Robert Johnson and the Mississippi Blues
Robert Johnson, the ultimate of blues legends, how did this obscure musician come to be hailed long after his death as the most important artist in early blues and a founding father of rock ‘n’ roll? Robert Johnson was born May 8th 1911, around 1918 Robert moved with his mother to the area around Robinsonville and Tunica in the Mississippi Delta. Some people remember Johnson being known as Little Robert Dusty, though records at the Indian Creek School in Tunica as Robert Spencer. He attended this school for several years.
By the time he was nineteen, Johnson married Virginia Travis, but his sixteen year old wife died in childbirth. According to some this was a major trauma for him and set him to his life of rambling. Over the next seven years Johnson would roam far and wide, impressing everyone he met with his musical abilities. By 1936, Johnson had proved his abilities among his peers, but he still had not gotten the respect and reputation that came with a recording career. Sometime that year he walked into H.C Speirs furniture store in Jackson. Speir had expanded from selling phonographs and records to acting as a talent scout, and had been responsible for getting pretty much all the Mississippi blues singers their record deals.
By the mid-1930s, the record companies were shying away from rural artists, but Speir was impressed with Johnson and got in touch with Ernie Oertle, the Mid-South agent for the ARC Company. Oertle was interested, and arranged a debut session for Johnson. Johnson did three sessions that week; he recorded sixteen songs doing two takes each. This was the depths of the Depression, and new blues artists were not selling very well unless they had the Chicago band sound behind them. Still Johnson’s debut produced one moderately good seller.
In those days, rural artists were rarely paid any royalties for their records. Even if they were offered the option of a royalty deal, it was a gamble that few would take when balanced against a lump sum, paid immediately in cash. Johnson probably got a few hundred dollars for his sixteen sides. A small payment considering what they would become, but a fortune for a wandering guitarists in the midst of the Depression. ARC, the company was happy enough with Johnson’s sales that they invited him back for another session just seven months later. Johnson recorded another thirteen songs then hit the road again. Unfortunately Johnson wasn’t on the road long before he got sick and died in Greenwood Mississippi. The cause of death was syphilis.
Robert Johnson created a body of work that is fascinating and inspiring, but also at times both frustrating and ambiguous. Johnson’s death just fourteen months after his final session leaves us without any clear idea of which direction he might have pursued or how he would have sounded even a few years further on. To judge by the choices his peers went on to make, he could have done anything from forming a jazz group to quitting music entirely. Until the 1960s Johnson’s name was all but forgotten, except by his immediate neighbors, his playing partners, and a handful of white folk and jazz fans. It was these white fans that would crown him king of the Mississippi Delta, and whose opinion has come to be the gospel of blues history. Johnson’s obscurity and mystery were part of his appeal, setting him apart from the kind of blues that was still regularly featured on radio playlists throughout the United States. Even today, when Johnson CDs have sold in the millions, Johnson posters are hung on walls, conferences are held about his music, and his face graced a postage stamp, if you go to a blues festival in the Mississippi Delta and take a poll of black listeners, you will find that many will not even recognize his name.
Black fans in the 1930s heard a good singer and writer in the contemporary blues mainstream, with a solid beat, interesting lyrics, but little to distinguish him from a lot of similar and far better known stars. The few white fans who heard him at that time seem to have considered him a brilliant rural primitive. In the 1960s, mainstream black blues buyers who stumbled across an LP reissue of his work would have heard a guy who sounded like the old fashioned countrified music their parents or grandparents might have liked. Meanwhile young white fans were embracing the same recordings as the dark, mysterious, and fascinating roots of rock ‘n’ roll. The Robert Johnson that most listeners have heard in the last forty years is a creation of the Rolling Stones. Indeed for most modern listeners, the history, aesthetic, and sound of blues as a whole was formed by the Stones and a handful of their white, mostly English contemporaries.
Check any popular image of an old-time blues singer. He is male and black, of course. He plays guitar. He is a loner and a rambler, without money or a pleasant home. He is a figure from another world, not like the people next door or anyone in your family, or anyone you know well. And his music is haunting, searing, and cuts you to the bone. That is how the blues struck a small clique of English kids in the late 1950s and early 1960s and through their eyes that the rest of the world has come to see it. Johnson defined everything that had drawn them to the blues, to break out of the boring, ordinary world of suburban England or Eisenhower America.
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