Robert Johnson - Guitar Blues

Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, possibly on May 8, 1911, to Julia Major Dodds (born October 1874) and Noah Johnson (born December 1884).
Julia was married to Charles Dodds (born February 1865), a relatively prosperous landowner and furniture maker with whom she gave birth to 10 children. Dodds had been forced by a lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst following a dispute with white landowners.
Julia herself left Hazlehurst with baby Robert, but after some two years, sent him to live in Memphis with Dodds, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer.
Around 1919, Robert rejoined his mother in the area around Tunica and Robinsonville, Mississippi. Julia's new husband was known as Dusty Willis;
he was 24 years her junior. Robert was remembered by some residents as "Little Robert Dusty."However, he was registered at the Indian Creek School in Tunica as Robert Spencer. He is listed as Robert Spencer in the 1920 census with Will and Julia Willis in Lucas, Arkansas, where they lived for a short time. Robert was at school in 1924 and 1927 and the quality of his signature on his marriage certificate suggests that he studied continuously and was relatively well educated for a boy of his background. One school friend, Willie Coffee, has been discovered and filmed. He recalls that Robert was already noted for playing the harmonica and jaw harp. He also remembers that Robert was absent for long periods, which suggests that he may have been living and studying in Memphis.

After school, Robert adopted the surname of his natural father, signing himself as Robert Johnson on the certificate of his marriage to sixteen-year-old Virginia Travis in February 1929. She died shortly after in childbirth. Surviving relatives of Virginia told the blues researcher Robert "Mack" McCormick that this was a divine punishment for Robert's decision to sing secular songs, known as 'selling your soul to the Devil'.  McCormick believes that Johnson himself accepted the phrase as a description of his resolve to abandon the settled life of a husband and farmer to become a full-time blues musician.

Around this time, the noted blues musician Son House moved to Robinsonville where his musical partner, Willie Brown, already lived. Late in life, House remembered Johnson as a 'little boy' who was a competent harmonica player but an embarrassingly bad guitarist. Soon after, Johnson left  Robinsonville for the area around Martinsville, close to his birthplace Hazlehurst, possibly searching for his natural father. Here he perfected the guitar style of Son House and learned other styles from the brothers Ike and Herman Zimmerman. Ike Zimmerman was rumoured to have learned supernaturally to play guitar by visiting graveyards at midnight. When Johnson next appeared in Robinsonville, he had seemed to have acquired a miraculous guitar technique. House was interviewed at a time when the legend of Johnson's pact with the Devil was well known among blues researchers. He was asked whether he attributed Johnson's technique to this pact, and his equivocal answers have been taken as confirmation.

While living in Martinsville, Johnson fathered a child with Vergie Mae Smith. He also married Caletta Craft in May 1931. In 1932, the couple moved to Clarksdale in the Delta. Here Caletta fell ill and Johnson abandoned her for a career as a 'walking' (itinerant) musician.

This legend was developed over time, and has been chronicled by Gayle Dean Wardlow, Edward Komara and Elijah Wald, who sees the legend as largely dating from Johnson's rediscovery by white fans more than two decades after his death. Son House once told the story to Pete Welding as an explanation of Johnson's astonishingly rapid mastery of the guitar. Welding reported it as a serious belief in a widely read article in Down Beat in 1966. Other interviewers failed to elicit any confirmation from House and there were fully two years between House's observation of Johnson as first a novice and then a master.

Further details were absorbed from the imaginative retellings by Greil Marcus and Robert Palmer.
Most significantly, the detail was added that Johnson received his gift from a large black man at a crossroads. There is dispute as to how and when the crossroads detail was attached to the Robert Johnson story. All the published evidence, including a full chapter on the subject in the biography Crossroads by Tom Graves, suggests an origin in the story of Blues musician Tommy Johnson. This story was collected from his musical associate Ishman Bracey and his elder brother Ledell in the 1960s. One version of Ledell Johnson's account was published in 1971 David Evans's biography of Tommy, and was repeated in print in 1982 alongside Son House's story in the widely read Searching for Robert Johnson.

In another version, Ledell placed the meeting not at a crossroads but in a graveyard. This resembles the story told to Steve LaVere that Ike Zinnerman of Hazelhurst, Mississippi learned to play the guitar at midnight while sitting on tombstones. Zinnerman is believed to have influenced the playing of the young Robert Johnson. Recent research by blues scholar Bruce Conforth uncovered Ike Zinnerman's daughter and the story becomes much clearer, including the fact that Johnson and Zinnerman did practice in a graveyard at night (because it was quiet and no one would disturb them) but that it was not the Hazlehurst cemetery as had been believed. Johnson spent about a year living with, and learning from Zinnerman, who ultimately accompanied Johnson back up to the Delta to look after him. Conforth's article in Living Blues magazine goes into much greater detail.

The film O Brother Where Art Thou? by the Coen Brothers incorporates the crossroads legend and a young African American blues guitarist named Tommy Johnson, with no other biographical similarity to the real Tommy Johnson or to Robert Johnson. There are now tourist attractions claiming to be "The Crossroads" at Clarksdale and in Memphis.

Around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi, who ran a general store and doubled as a talent scout. Speir put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who offered to record the young musician in San Antonio, Texas. At the recording session, held November 23, 1936 in room 414 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio which Brunswick Records had set up as a temporary studio, Johnson reportedly performed facing the wall. This has been cited as evidence he was a shy man and reserved performer, a conclusion played up in the inaccurate liner notes of the 1961 album King of the Delta Blues Singers. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played sixteen selections, and recorded alternate takes for most of these.

