Sunday, January 4, 2009

Robert Johnson - King of the Delta Blues Singers

Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, May 11, 1911, but spent most of his early life in levee camps and on plantations in the Northern Delta. He moved with his family to Memphis in 1914, staying there until 1918, when his stepfather sent him to live at the Abbay and Leatherman Plantation near Robinsonville, Mississippi. There Johnson began playing harmonica and associating with older blues musicians. He followed local bluesman Willie Brown to parties and fish fries, accompanying him on many songs. Soon Johnson was playing with Brown and his partner, Charley Patton, when Patton came to town.

He was very young when he jumped into marriage in 1929; she was 15, he was 18. The marriage was short lived, in that the mother and baby died in childbirth a year later.

During this time of mourning Johnson met bluesman Son House, who had been released from prison at Parchman Farm. House's guitar playing had a profound effect on Johnson and he abandoned the harmonica for the guitar. Johnson tagged along with Brown and House to Memphis to play for tips at Church's Park. House and Brown would belittle Johnson for his lack of guitar skills when they had been drinking. So Johnson left and returned to Hazlehurst.

While in Hazlehurst in 1931, Johnson married an older woman, Caletta Craft, who supported him, during which time he practiced his picking and learned new songs from phonograph records. He had a excellent ability to pick up tunes on his first hearing.

There are several stories on how Johnson became so proficient at playing the guitar. There is a story that he met and practiced with Ike Zimmerman and that he learned to play the guitar while sitting on tombstones in a graveyard. Another, more popular story, was that Johnson, who was branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician, was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it, giving him the mastery of the guitar, and handed it back to him in return for his soul. In exchange, Johnson became able to play, sing and create the greatest blues anyone had ever heard.

He and Caletta took to the road, but before long, he deserted her and severed all ties with her and her family. His wanderlust took him to coal yards, speakeasies, camps and taverns in the Midwest and East Coast. He returned in 1933, demonstrating his proficiency and was accepted as a truly outstanding bluesman.

But it was his recordings that were to have the widest impact. He recorded twice, once in San Antonio, Texas in November, 1936 and again in Dallas in June, 1937. Listening to commercial records yielded him artistic dividends. The 29 songs recorded during those two sessions display an appreciation for the medium by being tight, thematically coherent and short enough for one side of a 78 disc. The performances were unequalled. Bottleneck leads alternating with driving rhythms and lyrics sung in a high tense voice created masterpieces of the genre. When the recordings were over, Johnson presumably returned home with cash in his pocket, probably more money than he'd ever had at one time in his life.

He was quite young, 27, when his life was cut short when he was poisoned at a juke joint in Three Forks, Mississippi. There are a number of accounts and theories regarding the events preceding Johnson's death. One of these is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance. One version of this rumor says that she was the wife of the juke joint owner, who unknowingly provided Johnson with a bottle of poisoned whiskey from her husband. Researcher Mark McCormick claims to have interviewed Johnson's poisoner in the 1970's, and obtained a tacit admission of guilt from the man. When Johnson was offered an open bottle of whiskey, his friend and fellow blues legend, Sonny Boy Williamson knocked the bottle out of his hand, warning him that he should never drink from an offered bottle that had already been opened. Johnson allegedly said "don't ever knock a bottle out of my hand." Soon after, he was offered another open bottle and accepted it, and it was that bottle that was laced with strychnine. David "Honey Boy" Edwards, another famous bluesman was also present, and essentially confirms this account.

After feeling ill, he was helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days, his condition steadily worsened and witnesses reported that he died, August 16, 1938, in a convulsive state of severe pain, symptoms that are consistent with strychnine poisoning.

The precise location of his grave remains a source of ongoing controversy, and three different markers have been erected at supposed burial sites outside Greenwood. Research in the 1980's and 90's strongly suggests Johnson was buried in the graveyard at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, north of Greenwood.

Robert Johnson is considered to be the "Grandfather of Rock 'n' Roll. His vocal phrasing, original songs and guitar style have influenced a broad range of musicians. He is ranked 5th in Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of all time.

No comments: