Robert Leroy Johnson was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He died in 1938 at the young age of 27, which is disputed based on his birth date. This leads to the reason that there is very little know about him. What is known about Robert Johnson is that he has influenced countless guitarists and some consider him the grandfather of rock and roll. This is because rock and roll came from blues. He is ranked one of the top 100 guitarists and made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The few recordings that were made by him showcase his tremendous amount of talent from songwriting, singing and guitar Picking.
Initially Johnson played on street corners for tips. He also played remarkably well by ear and played music that people requested of other genres including rock and roll and country. All he needed to do was hear a song and he could play it back perfectly. This is called playing by ear. This skill is what all musicians hope to acquire.
Robert Johnson died at 27 in Mississippi. Like most of his life there are different accounts of how he died. Most of the accounts basically involve another man’s woman and Johnson and the man somehow killing Johnson by poisoning some whiskey that he had drunk. One story involved him being stabbed. There are countless other accounts.
One legend of the life of Johnson is that he sold his soul to the devil to learn how to play guitar and sing. The movie crossroads starring Ralph Macchio is based off of this legend. Basically he went to a crossroads in Mississippi and the devil appeared and tuned his guitar and Johnson received all of his great abilities. He said to some friends that he sold his soul, but lots of people could not tell if he was serious or not. Other legends say that he met the devil at a graveyard. The devil is mentioned in a couple of his songs including Crossroad blues and Hellhound on my trail. The devil that he is speaking of is a voodoo entity known as Legba. Due to the amount of racism during the time of Johnson’s life many considered his music to be devil music. There are accounts that some of his music about the devil could actually be veiled mentions to racism. For example Hellhound on my trail could be about the perils of being a young black man traveling through the deep south and making sure not be caught in a strange area after dark.
The music of Robert Johnson is still popular to this day. In addition to being a great guitarist he also was a very accomplished singer and could play the harmonica. My favorite songs of his are Crossroad Blues and Me and The Devil.
The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson. 1990 (Compact Disc)
The Search for Robert Johnson 200 (DVD)
The Life and Music of Robert Johnson: Can you hear the Wind Howl? 2003 (DVD)