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In late 2021, following a recording session with Kenny Neal in Baton Rouge, I had the pleasure
of meeting up with Robert Johnson’s grandson Steven in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, the
birthplace of his grandfather. Talks ensued about the blues and his grandfather’s legacy.
Steven a minister and singer suggested recording three of Robert Johnson’s songs which we
did the next day after spending the night learning the fingering technique Robert had used.


They call him The King of the Delta Blues. He never played to large audiences; they were
mainly parties and juke-joints and it is thought he only made one short radio broadcast. He
made most of his money playing for tips on the street; his biggest record sold only a few
thousand copies and perhaps made him $100; and yet his music echoes down the years in the
work of so many who have followed him. Robert’s delicate, polyrhythmic fingerpicking style,
his strange tunings, his complex chording and his slide-playing inspired generations of
guitarists, and many of the songs he wrote have become Blues standards.
Robert Johnson was born on 8th May 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, the son of a local
farmhand Noah Johnson and Julia Dodds, an abandoned wife. She moved to Memphis to
rejoin her husband in 1914, but soon divorced and re-married. As a teenager Robert, now
known as Robert Spencer, moved back to the Clarksdale area to find his natural father, and at
that point took his name. Robert played harmonica and was learning guitar, when he met
Willie Brown, a local man who played ‘second’ guitar with Charley Patton at juke-joints and
parties. Willie took Robert to Patton’s home at the Will Dockery Plantation, where Tommy
Johnson, Son House and a host of other Blues-men came to play. It is said that Robert was
given his first guitar at Dockery, and he was certainly in a good position to learn from the men
around him. Son House taught him some slide guitar technique, but Robert was also deeply
influenced by his namesake Tommy Johnson. It wasn’t just Tommy’s intense guitar style and
high falsetto voice that Robert copied, but this inveterate womaniser and drunkard often told
friends and admirers that he had made a Faustian pact with the Devil to gain his talent for the
The story of going to the crossroads at midnight to deal with the Devil is deeply embedded in
Black Southern folk-lore, based on the West-African Yoruba tale of meeting Legba, the
Trickster deity who would grant a wish but always got the best of the deal. When this is
transposed into the Christian equivalent, it becomes an encounter with Satan himself. When
Robert returned to Clarksdale after a few months spent playing the cotton towns along the
Mississippi and over in Arkansas, his guitar-playing and song-writing had improved beyond
recognition. Of course it was believed he must have sold his soul to acquire this fantastic

talent, just like Tommy Johnson had claimed, but it is more likely he learned a new way to
play from a shadowy figure called Zinneman who was reputed to practice in a graveyard!
Robert used a mixture of slide and chording on his guitar, often with unconventional tunings,
and this combined with the reach of his large hands and his use of ‘walking’ bass notes, gave
his playing a unique quality. Robert never really did ‘solos’, but his graceful and inspirational
style opened up new ways of playing, with the guitar and vocal lines seamlessly interwoven.
Robert was a generous teacher and he was responsible for developing the talents of his ‘step-
son’ Robert Jr. Lockwood and the young Elmore James. Another young Blues player, Johnny
Shines, befriended Robert and the pair spent three years bumming around together. Shines
said, “He was a natural rambler. We used to travel all over: meet the pay-days in the lumber
camps and track gangs: anywhere the money was. Played for dances, in taverns, on
sidewalks: didn’t matter where as far as he was concerned. Robert was a natural showman.”
Their travels took them to New York and Chicago, Texas, Indiana, Kentucky and even Ontario
Canada, where they made a radio broadcast. When they hit a new town, word got round
quickly, and it is questionable whether Robert left more Blues disciples or broken-hearted
women behind. “His sound affected women in a way I could never understand,” said Shines.
“I said he had a talking guitar and many a person agreed with me.”

Robert Johnson Discography

Every Blues fan should listen to this fantastically complex treatment of a simple style of folk
music that Robert expanded in a way that inspired so much that followed. He only recorded a
few sessions, and it’s all here.


Don Law of ARC made a series of recordings of Robert’s music in November 1936 in a San
Antonio hotel room, and in June 1937 they cut further tracks in Dallas. This 90 minutes of
Blues is arguably the most influential music of the 20th Century. There are 29 tracks in total,
and a few  were released on the Vocalion label, making Robert several hundred dollars.
‘Crossroads’, ‘Love in Vain’, ‘Dust My Broom’ and ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ are classic tracks that
have come down the generations, but there is a darker edge to much of the work. ‘Me and
the Devil’ and ‘Hellhound on my Trail’ are among the songs that explore the struggle between
good and evil, and of course they fed the myth of Robert’s bargain struck at the crossroads.

The 27 Club

1970 was a big year for rock deaths.  Al Wilson of Canned Heat died in a drug related incident
in LA, followed by by Jimi Hendrix in London. Janis Joplin went the same way in LA two weeks
later. They were all 27 years old. Jim Morrison perished in Paris the following year; Brian
Jones of The Rolling Stones had died in 1969; Kurt Kobain joined in 1994 and Amy Winehouse
is the latest recruit, but vodka was her poison. Of course, the founder member of the club
was Robert Johnson, who was given a fatal bottle of strychnine spiked whisky in 1938.

The debt was soon called in. In August 1938 Robert was with Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards
playing a Saturday night gig at a juke-joint in Three Forks near Greenwood, Mississippi and
Robert directed most of his songs that night towards a pretty woman in the audience. She
was the wife of the owner and, after drinking his fill of whisky, Robert fell ill. He died a short
while later of strychnine poisoning.
The Devil might have his Soul, but his Blues is alive and strong.

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