Robert Johnson was born on May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. His mother was one Julia Dodds, but his father was a man named Noah Johnson and not Julia's husband. Her husband Charles had fled Hazlehurst about four years earlier with his mistress Serena and their children as a result of some problems with local gangsters. When Robert was just a baby, his parents also left Hazlehurst, traveling around Mississippi as laborers in various work camps.
In 1914, Julia, Noah and Robert moved to Memphis to live with Charles and Serena. A man, his wife, their lovers and three sets of children - quite an extended family. It didn't take long for Julia to tire of the arrangements, and she left her husband, lover and kids to set out on her own. She moved down to Robinsonville, a small town about 40 miles south of Memphis, and married a man named Willie Willis. Robert came to join them in 1918, and this is where the real story begins.
In his early teens, after quitting school because of a lazy eye, Robert took up the harmonica and over the next couple of years developed some degree of skill with it. Robinsonville was a gateway town, and several local juke joints hosted traveling bluesmen on a regular basis. Charley Patton came through town often, playing gigs with Willie Brown, a resident of Robinsonville. Robert looked up to these and other musicians as role models and inspiration, often sneaking out of his house after everyone went to bed in order to see them play.
As Robert grew into a young man, another obsession began to develop itself: women. Robert was extremely popular with women, and had a difficult time keeping his hands off of them. At this time, pretty much all the women in his life were young and single, but that wouldn't always be the case. In 1929, however, Robert settled down at the ripe age of 17 and married Virginia Travis, who was two years his junior. She immediately became pregnant, but sadly she and the baby died during childbirth in April of 1930.
Just a month later, a man came to live in Robinsonville that would change Robert's life. His name was Son House, and he was a preacher turned bluesman, who played with a raw, almost religious intensity that no musician before him had ever displayed. He was friends with Willie Brown, and the two of them together became the centerpiece of the local blues scene. Robert was addicted, drawn to their shows night after night to watch and learn. He got a little more serious about his harmonica playing around this time, and sat in with Son and Willie on more than a few occasions.
But what Robert really wanted to do was play the guitar. He watched Son's passionate fretwork, watched as Son poured his soul into his instrument and it spit back out the truest, most intense music he'd ever heard. So he took up the guitar, started learning how to play. There was only one problem. He stunk. After his "rediscovery" by Dick Waterman in June of 1964, Son had this to say about Robert Johnson:
"Man, he was always hangin' around with me and Willie Brown, wantin' to sit in and do a song. We let him sit in and he would up and break a string, and where we gonna get a new string late Saturday night, man? And we had to tie that broken string together and tear up our fingers! We didn't want him to play."
Robert knew that if he wanted to get serious about playing guitar, he was going to have to start fresh, to go to a place where nobody knew him. So he packed up and headed down south to his birthplace of Hazlehurst, which he hadn't seen since his birth about twenty years earlier. There he found a woman in her thirties who would care and provide for him while he devoted himself to his music. Her name was Callie Craft, and in May of 1931, Robert became her third husband.
In Hazlehurst, Robert met an established blues guitarist named Ike Zinnerman. The two became friends, and Ike was willing to help Robert learn his way around the fretboard. As Robert's skills improved, Ike let him sit in on his gigs, and this built Robert's confidence. Soon they were playing as a duo almost all the time. Robert eventually grew restless, and decided that if he was going to make it big, he had to go somewhere big. So he and Callie packed up and headed down to Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta.
Robert didn't do too well in Clarksdale. It was a bigger city, with a juke joint scene populated by established bluesmen who were well respected around town. It wasn't easy for an amateur outsider without a name for himself to break in and be recognized. Robert found this very frustrating, and his relationship with his wife suffered as well. Then one day, he just disappeared, and Callie and her children never heard from him again.
About two months later, on a Saturday night, Robert rambled back into Robinsonville and into the juke joint where Son House and Willie Brown were playing their usual gig. It had been about two years since he'd left town, so they called him up on stage to play his harp along with them. Robert just tapped his guitar case, and Son and Willie shook their heads. They didn't want him to play. Well, during a break between sets, they asked him to play for them, just to see if maybe he'd finally learned to play something. He had.
Thirty years later, when asked about that night, Son House still emphatically stated his belief that Robert had "sold his soul to the devil in trade for learnin' to play like that". At the time, the two of them could only sit back and watch in awe as Robert tore up and down the neck of his guitar, playing their licks better than they could, even outdoing Son on his revered slide technique. Robert didn't stay in Robinsonville for more than a month or so - just long enough to make sure everyone who saw what he had been also saw what he had become.
During that time, Son's assertion that Robert had sold his soul became the generally accepted view of how he had become so good so fast. Robert himself never confirmed or denied this - he never really even acknowledged it - but this aloofness to the story only confirmed people's suspicions. Later in his career, Robert realized the advantage of having this sort of mystery surrounding him, and recorded songs like "Me And The Devil Blues" and "Hellhound On My Trail" to encourage it further.
Having made good in Robinsonville, Robert went out on the road traveling, playing in juke joints and labor camps, until he came to the town of Helena, Arkansas. Helena was one of the biggest music towns in the southeast, and some of the biggest and most influential blues acts of the time played there. Legendary names like Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Memphis Slim, Elmore James, Robert Nighthawk and Honeyboy Edwards all passed through Helena from time to time.
