. 

One of the few who did know about Johnson was Columbia Records producer/A&R man John Hammond, who sought Johnson out to perform at his historic From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, only to learn that he had died a few months earlier. Instead, Hammond played two of Johnson's records from the stage. 

In 1961, in the midst of a resurgence of public interest in vintage Blues performers, Hammond assembled the Johnson compilation LP King of the Delta Blues Singers, which marked the first time Johnson's vintage work reached a relatively wide audience. The album had a seismic effect on a generation of Rock musicians, particularly in England, where such players as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page covered Johnson's songs and hailed his singular brilliance. More recently, all of Johnson's surviving recordings have been compiled on CD, making his once hard-to-find music easily accessible to current and future generations.

Related Lessons

Blues, Poetry, and the Harlem Renaissance

Grades: High, Middle
Subjects: ELA

How does Langston Hughes’ Blues-inspired poetry exemplify the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance?

Bo Diddley: The Grandfather of Hip Hop?

Grades: High, Middle
Subjects: General Music, Social Studies/History

How were Bo Diddley’s recordings an anomaly in relation to 1950s Pop music, and how is his rhythm-driven sound and self-presentation a precursor to Hip Hop style?

The Birth of the Electric Guitar

Grades: All Ages, AP/Honors/101, Elementary, High, Middle
Subjects: CTE, Science, Social Studies/History, STEAM

How did the electric guitar transform Blues music from the 1940s forward?

The Crossroads as a Literary Symbol

Grades: High, Middle
Subjects: ELA

How have writers, storytellers, and musicians explored the crossroads as a symbol in their work?