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Robert Johnson - I Believe I'll Dust My Broom
1936

Robert Johnson
May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938


"King of the Delta Blues Singers"

courtesy Delta Haze Corporation
Robert Johnson with guitar Robert Johnson at the crossroads Robert Johnson in suit
The Man, the Music, and the Mythology — LEFT: Robert Johnson wasn't serious about guitar until his young wife died during childbirth in 1930. The guitar then became his salvation. CENTER: After being told he "couldn't play nothin' " by bluesmen he respected, Johnson travelled and returned an extraordinary composer, guitarist and singer. It was, to some, unbelievable. Legend has it that he went to the crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for these gifts. RIGHT: As an itinerant bluesman, Johnson absorbed many influences and broadened the foundation of blues. He recorded only 29 songs, but they helped shape the direction of popular music and serve as a wellspring for rock's most inspired musicians.

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"Robert Johnson, to me,
is the most important blues musician
who ever lived."
— ERIC CLAPTON

Robert Leroy Johnson
Robert Johnson was born on May 8, 1911, in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, to Julia Dodds and her lover Noah Johnson, an itinerant field hand.
There was much upheaval in Robert's early life as he moved from one labour camp to another with his mother and stepsister, Carrie. In 1914 Julia and kids moved to Memphis to live with her husband Charlie Dodds, known as Charlie Spencer,1 and his mistress, Serena. Robert was given Charlie's assumed name and was known for most of his life as Robert Spencer.
Before too long Julia abandoned her family and by 1916 had remarried. About two years later seven-year-old Robert joined his mother and new stepfather, Willie "Dusty" Willis, in Robinsonville.
Robert had a slight build and, to Willis' dismay, was not inclined to physical work, much prefering to play the harmonica, something he did with growing proficiency.
In 1929 Johnson married his sweetheart Virginia Travis. About this time he took an interest in the guitar and started learning the fundamentals at jook houses from the likes of bluesmen Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. Virginia soon became pregnant, and Johnson undoubtedly felt his life coming together.
In April of 1930 sixteen-year-old Virginia and the baby died during childbirth. Needing to hold onto something, Robert decided the guitar would be his salvation.
In June of the same year Son House came to live in Robinsonville2 and often played at jook joints with Willie Brown. Nineteen-year-old Johnson followed them around and tried to impress them, only to be told, "You can't play nothin'!"3
Johnson did some travelling and, upon his return, once again played for Son House and Willie Brown. He was now better than his mentors. He had become an extraordinary guitarist, composer and singer. It was, to some, unbelievable.
Legend has it that he went to the crossroads at midnight and gave his soul to the devil in return for these gifts.4
But it's more likely he travelled south in search for his father and met up with Ike Zinnerman, an relatively unknown but accomplished bluesman who often said he learned guitar in a graveyard at midnight while sitting on tombstones. Zinnerman coached Johnson and became his mentor. Johnson also had the opportunity to learn many styles of music from phonographs. He only needed to hear a song once to play it well. He never practised.
In his travels up and down the Mississippi, to New York and New Jersey, even to Canada, Robert Johnson sang hillbilly songs, pop tunes, polkas, square dances, sentimental songs and ballads as well as Blues. He travelled far and worked hard but wasn't getting the recognition he felt he deserved. But he was gaining notoriety as a womanizer.5
He needed to record. He met with Don Law of the American Record Company who arranged two recording sessions: the first in November 1936 and the second in June 1937. During these two sessions he recorded 29 songs — the only recordings we have of Robert Johnson.
"Terraplane Blues," released on the Vocalion label, was only a minor hit, but it gave Johnson a taste of success — and he wanted more. But within a year he was dead.
Some, like blues/jazz impressario John Hammond, saw Johnson's life as a promise unfulfilled.6 Others saw it as being cursed.
Today Robert Johnson is considered by many to be the most important Blues musician of all time. Johnson did for Blues what Jimmie Rodgers did for Country: he travelled widely, absorbed many influences and broadened the foundation of the genre.
His music has shaped the direction of popular music in America and has become a wellspring of inspiration for generations of musicians from Muddy Waters to Eric Clapton.
Robert Johnson was among the first inductees into the Rock + Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.7


1
Dodds fled Mississippi and changed his name to Spencer to escape a personal vendetta.
2
Son House came to Robinsonville at Willie Brown's request, just after having recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin for Paramount Records with Charlie Patton and Louise Johnson.
3
Commenting on Johnson's musical talent Son House once said (while taking a break at a jook joint and Robert picking up his guitar onstage), " . . . such a racket you never heard! It'd make the people mad, you know. They'd come out and say, ''Why don't y'all go in there and get that guitar from that boy! He's running people crazy with it.' I'd come back in, and I'd scold him about it. 'Don't do that Robert. You drive the people nuts. You can't play nothing' . . . "
4
In African mythology the intersection of two roads is a site of black magic, a place where one can communicate with evil forces. Robert Johnson mythologists suggest that Johnson turned his back on God after the death of his wife and baby and went to the crossroads at midnight to make a pact with the devil. They point out that some of his songs deal with the dark side and have references to the devil. Voodoo is often mentioned.
5
In the end it was Johnson's notoriety, not his music, that shaped his short life. The mythology says that he was poisoned by a jealous husband (good blues mythology), but some say he died a prolonged and painful death with syphillis. Either way, his womanizing caught up with him. Years after his death, when his music overshadowed the notoriety, Robert Johnson became important. Because of the uncertainty surrounding the whereabouts of his final resting place, Robert Johnson is now honoured with 3 graveside markers at different locations.
6 Ironically John Hammond sought out Johnson in late 1938 to request his appearance in his upcoming "From Spirituals To Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall, only to learn that Johnson was dead. This concert would have given Johnson the validation he was desperately seeking.
7
In 1980 he was inducted into The Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame, and in 1994 the U.S. Post Office issued a commemorative Robert Johnson postage stamp.

