Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues
The Legend of the Delta Devil
disturbed. despair. torment. brooding.
These are just a few words that come to mind when describing the experience of hearing Robert Johnson's recordings for the first time. He was the original existential blues singer. He was pure raw genius.
These are my study notes on Robert Johnson, The Delta Devil (ongoing):
- Robert Johnson was probably born on May 8, 1911.
- He one of eleven children (he was the illegitimate 11th).
- The ten other (legitimate) children belonged to Charles Dodd, who later took the name Charles Spencer (he died in 1940).
- Robert's mother was Julia Major Dodds, later remarried to Willie "Dusty" Willis.
- Sisters: Bessie, Carrie
- Brother: Charles Leroy
- Biological father was a plantation worker named Noah Johnson.
- Lived on the Abbay and Leatherman Plantation
- Started on Jew harp and harmonica before picking up a guitar
- Robert married in 1930, but his 16 year old wife died in childbirth.
- He married again a year later.
- As a teen Robert used to watch Son House and Willie Brown play.
- Johnny Shines (claims to have) traveled with Robert Johnson for several years in the 1930s.
- Johnson's death certificate was found by Gayle Dean Wardlow. Verifies Johnson's death as August 16, 1938 in Greenwood, Mississippi.
- Supposed place of death is a place called Three Forks, just outside of Greenwood.
- RJ has a stepson, Robert Jr. Lockwood
- RJ was known as Robert Spencer, R.L. Spencer, Robert Leroy Dodds Spencer, and Robert Dodds, that's why it was so hard to discover his history: Historians were asking about the wrong man.
"...while Hot Springs' star is still Robert Johnson, who has turned out to be a worker on a Robinsonville, Miss. plantation." —Melody Maker, July 1937
The Deal with the Devil
The legend of the crossroads: Get yourself to the crossroads a little before midnight with your guitar. While playing, a big black man will approach you. Give him yor guitar and he'll tune it, play a piece, and then hand it back. After that, you'll be able to play anything.
As the story goes, Robert Johnson, who didn't know how to play the guitar at the time, left town and disappeared for almost a year. Upon his return to Robinsonville, he was a completely proficient and accomplished musician. Many people think he made a deal with the devil.