If you’ve ever sat down to learn a Robert Johnson song, exactly as the man himself played it, then you’ll understand why an acoustic guitar site needs to include a Robert Johnson bio.
Whether it was his gigantic hands, genes, dedication or (if going by legend) his deal with the devil, that gave him his guitar prowess, it’s clear that Robert Johnson was a talent – one that wasn’t discovered until after his untimely death.
A lot of legend surrounds Robert Johnson. So little was known about the man that it’s hard to see what is true and what is made up.
The story goes that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in order to play and sing the way he did and achieve success.
But perhaps the real reason for his deeply emotional music was his tumultuous life. In addition to the already difficult time any African-American had in those days he had a host of other tragedies and hardships to deal with.
He married sixteen year old Virginia Travis in 1929 (himself aged just 17). She died shortly after their marriage during childbirth.
Johnson’s childhood was reportedly no less hectic. He did not know his real father and was moved around as a youngster between his mother and his mother’s husband.
Johnson remarried in 1931 but in 1932 his second wife also died in childbirth.
The story around Johnson’s death is unconfirmed but rumours claim that he was poisoned by a jealous husband. Johnson was said to be flirting with a man’s wife and that man gave Johnson a poisoned bottle of whiskey.
Whilst this is all speculation, there is no doubt that Johnson’s life was short, sharp and not without drama.
Though not known in his lifetime he eventually became known as the King of the Delta Blues.
There are only 29 Robert Johnson songs that were ever recorded – they were all recorded in 1936 and 1937. Johnson died in 1938, aged just 27.
Those recordings were reportedly recorded with one microphone and Robert Johnson facing the corner of a room. This is depicted on the cover of “King of the Delta Blues vol 2” released in 1970.
Whilst not popular in his lifetime, decades later – after the release of the 1961 “King of the Delta Blues Singers” – Johnson was recognized as a master of his art. Vol 1 was followed by “King of the Delta Blues vol 2” in 1970.
Whilst this is a relatively small body of work, the quality speaks for itself. Many of Johnson’s songs have been covered by multiple artists and many are known as blues standards. Such was the posthumous influence of the blues legend.
Sweet Home Chicago, Believe I’ll Dust my Broom, Love in Vain, Come On in My Kitchen, Walkin’ Blues and Crossroad blues are all popular covers, among others.
Johnson’s guitar style and emotionally driven vocals were a combination that, in my opinion, earn him the tag as the King of the Delta Blues.
Johnson’s lyrics reveal a somewhat disturbed character – apparently haunted by his past or what he saw his future to behold. No doubt living as an African-American man in those times was hard enough but given the stories above, it’s not surprise that his lyrics were as they were.
From the sad “Drunken Hearted Man” to the Scary “Hellhound on my Trail” to the downright violent “32-30 Blues” the songs paint the picture of a man fighting his demons.
Other songs reveal that Johnson also had a sense of humor.
You can learn more about Robert Johnson at the link below. Of course some of the information is just speculation.
Thanks for reading
I hope this has given you a taste for the legend himself – Robert Johnson. If you haven’t really sat down and listened to some of his original recordings or tried to play some of his original songs (the way he played them), I encourage you to do so.