Robert Johnson, the Bluesman of the Devil

Omaggio di Zoa Studio a Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson was an American blues guitarist and singer. Although he only started recording three years before his death at just 27, Robert Johnson has become a musically very prolific legend and a great source of inspiration for artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, Keith Richards ed Eric Clapton.

The first years of Robert Johnson

Robert Leroy Johnson was born in the Mississippi Delta, in the village of Hazlehurst, to Julia Dodds and Noah Johnson. The date of his birth is not known precisely, but the traces he left suggest dates ranging from 1909 to 1912: it seems that he is most likely to be 8 May 1911.

While still a child, his mother and sister Bessie left his father and lived on the street, working field to field for several seasons, before settling in Memphis with a certain Charles Spencer. Spencer therefore lived with his wife, his mistress and the children of each of them. Although no tension has been reported between the two women, Robert’s mother leaves the Spencers home without her children. Robert lives in Memphis with Charles Spencer until 1918 when Robert’s stubborn character convinces the landlord that his mother’s presence is necessary to raise him.

Robert, who took the name of Spencer, left for Robinsonville, a cotton-producing community in northern Mississippi, 20 miles south of Memphis. He spent the end of his childhood there with his mother and his new stepfather, Willie “Dusty” Willis, who had married his mother in October 1916. It was at that time that Robert became interested in music.

After a first attempt with the Jew’s harp, he quickly abandoned it in favor of the harmonica which became his main instrument. It was also during his teens that he learned of the existence of his real father and began to call himself Johnson.

From harmonica to guitar

In the late 1920s, Robert Johnson picked up the guitar and built a stand for his harmonica to use the two instruments at the same time. Leroy Carr’s song How Long-How Long Blues seemed to be a favorite of him at the time for practicing music. In his beginnings as a musician in Robinsonville, Robert received the help of Willie Brown and in particular Charley Patton.

Although Robert was fond of music, he only considered himself a farmer when he married Virginia Travis in Penton, Mississippi in February 1929. They then settled in a home with Robert’s older sister Bessie and her husband on the Kline plantation east of Robinsonville.

Virginia became pregnant in the summer of 1929 but died at the age of 16 with her son during childbirth in April 1930.

It was in 1931 that Robert Johnson first met Son House. The latter, listening to him play, ridiculed him and advised him to give up the guitar to concentrate on the harmonica. Shortly after this affront, he left Robinsonville for his hometown of Hazlehurst, where he hoped to find traces of his real father.

In Hazlehurst, Robert falls into the hands of the bluesman Ike Zinnerman who becomes his mentor. Also, being a handsome boy, it didn’t take long to meet a new woman, Calletta Callie Craft, ten years his senior, whom he secretly married in May 1931.

Callie idolized Robert and took care of all his administration, cooking and working for him. This leaves Robert a lot of time to work on the music with Ike. On Saturday nights he goes to clubs, sometimes accompanied by Callie, to play all night. He then began to gain some respect as a musician and made a name for himself with the initials of “RL”.

Robert Johnson and the Devil

Robert eventually returns to Robinsonville two years after leaving it. The city is amazed by the progress made by the guitarist. It is thanks to these incredible advances that the legend of the pact with the devil comes to life, at a time when voodoo is still very much alive in the black community of Mississippi.

Robert Johnson will take the opportunity to create the legend. One day he meets some friends and tells them this story: one very dark evening while walking through Clarksdale in Mississippi, he gets lost at a crossroads which will become the title of one of his songs). While he was falling asleep, a cool breeze woke him. He saw above him a huge shadow with a long hat. Frightened, unable to fix this apparition, Johnson was paralyzed. Without a word the apparition of him bent down, picked up his guitar, tuned it, played some divine, or rather diabolical notes, before returning the instrument to him and disappearing into the south wind.

In fact, this legend seems to come from another bluesman, Tommy Johnson, who claimed to have sold his soul to the devil one night at a crossroads to get his virtuosity on the guitar. Robert Johnson would then have taken up this story on his own, unless, since Tommy and Robert have the same surname, it was wrongly attributed to him.

How the legend rises and carries on

We can say that the rumor of the pact with the devil has arisen and consolidated over the years as a result of several facts:

  • Johnson’s amazing guitar technique, based on fingerpicking and still considered one of the greatest expressions of the delta blues;
  • the evocations generated by his voice and the complex guitar structures he developed and the sinister content of his lyrics which, although largely improvised as was obvious for the genre at the time, often told of ghosts and demons when they did not explicitly refer to the diabolical agreement.

The stories of the various musicians who knew him and who refer to his initial awkwardness in playing the guitar also contributed to the story. On the basis of these stories, which are all in agreement, Johnson disappeared after the death of his wife (as we have told you) and then reappeared the following year, endowed with such skill and expressiveness as to leave everyone stunned.

