We admit we’re reaching back in time on this one, but there’s absolutely no denying that Robert Johnson was one of the most influential guitarists and songwriters of the last century.
As brief as his career was — with just 29 songs in his catalog of recorded music — Johnson nonetheless redefined the blues guitar, laying the groundwork for generations of rock and blues artists that would follow in his footsteps.
The folkloric tall tales of his supposed pact with the devil — the subject matter of one of his most memorable songs — have only served to augment and extend his legacy.
Either way you slice it, Robert Johnson’s life is the stuff of legend.
Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1911, the illegitimate son of a sharecropper. The experience of poverty-stricken blacks in the south during the Great Depression would later provide the material for his music. He joined the ranks of traveling blues players who peddled their talents on sidewalks and jook joints.
Although there are only scant details of his life, historians agree that Johnson, like many Delta Blues players, lived an itinerant life laced with alcohol and women. Accounts of his death revolve around the latter, with the jealous boyfriend of one woman reportedly poisoning Johnson to death when he was a mere 27 years old.
Only 29 of his songs were left behind, consisting of tunes he recorded in a San Antonio, Texas hotel room in 1936 and 1937 for the American Record Corporation. Those songs include often-covered classics like “Crossroad Blues,” “Dust My Broom,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Love in Vain,” and “Hellhound On My Trail” — music that has inspired everyone from Eric Clapton to The Rolling Stones to Jack White. It also prompted Rolling Stone magazine to name him the fifth greatest guitarist of all time.
“You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it,” Keith Richards once said of Johnson’s music.
Among the tragedies of Johnson’s life and legacy is that he was likely on the verge of mainstream fame when he died. Legendary promoter and talent scout John Hammond Sr. was reportedly looking for Johnson at the time of the bluesman’s death. Hammond wanted to include Johnson in a widely touted blues show at Carnegie Hall.
But in death Johnson became larger than life in the decades that followed. The myth surrounding him is that he gained his talent by selling his soul to the devil. How else to explain his remarkable and unique playing technique?
In fact, the man was just a remarkable talent. And although his music may sound dated to modern ears, listen to the intricacies of his playing, vocal style and songwriting and you realize that much of what we know as rock and roll was born in Mississippi.
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(NOTE: This is part of my ongoing series of reports on guitar players who fly under the mainstream radar. Keep checking The Listening Room for future installments of guitar players you should know – JF)
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