Robert Johnson: The Blues Legend That Made A Deal With The Devil

Famous American Blues Legend Robert Johnson is surrounded with urban legends and myths due to his nearly completely undocumented short life in which he appeared to gain amazing guitar playing skills from nowhere. He lived a life with very little commercial success, producing only 29 songs, and did not rise to fame until almost 40 years after his death. He is now seen as a pivotal figure in the blues scene and the evolution of guitar playing and influenced famous guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix.

Color Photograph of Blues Legend Robert Johnson. This is one of only two verified photographs of him. Colorization by RJM

At the age seven, three men had served as father to Robert Johnson. Very little is known about his biological father Noah Johnson whom his mother never married. Due to the poor background of his family, they were forced to live on several plantations in Mississippi. From an unfortunate and confusing background, Johnson rose to be one of the finest songwriters and guitarists.

He was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi on the 8 of May 1911 as a firstborn to Noah Johnson and Julia Major. However, his mother never married Noah and instead married Charles Dodds whom she had ten kids with, and then later married Dusty Willis. Despite scarce information regarding his education, some sources claim that at the age of eight he joined Tunica Indian Creek School and was registered as Robert Spencer. In 1927 at the age of 16, Johnson completed his studies.

While living with his second father Dusty Willis, Johnson spent substantial time learning how to play the Jew’s harp. He also learned to play harmonica before becoming a guitarist. In 1929 he married Virginia Travis but she sadly died in 1930 during childbirth along with their baby. While living in Robersonville, Johnson had an opportunity to interact with Blues legends, Willie Brown, Son House, and Charley Patton; these three people hugely influenced Johnson’s playing style though none of them were impressed with his talent when they first heard him.

Photograph of Robert Johnson in Memphis, USA in 1935. This is one of only two verified photographs of the blues legend.

As a youth living on the plantations of Mississippi, Johnson had a strong desire to be one of the greatest blues musicians. According to the legend, this desire motivated Johnson to seek divine intervention to boost his musical career. It is claimed that he was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad at midnight where he would meet the devil. When he arrived, the devil took the guitar played a few songs and returned the guitar with new playing skills. The pact was sealed in exchange for his soul and the life of his wife.

To add to the myth, Robert Johnson actually released a song called “Me and the Devil Blues” during his lifetime (recorded on 19 June 1937) talking about a time that he met the devil.

In another account, it is claimed the meeting was placed in a graveyard. This account resembles claims that Ike Zimmerman learned to play guitar by visiting cemeteries at midnight and practicing while sited on tombstones. However, recent studies reveal that Zimmerman used to practice in the graveyards because it was quiet and no one would disturb him. Further research shows that Johnson spent about a year with Zimmerman learning how to play the guitar.

This is “Cross Road Blues” by Robert Johnson which was recorded on the 27 November 1936. It supposedly refers to the place where Johnson the deal with the devil.

By the time of his death on the 16 August 1938 at the age of twenty-seven, he had not made an impact on the American music industry. As a young artist, he had managed to travel across the country performing in house parties, night dances, street corners, and juke joints but his records never sold well.

Though he was well traveled and admired, very little is known about him during his lifetime, and his records were less valued. It was in 1961 that his work was introduced to a broader audience hence propelling him to fame many years after his death.

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