Bob Dylan also claimed to have signed a pact with the devil, taking inspiration from today’s protagonist

“I was copying his texts on pieces of paper to examine them more closely, to try to get hold of his dreams, his thoughts”

Robert’ legend and the character of Tommy Johnson appear in the Coen brothers’ film O’Brother. The writer of the Supernatural series has long been inspired by this legend; the crossroads in question is the central subject of one of the episodes of the series which talks about a young black musician trying to become the best bluesman of his generation. On several occasions during the episodes, various characters from the series will travel to this location to meet an employee of Hell to make a deal.

Robert Johnson’s musician life

Robinsonville being primarily a farming town, Robert realizes that he does not want to work in the fields and therefore decides to leave to lead his life as a musician. This leads him to travel through the Mississippi Delta and eventually settles (although he never stops traveling) in Helena with Estella Coleman, one of his lovers. Robert also takes Estella’s son of his own name, Robert Lockwood Jr., under his wing and helps him improve his playing.

Helena is a very rich city from a musical point of view and Robert frequents artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Nighthawk, Elmore James, Howlin ‘Wolf, or Johnny Shines. The latter tells of this period:

“We’ve been traveling for days and days, with no money and sometimes no food, looking for a decent place to spend the night. We played in dusty streets and dirty bars, and while I was out of breath and saw myself living like a dog, Robert was all clean as if he had walked out of a church on Sunday! “

Around the mid-1930s, Robert Johnson had been a professional musician for several years, enjoyed some stardom in the region, and wanted to record records such as his references Willie Brown, Son House and Charley Patton.

Robert’s first recording session was done in November 1936 by Don Law. He recorded Terraplane Blues, one of his most famous songs, which quickly became a hit for the Vocalion Records label. He was recalled to Texas the following June, but although Don Law had brought the best equipment in his possession, nothing matched Terraplane’s success.

Although six of Johnson’s eleven recordings were still in the Vocalion catalog as of December 1938, he was not recalled in the following spring or summer.

The death

Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938 under mysterious circumstances. After a concert in a Greenwood bar, he fell ill and was taken to a friend’s house. Some believe he was poisoned by a jealous husband, others that he succumbed to syphilis, or pneumonia (a condition for which there was no cure at the time), or even the combined action of the three.

Sonny Boy Williamson will report that Robert Johnson would have consumed a bottle of whiskey poisoned with strychnine offered by a bar owner jealous of seeing him go around his wife. The bluesman will be in agony three days before he dies. However, this version is disputed (as are many events in his life).

His remains were buried in the small cemetery next to a small church near Morgan City, Mississippi. The tombstone bore no inscriptions, not even his name. Four years after his death, a cyclone devastated this place.

Robert Johnson was the first of a series of “cursed” artists who died at the age of 27, which will be called “Club of 27”, which includes artists such as Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison e Kurt Cobain.

Legacy of Robert Johnson

Johnson’s guitar playing, as well as being skillful and fast, featured a certain originality such as the use of the lower strings to create a catchy rhythm, such as in the song Sweet Home Chicago. Plus, his voice was also surprisingly loud, which inspired future generations.

Johnson is often cited as “the greatest blues singer of all time” or even as “the most important musician of the 20th century”, yet many listeners are disappointed upon first hearing his songs. This reaction could be due to a relative misunderstanding of the raw emotion and clean form of the blues or simply the poor quality of the recording compared to current production standards.

In 2003 Rolling Stone magazine ranked him the fifth best guitarist of all time.

In his short career Johnson left 29 registered titles and entered the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

He left music songs like Sweet Home Chicago (covered by the Blues Brothers), Traveling Riverside Blues (covered by Led Zeppelin), Love in Vain (by the Rolling Stones), Walking blues, Malted Milk (by Eric Clapton on the Unplugged album) and Come on in My Kitchen (shot by Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton on Me and Mr Johnson album, Keb Mo on Keb ‘Mo’ album, Bob Brozman on A Truckload of Blues album) and by Joël Daydé on Spleen Blues album , Crossroads (covered  by Cream, Lynyrd Skynyrd), They’re Red Hot (by Red Hot Chili Peppers), Stop Breakin ‘Down Blues (by The White Stripes) etc.

Eric Clapton also dedicated an entire cover album to him, Me and Mr. Johnson, in reference to Johnson’s song Me and the Devil. Todd Rundgren did the same with his album Todd Rundgren’s Johnson (2011).


And, speaking of Me & The Devil, let’s read a piece, to understand where the legend comes from:

Early this morning

When you knocked upon my door

Early this morning

When you knocked upon my door

And I say, “Hello, Satan”

I believe, it’s time to go

Me and the devil

Walking side by side

Me and the devil

Walking side by side

And I’m gonna see my woman

‘Til I get satisfied

See see, you don’t see why

Like you’a dog me ’round

Say, I don’t see why

People dawging me around

Must be that old evil spirit

Drop me down in your ground

You may bury my body

Down by the highway side

You may bury my body

Down by the highway side

So my old evil spirit

Can greyhound bus that ride



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