Among the songs Johnson recorded in San Antonio were "Come On In My Kitchen", "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" and "Cross Road Blues". The first songs to appear were "Terraplane Blues" and "Last Fair Deal Gone Down", probably the only recordings of his that he would live to hear. "Terraplane Blues" became a moderate regional hit, selling 5,000 copies.

His first recorded song, "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", was part of a cycle of spin-offs and response songs that began with Leroy Carr's "Mean Mistreater Mama" (1934). According to Wald, it was "the most musically complex in the cycle" and stood apart from most rural blues as a through-composed lyric, rather than an arbitrary collection of more-or-less unrelated verses. In contrast to most Delta players, Johnson had absorbed the idea of fitting a composed song into the three minutes of a 78 RPM side. Most of Johnson's "somber and introspective" songs and performances come from his second recording session.

In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas, Texas, for another recording session in a makeshift studio at the Brunswick Record Building, 508 Park Avenue. Eleven records from this session would be released within the following year. Because Johnson did two takes of most songs during these sessions, and recordings of those takes survived, more opportunity exists to compare different performances of a single song by Johnson than for any other blues performer of his time and place.

By the time he died, at least six of his records had been released in the South as race records.
The accuracy of the pitch and speed of the extant recordings has been questioned. In The Guardian's music blog from May 2010, Jon Wilde states that "the common consensus among musicologists is that we've been listening to Robert Johnson at least 20% too fast;" i.e., that
"the recordings were accidentally speeded up when first committed to 78 (rpm records), or else were deliberately speeded up to make them sound more exciting." He does not give a source for this statement. Former Sony music executive Lawrence Cohn, who won a Grammy for the label's 1991 reissue of Johnson's works, "acknowledges there's a possibility Johnson's 1936-37 recordings were sped up, since the OKeh/Vocalion family of labels, which originally issued the material, was 'notorious' for altering the speed of its releases. 'Sometimes it was 78 rpms, sometimes it was 81 rpms,' he says. It's impossible to check the original sources, since the metal stampers used to duplicate the original 78 discs disappeared years ago."

Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, near Greenwood, Mississippi. He had been playing for a few weeks at a country dance in a town about 15 miles (24 km) from Greenwood. Differing accounts and theories attempt to shed light on the events preceding his death. A story often told is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance; the wife of the juke joint owner, according to rumor, unaware that the bottle of whiskey she gave to Johnson had been poisoned by her husband. In another version, she was a married woman unrelated to the juke joint owner. Johnson was allegedly offered an open bottle of whiskey that was laced with strychnine. Fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson allegedly advised him never to drink from an offered bottle that had already been opened. According to Williamson, Johnson replied, "Don't ever knock a bottle out of my hand." Soon after, he was offered another open bottle of whiskey, also laced with strychnine, and accepted it. Johnson is reported to have begun feeling ill the evening after drinking from the bottle and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours.

Over the next three days, his condition steadily worsened and witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain—symptoms which are consistent with strychnine poisoning. Musicologist Robert "Mack" McCormick claims to have tracked down the man who murdered Johnson, and to have obtained a confession from him in a personal interview. McCormick has declined to reveal the man's name, however.

In his book Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, Tom Graves uses expert testimony from toxicologists to dispute the notion that Johnson died of strychnine poisoning. He states that strychnine has such a distinctive odor and taste that it cannot be disguised, even in strong liquor. However, according to the CDC, strychnine is bitter but odorless. He also claims that a significant amount of strychnine would have to be consumed in one sitting to be fatal, and that death from the poison would occur within hours, not days.

The precise location of his grave is officially unknown;  three different markers have been erected at supposed burial sites outside of Greenwood.

# Research in the 1980s and 1990s strongly suggests Johnson was buried in the graveyard of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City, Mississippi, not far from Greenwood, in an unmarked grave. A one-ton cenotaph memorial in the shape of an obelisk, listing all of Johnson's song titles, with a central inscription by Peter Guralnick, was placed at this location in 1990, paid for by Columbia Records and numerous smaller contributions made through the Mt. Zion Memorial fund.

# In 1990 a small marker with the epitaph "Resting in the Blues" was placed in the cemetery of Payne Chapel near Quito, Mississippi, by the cemetery's owner. This alleged burial site, in an apparent attempt to strengthen a claim, happens to be located in the center of Richard Johnson's family plot.

# More recent research by Stephen LaVere (including statements from Rosie Eskridge, the wife of the supposed gravedigger) indicates that the actual grave site is under a big pecan tree in the cemetery of the Little Zion Church north of Greenwood along Money Road. Sony Music has placed a marker at this site.

His revolutionary guitar playing has led contemporary experts, assessing his talents through the handful of old recordings available, to rate him among the greatest guitar players of all time:
# In 1990 SPIN Magazine rated him 1st in its 35 Guitar Gods listing—on the 52nd anniversary of his death.
# In 2008 Rolling Stone magazine ranked him 5th on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time—70 years after he died.
# In 2010 ranked him 9th in its list of’s Top 50 Guitarists of All Time—72 years after he died.

Musicians who proclaim his profound impact on them, i.e., Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton, all rated in the top ten with him on each of these lists. The boogie bass line he fashioned for "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" has now passed into the standard guitar repertoire.

At the time it was completely new, a guitarist's version of something people would only ever have heard on a piano.

Lifetime achievement

The Complete Recordings, a double-disc box set released by Sony/Columbia Legacy on August 28, 1990, containing almost everything Robert Johnson ever recorded, with all 29 recordings (and 12 alternate takes) won a Grammy Award for “Best Historical Album” that year. In 2006 he was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (accepted by his son)

Some Blues Albums Collection

Steady Rollin' Man File 1 File 2 File 3  Mirror : File 1 File 2 File 3
Red Hot Blues pwd : maxy
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