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The Online Roots of Rock



.Featured Sites .

Website of estate of Robert Johnson
Website of Robert Johnson film, "Can't You Hear The Wind Howl'
Robert Johnson - Rock + Roll Hall of Fame webpage
site of the estate of Robert Johnson
website of the film
bio / timeline

Other Recommended Robert Johnson Sites

The Man
Barry Lee Pearson Interview
bio / clips / art

The Music

The Mythology

Related Sites


Click on any link below for more information, or to order online

Searching For
Robert Johnson
Escaping
The Delta
Robert Johnson
Lost and Found
Robert Johnson
Searching For Robert Johnson
Escaping The Delta - Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues
Robert Johnson - Lost and Found
Robert Johnson
The Life and Legend of the
"King of the Delta Blues Singers"
by Peter Guralnick
Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues
by Elijah Wald
(Music in American Life)
by Barry Lee Pearson, Bill McCulloch
by Samuel Charters


Other Robert Johnson Titles Available Online
Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture — Patricia R Schroeder
Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson — Alan Greenberg

Robert Johnson Song Books Available Online
Robert Johnson: Signature Licks by Dave Rubin
Guitar Transcriptions and Detailed Lessons by Dave Rubin
Robert Johnson: The New Tanscriptions — published by Hal Leonard
The Roots of Robert Johnson (w/CD) — Stephan Grossman and Woody Mann


Click on any link below for more information, or to order online

Robert Johnson
The Complete Recordings
Robert Johnson
King of the
Delta Blues
Robert Johnson
King of the Delta Blues Singers
Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings
Robert Johnson - King of the Delta Blues
Robert Johnson - King of the Delta Blues Singers
Sony
2 CDs / 41 tracks
1990
Sony
1 CD / 16 tracks
1997
Sony
1 CD / 17 tracks
1998


Robert Johnson
Gold Collection
Robert Johnson
His Recorded Legacy:
The 29 Songs
Robert Johnson
Steady Rollin' Man
Robert Johnson - Gold Collection
Robert Johnson - His Recorded Legacy: The 29 Songs
Robert Johnson - Steady Rollin' Man
Retro Music
2 CDs / 40 tracks
1997
Jasmine
1 CD / 29 tracks
2002
Phantom
1 CD / 42 tracks

Other Robert Johnson Recordings Available Online
Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues
(Sony / 1 CD / 16 tracks)

Other Related Recordings Available Online
John Hammond: Blues of Robert Johnson
(Vanguard / 1 CD / 14 tracks)
Eric Clapton: Me and Mr. Johnson
(Warner Brothers / 1 CD / 14 tracks)
Sessions for Robert J
(Reprise/Wea / CD + DVD)


.MP3 Downloads .
Click here to sample or download
Robert Johnson songs and albums directly
from amazon.com



Click on any link below for more information, or to order online

The Search for Robert Johnson
Can't You Hear the Wind Howl?
Hellhounds On My Trail
Crossroads
The Search for Robert Johnson
Can't You Hear The Wind Howl? - The Life and Music of Robert Johnson
Hellhounds On My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson
Crossroads - a contemporary allegory of the Robert Johnson myth
with John Hammond Jr
1992
info / order
VHS | DVD
The Life and Music of Robert Johnson
a Peter Meyer film
2003
info / order
VHS | DVD
The Afterlife of Robert Johnson
a Robert Mugge film
1999
info / order
VHS | DVD
contemporary allegory of the Johnson myth – great music
1986
info / orde
VHS | DVD

Robert Johnson Instructional DVD Available Online


.YouTube Videos .
Click here to enjoy Robert Johnson videos
posted on YouTube


Click on any link below for more information, or to order online

Robert Johnson poster #1
Robert Johnson poster #2
Robert Johnson bookmark
Robert Johnson poster
24" x 36"
Robert Johnson poster
24" x 36"
Robert
Johnson bookmark
2 1/4" x 7 1/4"


.

click on any image to view enlargement

The 3 Gravesites
The Death Certificate
Robert Johnson Art
Robert Johnson gravesite marker
How do you
bury a musician
who's more myth
than man?
.Robert Johnson art
With only
two known
photographs of
Robert Johnson,
artistic licence
perpetuates the
mythology


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The Online Roots of Rock

The Online Roots of Rock
100 Years of Popular Music in America
from a Rock 'n' Roll perspective

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