Robert Leroy Johnson
(8 May 1911 - 16 August 1938) was an American musician who had an enormous influence on the Blues
genre. Sure, there was blues music before Robert Johnson, but it sounded vastly different from the blues as we know it today; Johnson either invented or popularised many of the genre's most important conventions
.As may be gathered from his years of birth and death above, he only lived to be 27.
Over his lifetime only a handful of songs were ever recorded, but each and every one of them is influential. A "Zeroth Law of Blues Standards", analogous to The Zeroth Law of Trope Examples
, may be formulated: if you trace any blues standardnote
back far enough, odds are good - perhaps not as good as the odds for finding Shakespeare in The Zeroth Law of Trope Examples
, but still ridiculously good for one single artist - that you will find Robert Johnson. Some of his best-known (and most-covered) songs are "Dust My Broom", "Cross Road Blues", "Come on in My Kitchen" and "Sweet Home Chicago".
Much of his life is Shrouded in Myth
. When he was first rediscovered in the 1960's after the release of the compilation album King of the Delta Blues Singers
, many things about the man himself were completely unknown. Since then, thanks to the research of scholars like Elijah Wald, his life and career have been pieced together fairly well. He went through the usual childhood that an African-American during The Great Depression
went through. He was married and his wife died a few months later. After that he travelled the South, performing in cafés and other venues, and got two recording sessions where he recorded 29 songs, with alternate takes bringing his total preserved output to 42 tracks. All but one of these pieces were assembled in 1990 on the Grammy-winning The Complete Recordings
, with the 42nd, an alternate take of "Travelling Riverside Blues," coming out on a reissue of King of the Delta Blues Singers
in 1998. (According to scholar Tom Graves, Johnson recorded 59 tracks in his known sessions, but 17 of these remain lost to history
There's also a legend about him, which says that he used to be a terrible guitarist and he somehow got better overnight, because he made a Deal with the Devil
, meeting him At the Crossroads
. The truth is thought to be far more mundane: Robert was unemployed, owned a guitar and loved the blues, and with nothing to do but practice all the time, he simply got really good really fast. In truth, Johnson never made any claim that he had gotten his powers from the devil other than jokingly. Some people just took his joke too seriously.
The most commonly accepted version of his death comes from his close friend and "chitlin circuit" touring partner Sonny Boy Williamson II, who stated that Robert was flirting with the wife of the man who owned the venue where they were performing. The owner supposedly sent Robert an open bottle of whiskey that Sonny Boy prevented him from drinking, saying "Man, don't never drink from an open bottle. You don't know what
could be in it." Robert is said to have retorted "Man, don't ever knock a bottle out of my hand."
A second bottle was sent over, and Robert began drinking it. He became seriously ill soon afterwards and was bedridden for three days in severe pain before finally dying on August 16, 1938. He thereby became one of the first of many notable musicians to die at the age of 27. Some people believe this is a curse
, as Brian Jones
, Jimi Hendrix
, Janis Joplin
, Jim Morrison
, Kurt Cobain
and Amy Winehouse
(among others) all died at that age.
He was a damn good guitarist. Let's just say you could think of him as a one man doing a 5 piece band's job. He played rhythm guitar, with a melody strummed on top, a bass line following along on bottom, while tapping his foot (that would be the drummer), and singing ALL AT THE SAME TIME!
When Keith Richards
first heard a recording of Johnson, he asked who was playing the "excellent bassline." When playing a Johnson song a guitarist will often struggle just to play his music. So, if you're up to the challenge, good luck!
Robert Johnson provides examples of the following tropes:
- At the Crossroads: "Cross Road Blues," while ostensibly about a failed attempt to hitch a ride, is often linked to the legend that Johnson made a Deal with the Devil for the ability to play music (a legend more supported by his "Me and the Devil Blues").
- Blues: More specifically, Delta Blues.
- Cool Hat: One of the two photos that exist of him shows him wearing a hat.
- Dead Artists Are Better: During his lifetime Robert Johnson's fame remained limited to his own home state and he never became rich from his recording sessions. His legend only grew after his death.
- Double Entendre: "You can squeeze my lemon til the juice runs down my leg. Till the juice run down my leg baby, you know what I'm talkin' about."
- Johnson was quite fond of these, and sex was the subject of many of his songs. Although if you are not familiar with blues slang, a lot of it is easy to miss.
- Virtually any time he mentions food, or his 'rider'
- I Am the Band: Probably one of the earliest examples of this, without the technology.
- No Smoking: Some were irked when the United States Post Office's commemorative stamp of Johnson removed the cigarette from his mouth. Here's a Side-By-Side Comparison◊
- Non-Appearing Title: "Walking Blues".
- One-Man Band: He could play melody, rhythm, and bass line on his guitar, stomp his foot to give a drum part, and sing, all simultaneously, acting as a one-man five-piece band.
- Rock Me, Asmodeus!: "Me and the Devil Blues" is one of the earliest incarnations of this trope.
- Scary Musician, Harmless Music: Many people admit to being a little creeped out by the atmosphere he gives off, but his music isn't that scary.
- That's mostly because of Seinfeld Is Unfunny. "Crossroads" is still pretty damn terrifying.
- Or "Hellhound On My Trail" for that matter.
- Shrouded in Myth: With only two photographs of the man in existence and large gaps in his biography the man is the stuff of legends.
- Something Blues: Look up his song list and have fun!
- Train-Station Goodbye: "Love In Vain"
- Undercrank: Some researchers claim that Johnson's recordings were significantly sped up due to being recorded at a different speed than the standard 78 rpm, and have tried to slow them down to discover what he really sounded like. Make up your own mind.
- The Unintelligible: Johnson sometimes garbled his lyrics and the audio quality doesn't help much either in deciphering what he sings sometimes.
In Popular Culture:
- The 1986 film Crossroads is largely an examination of the aforementioned myths surrounding his life.
- He had a relatively short-lived Manga based on a fictionalized version of his life.
- A fictionalized version of Robert Johnson, named Tommy Johnson, seems to appear in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and lays down some impressive guitar work as McGill and his friends sing "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow". He also claims that he got his talent from a Deal with the Devil At the Crossroads, following the popular Johnson legend. However this man is actually a reference to the real life blues singer Tommy Johnson, of whom also was said that he sold his soul to the Devil.