Robert Johnson, the king of the Delta Blues. He who traveled to a lonely crossroads one night to sell his soul to the devil, in exchange for his prodigious talent. Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1911. He passed away in 1938 at the age of 27. The bluesman’s talent was such that in the decades after his death you could walk into any room of musicians and ask about Robert Johnson. You would get the same resounding answer each time:
You see, the songs that influenced so many blues and rock musicians were all recorded in just two sessions. In 1936 he was recorded playing in a hotel room (Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio). The following year he recorded in the Vitagraph building in New York. The fact is, Johnson spent much of his short life as a traveling musician, playing for tips on street corners and at dances. Since he died the following year, it’s likely he never even heard most of the recordings he made.
So what of the vaunted “Deal with the Devil”? Well, there isn’t actually much information on the musician’s life. Some personal recollections were luckily sought ought by historians of those who knew him. They describe a shy man who liked his women and booze. The devil aspect likely grew over time. It was in fact a saying at the time that playing secular music as opposed to Christian songs was “selling your soul to the devil”. Coincidence? Helping matters was the singer’s own choice of topics like “Hellhound on my Heels” and thinly veiled references to sex in his music. Another aspect is that he was remembered as having little skill on guitar, but after going away for awhile came back as an accomplished musician. This is hard to sort, because there are so many variables. He often travelled, and at times was sent away to live with his birth father, and would return home months later. Maybe he had lessons? Maybe he just practiced?
Nothing can negate the impact Johnson had on the up and coming blues/rock players of the sixties and seventies, but the fact is a compilation album released in 1961 Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers is what initially put him on the radar for the later generations. The vast majority of people in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s would have never heard of him.
So Robert Johnson lived his short life, wandered the south land and played his guitar. Stories that he was poisoned don’t seem to hold up, and it is conjectured that he passed away of syphilis. There was no public announcement of his passing. Luckily for future musicians he was able to record those songs, and give us a better understanding of the origins of Delta Blues as it emerged.