In Helena, Robert shacked up with another older woman, Estella Coleman. His acquaintances would later tell of his technique in establishing himself when he came into a new town. He would immediately find himself a nice ugly older woman to settle in with, for which he gave three reasons. First, she probably wouldn't have a man. Second, nobody was likely to get jealous or angry if he hooked up with her and third, they were so unused to compliments and attention that just a little of each would keep her doting on him forever. Of course, Robert still stepped out with plenty of younger, prettier women all the while, but it was nice to have a place to hang his hat and a woman to cook him breakfast after a long night of debauchery.
Estella had a son, just a few years younger than Robert, who was a musician as well. The two became close friends, and over the next four years or so, Robert instructed the young man in the blues. In time, he would become a very famous bluesman in his own right, in large part because of the many techniques he shared with Robert Johnson which other musicians were as yet unable to emulate. The boy's name was Robert Jr. Lockwood.
During his time in Helena, Robert played extensively all over Mississippi and Arkansas, and got quite accustomed to the traveling life. Honeyboy Edwards, who regularly accompanied Robert on his gigs, said of him once, "Yeah, Robert had a woman in every town in the Delta. And if he didn't have one, it was 'cause he had two or three." By this time, Robert had established a real name for himself. He was well-known and respected as a musician all throughout the southeast quarter of the country. But he wanted more. He wanted to record.
In the Delta, there was one man to see if you wanted to make a record, and that was H.C. Speir. He ran a music store in Jackson, Mississippi and had his own small studio where, if he thought you were any good, he could record you and send a copy to the folks at Paramount. The execs over at Paramount valued Speir's recommendation highly, as he seemed to have a knack for knowing what records black people would buy, a valuable talent at a time when white America in general still considered blacks beneath them and not worth noticing. Unfortunately, Robert caught H.C. at a bad time, and he was unwilling to record him. Still, he gave Robert the name of a talent scout for ARC, Ernie Oertle, who took Robert straight to San Antonio to record after hearing him play.
Robert recorded his first song in late 1936, and over the next two years he released a total of ten more records. He was paid between ten and fifteen dollars for each song, and given no royalties. Ironically, his recordings met with a pretty lukewarm reception. His first release, "Terraplane Blues", would remain his best seller. By 1938 he had worn out his welcome in the studio and wasn't given an opportunity to make any more records. There was nothing else for Robert to do but to hit the road again. He left the South for awhile with two partners, Johnny Shines and Calvin Frazier, and they ran a short tour through the Midwest, making stops in Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan before heading east to New York and then back down to Tennessee.
Robert played in Memphis for a bit, then hooked up with old friend Honeyboy Edwards and in August of 1938 decided to head back to Robinsonville to play some gigs in the old town, then move on down towards the Delta again. On Saturday, August 13, 1938, they played a show in a little juke joint called Three Forks in Greenwood, Mississippi. Another big name in blues was passing through that night, harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson, and that double headline packed the house solid. As was his wont, Robert was flirting with every woman in the house, including one who happened to be the owner's wife. He may not have known, but if he did he wouldn't have cared anyway.
The juke joint owner got progressively more angry as the night wore on and Sonny Boy, older and wiser than Robert and no slouch with the ladies himself, saw what was going on and tried to curb Robert's amorous behavior, but without luck. At one point during a break between sets, someone handed an open bottle of whiskey to Robert. Wary of what might be in it, Sonny Boy knocked it out of his hand and gave Robert some very good advice. "Man, don't never take a drink from a open bottle." According to Honeyboy, musical tempers had been flaring throughout the night between Robert and Sonny Boy, each of whom was considered the master of his respective instrument, and Sonny Boy's presumption pissed Robert off. "Man, don't never knock a bottle of whiskey outta my hand."
Another open bottle was brought to Robert shortly thereafter, and with a pointed glare at Sonny Boy he took a long, defiant pull. When the two started their next set, it was obvious that Robert was having some problems singing, so Sonny Boy took the vocals and used his harmonica to cover up the mishaps Robert was beginning to have on guitar. But before long, Robert had to stop in the middle of a song and stagger outside. He was violently ill, and soon succumbed to fever and wild ranting. It was clear he had been poisoned.
Popular belief generally states that Robert died that night of strychnine poisoning. In reality, he survived the effects of the poison and did not die until three days later, after being stricken with pneumonia. There were no antibiotics in those days, and his weakened immune system was unable to fight it off. In addition, the poison used was probably not strychnine. Bartenders at that time used a concoction of moth balls distilled into alcohol to rid themselves of unruly patrons. It caused extreme pain by eating through the stomach lining, and could be fatal in high doses if not vomited out. Honeyboy Edwards states that this is most likely what Robert fell prey to.
There is some contention as to where Robert is buried. Two graves in different cemetaries in Greenwood, Mississippi both bear his name, and there is a popular roadside spot nearby where some believe he was interred. In his short life, Robert recorded only 41 tracks, some of which are alternate takes of the same song, but his sound has had an incalculable impact on blues and rock music ever since. Some of the most popular and influential artists of our time cite him as one of their greatest influences and inspirations. Did Robert Johnson get his money's worth when he sold his soul to the devil? I'm not so sure about that, but I'm sure glad he did.
The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson are available on CD as a box set from Columbia Records. Some of the information in this write-up was taken from the excellent booklet that accompanies the set. Other information came from the book "Searching for Robert Johnson" by Peter Guralnick, and interviews with Son House contained in the liner notes on some old vinyl of his. A movie about Robert Johnson, entitled "Can't You Hear The Wind Howl?" was released in 1999, starring Keb' Mo' as Robert and also featuring Danny Glover. The closest you can get to a Robert Johnson performance is to go see Honeyboy Edwards, Robert's only living contemporary, who still tours small bars and clubs around the country at the ripe old age of 85. He delivers an excellent show, playing roots blues like no one else alive today can play them.