The life and legacy of the 1930s Mississippi Blues artist Robert Johnson has been credited by famed musicians and bands such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Led Zeppelin and Tracey Chapman in forming the “template for what became known as rock and roll”. Songs such as “Crossroad Blues”, “Come On in My Kitchen” and “Ramblin’ On My Mind” have been attributed to shaping a musical format that was not only popular in the 1930s, but also retained a greater legacy in its popular, almost mystical influence in the latter half of the twentieth century. Despite these endorsements however, the impact of the work of Robert Johnson has often been overcrowded and inundated with myth, legend, and Hoodoo; a deal with the Devil himself.
Very little is known about the early life of Robert Johnson, with even his date of birth unconfirmed until 1967. Born in May of 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, Johnson lived much of his life based around Southern institutions and in consequence lived in the legacy of the slave age and growing realities of segregation. His stepfather worked through sharecropping, a compromise solution between landholders and planters who could not afford to commit to tenancy agreements that disproportionately represented African American workers; when Johnson refused to work under his stepfather, he was severely abused. Often musicians supplemented the people in the fields and entertained the ranks as they worked, developing what would become known as the ‘Blues’.
The late 1920s and 1930s saw a blossoming of these developments in African American music and musical figures that Johnson aspired to emulate. At 18, Johnson fell in love with a 15-year-old named Virginia Travis and they married in February of 1929, although she died in childbirth 8 months later along with their baby. The Travis family rejected Johnson’s love for blues, yet following the death of his wife and child, Johnson dedicated himself to the trade and industry in a professional capacity.
The US during this time was still largely in the throes of racial prejudice and discrimination and music played a key role. In the words of fellow Delta blues artist Joe Callicott, ‘You could be killed for playing music’, and a stigma, even within the Black community, was placed around the so-called ‘Devil’s Blues’. In many areas, the development of Blues music was seen as an expressive counterculture against the impact and imposition of white supremacy; it preached an ‘anti-work ethic’ and communicated through hidden meanings as a form of social and cultural escape from the discrimination faced on a daily basis. Thus, the blues acted for some African American groups as a nebulous of their own lives and legacies outside of white intimidation and control.
Throughout his early career Johnson made little headway in working as a blues artist. He was known to have lived an almost vagrant lifestyle, moving around the Mississippi Delta to play in places of Black entertainment and following in the footsteps of Son House and Willie Brown. However, his work reached a catalytic point, one that would define both the nature of his own music, as well as the legacy of Rock n’ Roll and that would follow him in future decades.
At some point before 1936, Johnson was reported to have gone missing for around a year, removing himself from playing on street corners and juke houses without telling any of his known associates. It is said that during this disappearance Johnson made a deal with a large man, rumoured to be the Devil himself, to transform himself from a mediocre guitar player to a musician of mythological proficiency.
There have been several variations of this tale; the traditional myth of the Anglicized ‘Devil’ has been a key feature in understanding the legacy behind Robert Johnson and most musicians have been able to find symbolism and story within this. Johnson himself capitalised on the idea that he had made such a deal with the Devil in his later recordings with tracks such as ‘Cross Road Blues’, ‘Hellhound on My Trail’, and ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ using the stereotypes that had condemned the rule and nature of Black music. Lines such as ‘Standin’ at the crossroads baby, the risin’ sun goin’ down/I believe to my soul now, po’ Bob is sinkin’ down’ inevitably suggests a Christianised imagery. Additionally, it further endorses a ‘Faustian bargain’ as a method of the creation of his own mythology and legacy, conquering on the irony of the ‘Devil’s Blues’. Some have argued that the lyrics create a sense of dark foreboding, along with ‘anxiety-riddled’ guitar playing as a representation of his own Hellhound, the white man, and his lynch mobs, one who could take away a life with a wrong look or a wrong word, ‘the dread, the darkness, the shadow of evil […] the hellishness’ of that existence, pouring itself into his music.
There are those who in recent years have criticised this interpretation of the Crossroads mythology. Patricia Schroeder suggests that a key thing to notice in later twentieth century responses to Johnson is that the majority come from white artists, such as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, negating the influence of African American cultural and religious influences, particularly that of Hoodoo. Hoodooism, along with Voodoo or Voudon, is a form of folk magic that finds its origins in African practices brought over by enslaved people from the Central and Congo regions in the eighteenth century. In the Americas, Hoodoo slowly became altered and impacted by a range of other faith systems such as European Catholicism as well as Native American traditions. Modern practitioners can be found across the US, but its roots remain deep within the South and it is intrinsically linked with Southern history and development. The practice draws on a wide range of folk-magic, holding “out the promise of love and riches, and something for everyone. It offers cures and curses; good and bad luck”, again fitting in with the legend that Johnson took on a supernatural element in his writing and artistry. As Julio Finn points out, the legend is a focal point in the Hoodism, but his impact as a figure has been largely neglected. Instead ‘a blatant “whitening” of black culture’ has been argued to have taken place, one that places Johnson in the same categories as Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones as well as Keats and James Dean. By comparing Johnson to these influential figures in white artistic culture the element of black influence and experience that Johnson places in his writing and symbolism is negated to a Christianised interpretation. It certainly raises questions of whether ‘the likes of Magic Sam, Jimi Hendrix, Minni Ripperton and Bob Marely are more apt comparisons?’
