This is The Turnaround with Rev. Zach Chandler, where, every week, we’ll be breaking down a different aspect of the Blues for a deeper understanding of the music, culture, and people that are the Blues. For the next several weeks, we’ll be examining some of the most influential bluesman of the last century to try to understand where the blues comes from. As an art form centered around expression, the personalities around it are part of what makes this music so special
This week, we’ll look at one of the early stars around the Mississippi Delta: Robert Johnson. Much speculation surrounds the rise and fall of Robert Johnson, notably, the Faustian rumors that he had sold his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads and the mysterious causes of his death.
Here’s what we do know: Johnson was born sometime around 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. In 1929, he married Virginia Travis, who died in childbirth soon after. In 1931, he married Caletta Craft, who, in 1932, would become his second wife to die in childbirth.
He had been known around the Delta area as a decent harmonica player, but a terrible guitarist. Sometime between 1929 and 1932, he went from a sub-par musician to legendary. This fast improvement in the quality of his playing led to talk that he sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, MS or by channeling the spirits of the dead in graveyards and midnight to teach him to play.
However it happened, people took note. From 1932 until 1938, roamed the Delta, never settling in one town for long. Johnson’s first recordings were made on November 23, 1936 in San Antonio, TX by Brunswick Records. Over the next couple years, Johnson traveled all over, recording and playing at dances, bars, and other venues.
His rise to fame ended on August 16, 1938, near Greenwood, MS. The cause of death is unknown. According to legend, Johnson was murdered. He had been flirting with a married woman and a dance. Her husband, in a fit of jealousy, had put strychnine in a bottle of whiskey that was given to Johnson. The exact location of his grave is unknown. It is most likely that he was buried in a potter’s field near Greenwood.
Over 27 years, Robert Johnson rose from obscurity to become one of the most famous bluesman in history. There is a ton of information we may never know about his life. Nevertheless, Robert Johnson has given us another urban legend to tell around a bottle of whiskey and a short, but powerful discography we can enjoy forever.
Click below to listen to Robert Johnson's "Come On in My Kitchen".