Born in Mississippi in 1911, Johnson knew little commercial or critical success during his lifetime, and yet is now considered a master of his art, his art being the Delta blues.
His style is raw and gritty as he imitates a whole group playing at once, famously inducing Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards to remark “Who’s the other guy playing with him“, not realising Johnson was playing everything at once.
Playing the bass with his thumb, slide and chordal lines with his fingers and singing over the top, Johnson is a true master. He is associated with the Faustian myth that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in order to play the guitar. Legend has it that as a younger man he was an embarrassingly bad guitarist, but then disappeared for some time, and on his return had magically acquired a mastery of the instrument.
Johnson himself seems to have spurred on this myth, recording such songs as ‘Hellhound on my Trail‘, and writing and recording ‘Crossroads‘, referring to the place where he allegedly sold his soul:
It is worth comparing this version of this song with Clapton’s version (with Cream) from the 1960’s to hear the evolution of blues music up to this time.
It is also worth comparing his version of the blues standard ‘Sweet Home Chicago‘ with the Blues Brothers’ version.
There are only two undisputed photos of Johnson in existence, and he recorded relatively little during his short lifetime. He died very young at the age of 27, but there is some disagreement as to what was the cause and even where he is buried. Listed at #71 on the Rolling Stones 100 greatest guitarists of all time his 29 recordings have had an immense influence on popular music from the 20th century (and thus the 21st).
Bob Dylan poetically suggests that “When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor.” ― Chronicles, Volume One
Perhaps the most poignant quote is that of Eric Clapton, simply describing Robert Johnson as “The most important blues singer that ever lived“.
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