The myths that surrounded Johnson and his apparent penchant for talent allowed his career to finally take off. Over a period of nine months in 1936, he recorded 29 songs for the American Record Company and became immensely popular in the Delta region playing at juke houses and other spaces for black entertainers. His 29 recorded songs constituted the music which later went on to influence many great musicians and guitarists, including Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Johnny Winter. Both at the time of release and after his death (when Johnson’s music was released to a greater public), his music shocked listeners due to its virtuosity and authenticity. The most unique aspect of his music was his ability to create the impression of more than one player while playing guitar himself. He achieved this through creating rhythmic bass lines on the bottom guitar strings while simultaneously creating countermelodies in the upper strings, causing ‘great definition’ between the lower and upper string parts. This could almost be described as a ‘piano’ sound. He created a highly percussive driving sound and a ‘feeling of raw urgency’ difficult to achieve even with later-developed amplified instruments. He produced a wide range of timbral qualities with his voice, from using guttural vocals on ‘Walkin’ Blues’ to ‘nasal phrasing emulating a harmonica’ on ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ – another instance in which he creates a sense of different instruments. The timbral variety in both his vocals and guitar add even more to the pure, eclectic, and authentic feel of his music. From these recordings, guitarists have concluded (not definitively) that he played with a variety of tuning, forming four main categories, and according to Son House he was seen to use a seventh guitar string. These techniques and more display Johnson’s innovative musicianship and artistry, and speculation remains on how he achieved the things that he did. His abilities shocked people of the time and continued to later in history and even to this day, through his 29 recorded songs, in such a way that the idea of supernatural interference in his skills was not inconceivable.
The ‘pursuit of personal authenticity and ecstatic experience’ associated with the later notion of a ‘guitar god’ arguably places Johnson as one of the earliest in this tradition. He can also be linked to the ‘romantic ideology’ which re-emerged in 1960s rock music, in which lead guitarists are ‘embedded’. Romanticism valued authenticity, a high degree of self-expression, virtuosity, the supernatural and expressive freedom amongst other elements. Johnson’s influence on the guitarists of this ‘last great wave’ of romanticism is apt when considering the qualities his music and artistry displayed.
As Johnson’s career continued to blossom in the 1930s, he captured the attention of listeners and respected musicians alike. His songs consisted of typical blues themes but with a highly personal character, intensity, and beauty which enabled it to stand out. Especially contrasted with the ‘overworked verses designed merely to fit the metre of the chord structure’ of some other blues music. The mystery and myth around the cause of his startling virtuosity on the guitar (as opposed to natural talent and hard work) evidently contributed to his popularity and ultimately brought attention to his music from a wider audience.
However, his time as an active musician was to be short-lived. In 1938, the life that Johnson had created for himself, forged out of adversity, reached its final calling. After starting an affair with a married woman Johnson’s reputation as a womanising, drunken, Devilish musician began to catch up with him. He ordered a bottle of whiskey at the bar, but the seal was broken, and the cuckolded man had placed a small amount of poison in Johnson’s drink. After a short while, Johnson became physically unable to play on stage and spent the next three days in intense pain, with some claims that he was on his ‘hands and knees, howling like a wolf’. He died shortly afterwards, likely in incredible pain and to this day his gravesite remains contested. The man who poisoned him was never legally identified nor arrested and many supported the decision due to both Johnson’s reputation and the mythology surrounding him.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, there was a small flurry of attention, including a feature at a Carnegie Hall concert. But due to the lack of radio attention and tendency to remain within black cultural groups, the work of Johnson largely lay dormant until the 1960s. It was at this point that King of the Delta Blues was released by Columbia Records, on the cusp of the 60s blues revival ‘quietly becoming a talisman, a sacred text, among rock musicians’ with Bob Dylan citing him as a key figure in the genre. And lines from Led Zeppelin’s song ‘The Lemon Song’ taken directly from Johnson’s ‘Travelling Riverside Blues’.
The life and legacy of Robert Johnson is one that cannot be encapsulated in a single trail of influence. From his origins in the deep south, to his deals with the Devil or Hoodoo practitioners, the themes of his work, not only in its lyricism and symbolic value but also his style of music and development has had incalculable impact on modern notions of the Blues and rock ‘n’ roll. His guitar virtuosity and artistic authenticity formed the roots of many more guitarists’ careers. Although Johnson was not the only artist of the time, he is clearly one that stands out in the mythology which he was able to create around himself, despite threats from white supremacy in a moment of creation in Black artistic culture. Whether he truly perished at the hands of the Devil’s Hellhounds is left up to interpretation, but was a tragedy that saw the shortening of a true musical legend.
Written by Megan Downie and Melissa Kane
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