Monday, February 8, 2021

JOHNSON WEEK: Robert Leroy Johnson

From the Vault:
Saturday, March 8, 2014

A muso would have to be good for Eric Clapton to call him “the most important blues singer who ever lived” and for others to refer to him as “the grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. That muso was Robert Leroy Johnson, the man who sold his soul to the Devil, originated the 27 Club and in between became one of the greatest blues performers of all time, influencing music and artists for all time afterwards.

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Early life:

Johnson was born in 1911 in Mississippi. Raised by his mother as Robert Spencer, he adopted his father’s family name, Johnson, after finishing school. He already played the harmonica and jaw harp. At age 18 he married 16 year old Virginia Travis, who died shortly afterward in childbirth. Relatives regarded this as divine punishment for Johnson’s singing secular songs, known as “selling your soul to the Devil”. It didn’t bother Johnson, who had resolved to forget being a farmer and husband and instead become a full time blues musician.

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The Crossroads Pact:

Much of Johnson’s short life is a mystery but most fans of early blues will know the story that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads of Highways 49 and 61. Noted blues musician Son House, a contemporary of Johnson, recalled in later years that Johnson was a competent harmonica player but an embarrassingly bad guitarist. Not long afterwards Johnson disappeared for a few weeks in Clarksdale, Mississippi and came back an excellent guitar picker and player. Although he probably sought advice and instruction from other famed players, such as Isaiah “Ike” Zinnerman, it was believed by many that Johnson had traded his soul at the Crossroads in return for musical ability. Zinnerman was rumored to have learned supernaturally to play guitar by visiting graveyards at midnight.

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From 1932 until his death in 1938, he was an itinerant musician with a weakness for whisky and women, busking on street corners for tips and donations. In this he was usually successful

According to fellow musician Johnny Shines:

"Robert was a very friendly person, even though he was sulky at times, you know. And I hung around Robert for quite a while. One evening he disappeared. He was kind of a peculiar fellow. Robert'd be standing up playing some place, playing like nobody's business. At about that time it was a hustle with him as well as a pleasure. And money'd be coming from all directions. But Robert'd just pick up and walk off and leave you standing there playing. And you wouldn't see Robert no more maybe in two or three weeks ... So Robert and I, we began journeying off. I was just, matter of fact, tagging along."

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The acclaim for Johnson's work is based on the 29 songs that he wrote and recorded in Dallas and San Antonio from 1936 to 1937. These include "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" and "Sweet Home Chicago," which has become a blues standard. His songs have been recorded by Muddy Waters, Elmore James, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton.

Johnson's records sold poorly during his lifetime. It was only after the reissue of his recordings in 1961 on the LP King of the Delta Blues Singers that his work reached a wider audience. Johnson is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly of the Mississipi Delta Blues style. He is credited by many rock musicians as an important influence; as noted earlier, Eric Clapton has called Johnson "the most important blues singer that ever lived." Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame as an "Early Influence" in their first induction ceremony in 1986.

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Johnson died in 1938, aged 27. The cause of his death is unknown but it is believed that he drank from a poisoned bottle of alcohol.

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More about the Crossroads Pact:

The legendary Crossroads at Clarkesville, Mississippi

From Wikipedia:

According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Robert Johnson was branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician. He was "instructed" to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. The "Devil" played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This was in effect, a deal with the Devil mirroring the legend of Faust. In exchange for his soul, Robert Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous.

One explanation is that Johnson learned from Zinnerman not for a few weeks but for a year and that they practised in graveyards where it was quiet.

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Some comments:

Eric Clapton:
"the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice. ... The range of tone he can pack into a few lines is astonishing.”

Bob Dylan:
"When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard. The songs weren't customary blues songs. They were so utterly fluid. At first they went by quick, too quick to even get. They jumped all over the place in range and subject matter, short punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story-fires of mankind blasting off the surface of this spinning piece of plastic."

Keith Richards:
"I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realise he was doing it all by himself. ...Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself."

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Some YouTube clips:

Kind Hearted Woman Blues (1936)
Johnson sings, and plays lead and rhythm guitar, together

Sweet Home Chicago

I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom

Me and the Devil Blues

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