Robert Johnson / May 8, 1911 - Aug 16, 1938

Has there ever been a more mythical musician than blues icon Robert Johnson? He reportedly sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads to acquire his prodigious guitar talent. Little by little, blues historians have been trying to fill in the pieces. It seems that he was a gigolo who was not a star as a musician during his lifetime, but a well-traveled man who was respected for his talent wherever he went. He sang and played pop, jazz, blues and country music on street corners and parties (as well as practicing in graveyards at night) and has played all over the South, Midwest and into Texas, Canada and New York.

He was known to be a nice guy but introverted and married to the road, using different names in different places. He cut his first recordings in San Antonio in 1936. In '37 had a session in Dallas. All of his recordings come from these two occasions and it is quite possible he saw only two of his records released while he was alive. One of these, "Terraplane Blues", became a minor hit. There is a lot of speculation as to why he faced the corner of the wall while recording, some say it was due to shyness or shame, others have suggested a sort-of "slavery" type atmosphere...but it is quite possible he just wanted to use the corner for purposes of its acoustics for the recording.

He had traveled a bunch with Johnny Shines and came into contact with Son House, Henry Townsend, Sonnyboy Williamson and Honeyboy Edwards, as well as having a long-term relationship with the mother of bluesman Robert Lockwood Jr. He met his end at the age of 27, having fell ill for three days after being given intentionally-poisoned whiskey at a party for reasons unclear.

At the end of the day, Johnson shows to be one of the most advanced of all the Delta blues singers, having mastered the guitar in various local blues styles and techniques. His lyrics went deeper with their poetics and his voice was as expressive as anybody's. His lyrics touched on themes that suggest an awareness of African voodoo folk tales (with plenty of sexual content as well) and his pronounced "one-man-band" style of call & response with himself further underscores the connection to Africa. He remained an obscure figure in the greater blues world until the early '60s when his music was reissued at a time when the folk revival was happening and young British bluesmen were about to bring rock music into dominance.

Tagged: blues, Celebrate Icons, guitar, Robert Johnson

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