Remembering the myth of blues pioneer Robert Johnson

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Depending on which source you believe, pioneering bluesman Robert Johnson was born this week. Most sources list his birthdate as May 8, 1911. But anyone trying to locate “exact” dates and locations and specific facts in the biography of Robert Johnson might have a difficult time doing so. Despite the shadowy state of Johnson’s backstory, what most fans and critics appreciate about Johnson is his impact on the blues and ultimately his impact on what would become rock ‘n’ roll.

Robert Johnson: Early days and a legend in the making

Johnson’s early years were not unlike many black Americans in the south. The guitarist and singer was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi in 1911. It is difficult to trust the information provided about Johnson. The details that are provided show that Johnson was one of 10 children, the youngest,  and his father left Hazelhurst after a dispute with a white man resulted in a lynch mob forming. His father, with whom he was sent to live, had changed his last name. Would-be biographers have to keep up with scant paper trails that chart the life of both Robert Leroy Johnson and Robert Spencer.

While Johnson’s early life might have seemed ordinary with a prescriptive path of farming and monogamy in his future, such was not to be, a by all accounts, Johnson didn’t want it. Though he did marry, twice, both wives died in childbirth. By contemporary standards, Johnson was a serial dater. He was living a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle at least two decades before the genre was invented.

Johnson’s legend comes from his early death and the idea that he seemed to have mastered the guitar more quickly than was considered natural. The latter indicated to his family and community, not to mention his fellow musicians, that he had sold his soul to the devil. Also, that both of his wives died in childbirth, according to musicologist and folklorist Robert McCormick, was seen as proof that Johnson was being punished for playing secular music.

Robert Johnson’s rock ‘n’ roll ethos

Despite some researchers’ attempts at crafting an argument that the “devil” associated with Johnson is an African deity associated with wisdom, there is no anthropological (or other proof) that black Americans in the Mississippi Delta knew of such an entity. What is clear is that the community that Johnson grew up in was black American Christian, and thus, the “devil” to which Johnson is linked is the one from Judeo-Christian tradition. Further, there seems little proof that Johnson mastered the guitar in a handful of days. Authors Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch assert in the book, “Robert Johnson: Lost and Found,” the process by which Johnson learned guitar is likely to have taken years.

The way Johnson sang and played guitar foretold music genres and styles to come. Specifically that he made one guitar sound as if it were two with multiple tones that he employed, and his vocal style, especially on “Cross Road Blues,” sounds more full, more present than some other blues singers of the time period. Johnson’s other popular tune “Sweet Home Chicago” continues to be used in marketing campaigns and sporting events.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s death at 27 in 1938 will remind some music fans of other famous musicians who died at the same age. The tragedy is in not only the brevity of his life, but in the lack of information about him, the fact that he was buried in a pauper’s grave, and that no one really knows how he died.

Robert Johnson: More research is necessary

The name “Robert Johnson” is common. It is likely that facts about one Robert Johnson have been attributed to another. The idea that no one knows exactly how the bluesman died points out a bigger problem in America, namely record-keeping for black Americans in the early 20th century.

During Johnson’s lifetime, it was not uncommon for American blacks (particularly those in the south) to be without birth certificates and other documents that certify identity. And, when such records are present, they might contain inaccuracies. Johnson’s death certificate might be erroneous.

When Columbia Records began re-issuing Johnson’s work in the early 1960s, interest in Johnson was rekindled. In 1990, Johnson won a posthumous Grammy for “Best Historical Recording” for an album containing practically everything he’d ever recorded.

With so many question marks dotting the story of Johnson, more research is necessary. What is clear is that the music that is attributed to Johnson harkens the future. It is both of its time and sets a blueprint for the future. Notably, in 2004, Eric Clapton recorded a blues rock album in tribute to Johnson titled “Me and Mr. Johnson.” For all that is appreciated, more needs to be unearthed about Johnson to create a full understanding of the man and to separate him from the myths.

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