Robert Johnson – does that name ring any bell to you? Well, to most of you reading fellows, probably not and that’s the reason why I am writing this post – to show you a tiny glimpse of the life of a man who is considered to be the godfather not only of the delta blues but rhythm & blues as well.
Tied in mystery and urban legends, mostly spread by conversations between people in Mississippi, Robert Johnson was a central figure in music in the 30s and his recordings between 1936 and 1937 are truly said to be legendary. Not only musically, of course, but the impact they had on countless bluesmen and musicians is simply insanity. The fact that we know so little of this man’s life is even more intriguing, starting with the only 29 songs he has ever made and other deeds he’s done to achieve this.
Legends say that he made a deal with the devil, disguised as another man and a simple handshake made him one the leading and well-known blues musicians at that time. Of course, this is just a well-known theory, myth, legend, whatever you may call it, and to me personally none these statements are true. Does he have some African tribe elements implemented in his music? Now that’s another piece of the puzzle. Maybe. We are talking about an African-American here and we know for a fact that their tribes have countless rituals, music performances and celebrations. Just a suggestion of mine about the way he made these revolutionary recordings – do not take this as a statement.
People knew of Johnson but most have never seen him in person, which is way more mysterious. This is just another fact, I know how it sounds, guys. Like he existed, but never existed at all. Absolute paradox. Some knew Johnson by hearing him play in street corners, around shops and bars.
“Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass’ me by” – Robert Johnson
It is known that after he exceeded in his playing and sliding skills, he got along with lots of women, which is the main source for the lyrics for some of his songs. Topics such as sex, stealing another man’s wife, love, desire, feeling nostalgic and melancholic are key in his music. Welcome to the rhythm & blues, guys. To me, it sounds like this was the pure foundation. Playing the guitar, singing and cutting it with the harmonica all by yourself is dope as hell. Robert Johnson did that in an anxiety-driven manner and started a revolution in music, culture and art. I am not sure that he expected all of this coming.
Even in rock’n’roll, legend Keith Richards admits the influence of Johnson upon his playing style. Terrific. Some of his recordings are included in a top 500 list of the songs that shaped rock music. That’s quite an achievement for such a short life, he died at the age of 27, once again, from unknown causes. Some speculate that another man poisoned him, after finding out that Johnson had been flirting with his wife, and other sources from his medical files claim that he died of syphilis and medical complications. We shall never find out. But this is not important.
What truly matters is this man didn’t play by the rules. He has created a cool world of his own and lived up to it. The fact that he influenced famous musical acts like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, even metal bands like Slipknot, is simply amazing. He is also one of the first members if not the first, to be considered in Club 27 (musicians who died at that particular age).
A true pioneer, an icon in blues music – that is what the legacy of Robert Johnson stands for. A man who contributed so much for the development of R&B music at its purest form. Not the one we know today. No! I am talking about taking up a guitar and a harmonica, go into the studio and start making history all by yourself.
Although some might not like his recordings, I would say: you surely need to have a special ear to hear it, sounds cliche but it is true. The music gets you into this world of the ’30s in Lousiana, all you see is plantations, but what you hear echoes in eternity.
*Favourite recordings from Robert Johnson – “The Complete Collection“: “Ramblin’ On My Mind”, “Walking Blues”, “Dead Shrimp Blues”, “Come On In My Kitchen” and the in(famous) “Crossroads Blues”