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 in the South went through in the Jim Crow era, though, contrary to the image of him as a Mississippi backwoods figure, he spent a fair amount of his youth in Memphis. He was married and his wife died a few months later. To make ends meet during The Great Depression, he became a traveling musician, performing in cafés and other venues throughout the region. Signed to a contract by the American Record Company, he recorded 29 songs over two different sessions held in Texas (one in a San Antonio hotel suite, one in a Dallas warehouse), 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 Robert Johnson: 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. Researchers have confirmed the basics of this account, suggesting that the husband only spiked the drink with the intent to scare Johnson, but the drug ended up aggravating an ulcer that Johnson had recently been diagnosed with.
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:
- Artistic License – Geography: Notoriously, “Sweet Home Chicago” contains a line which seems to claim that Chicago is in California (“baby don’t you want to go/back to the land of California/to my sweet home, Chicago”). Various explanations have been suggested for this over the years—such as that Johnson genuinely thought this was the case (which seems unlikely; he had a high school-level education and some of his other songs display some knowledge of geography); that he was actually referring to Port Chicago or Chicago Park, two actual small towns in California; that the song describes a cross-country road trip, of which California and Chicago are two separate destinations along the way (The line "I'm goin' to California, from there to Des Moines, Io-way" might point in this direction); or that the song has an Unreliable Narrator, who is trying to lure a woman to come with him to his supposed hometown of Chicago, which he accidentally reveals himself to know nothing about. Cover versions generally change the line to something like "back to that same old place."
- 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.
- Car Song: "Terraplane Blues", referencing the then-popular Hudson Terraplane.
- Deal with the Devil: According to legend, anyway. Johnson never told the story directly himself, but then he didn't do much to discourage it, either. Just listen to "Crossroads" or "Me and the Devil Blues" or "Hellhound On My Trail." Whatever the truth, he was a hell of a good musician.
- 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'.
- "Your calf is hungry and I believe he needs a suck" ("Milkcow's Calf Blues") barely even qualifies as a Double Entendre.
- I Am the Band: Probably one of the earliest examples of this, without the technology.
- Last-Second Word Swap: "They're Red Hot".The monkey and the baboon playin' in the grass
Well, the monkey stuck his finger in that old—Good Gulf Gas!note
- The Loins Sleep Tonight: "Stones in My Passway" and "Dead Shrimp Blues".
- 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: Or subtitle. "Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)" says absolutely nothing about the Devil or his jumping up.
- 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. According to legend, he had unusually large hands and long fingers that allowed him to do tricks with the guitar that few other blues players could do.
- Performance Anxiety: During his recording sessions, he insisted on performing while facing a wall, leading to the belief that he was shy about performing in public. However, other biographers suggest that he was using the echo from the wall to improve the acoustics on the recordings — or to prevent other guitar players from watching his fingers to see how he played his licks (though since he was recording in Texas, hundreds of miles from the Delta, alongside Country Music and mariachi musicians, this is debatable).
- 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.
- 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.
- Singer Namedrop: He calls himself "Bob" a couple times in his songs.
- Smoking Is Cool: The second photo of him discovered, taken in a photo booth, shows him with a cigarette in his mouth (holding his guitar).
- 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:
- He had Me and the Devil Blues, a relatively short-lived Manga based on a fictionalized version of his life, which as of 2015 is now been published again in a new magazine.
- In The Voynich Hotel, as the local Serial Killer is finalizing her deal with one of the devils who are minor antagonists, the devil reveals that Johnson made his famous deal with her.
- Robert Johnson encounters the Eleventh Doctor and his companions in the Doctor Who (Titan) comics, where he defeats an evil alien entity with The Power of Blues.
- The 1986 film Crossroads is largely an examination of the aforementioned myths surrounding 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.
- Walter Mosley's novel RL's Dream is about a fictional bluesman, Soupspoon Wise, who knew Johnson in his younger days.
- Johnson appears in flashbacks in an episode of Supernatural, where he and several modern characters Deal with the Devil and get killed by hellhounds for their troubles.
- One episode of Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego has Sir Vile steal Robert Johnson's first recording.
- MAD: In Luke McGarry's "27 Club" series, Johnson was an undead crimefighter alongside the fellow members of the Club he founded. Unfortunately, due to that little deal of his, he's the only member to spend eternity in Hell, enduring Cool And Unusual Punishments.
- Forms a Framing Device in the song "How Bad Do You Want It?" by Tim McGraw:Robert Johnson went to the crossroads, so the legend goes
He left with his guitar and the devil took his soul, the devil took his soul.
- Steve Earle's song "You Know The Rest":Robert Johnson went to the crossroads, a guitar in his hand
Well, the devil had him a guitar, too, he says 'This is what you need man,
You can be the best!' You know the rest...
- The character Bluewater John from Red Dead Redemption II is a direct reference to both Johnson and the legends surrounding him.