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Robert Johnson: the man, the myth and his impact
Robert Johnson is a blues legend in the most literal sense of the word. One of the first musicians to join the 27 Club, Robert Leroy Johnson died in obscurity, his life shrouded in mystery. Tales about a deal with the devil attempt to explain how he suddenly became a virtuoso almost overnight and of course his powerful and very complex playing style have greatly inspired other music legends like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Bob Dylan.
The Search for Robert Johnson – YouTube
The Crossroads: Me and the Devil Blues
Johnson was born in 1911 (exact date unknown) and moved to Robinsonville, Mississippi when he was 8 years old. Around 1929, Son House, another would be blues legend moved into town. He told biographers and blues researchers that he met Robert Johnson twice. The first time they met, House thought Johnson was a terrible guitar player.
And this is where the story turns into myth. Johnson dropped out of sight for a short while and nobody really knew what he’d been up to or where he’d been. But when he came back and Son House saw him play for a second time, Johnson was suddenly and miraculously a virtuoso with an incredible playing style, who could hear a song once and play it instantly.
The folk back then said there was something very fishy going on there. Enter the Crossroads Myth. Some say Johnson was instructed by darker forces to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There, he met a large, mysterious black man who took the guitar and tuned it. The large man played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him instant mastery of the instrument. Just like the legend of Faust, a deal had been made, a soul was sold.
If this sort of rings a bell for some of you movie buffs out there, the Coen brothers referenced the Crossroads myth in their movie Oh Brother where art Thou?
Oh Brother where art Thou – YouTube
So what made Johnson’s particular style of blues so diabolically awesome? For one, when Keith Richards heard one of his songs for the first time, he thought he was hearing two guitars. As Richards stated in his biography: “Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself.”
Johnson played Delta Blues, but in his own style which was far ahead of its time and a forerunner of rock music. His voice also had a strange, haunting quality which he achieved through the use of microtones. What the hell is a microtone you say? Well, simply put, in Western music, we divide our notes into semitones or half steps, like going from E to F (one fret on the guitar is one semitone). Microtones are between those half notes and they sound very exotic, yet somewhat familiar, like there is something vaguely off.
Johnson died in obscurity when he was 27. Some say he was poisoned, some say it was syphilis, or maybe the Devil came to collect. He was buried in an unmarked near Greenwood, Mississippi. During his lifetime, he only recorded 29 songs, none of which had a significant impact on the evolution of the blues.
However, he became somewhat famous 20 years after he died, when some of his songs were reissued and discovered by young, white British musicians who had fallen in love with the blues and consequently became the pioneers of rock music. Although most people have never heard of Robert Johnson, he certainly inspired some of the right people: Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) and Jeremy Spencer (Fleetwood Mac).
Bob Dylan had this to say about Robert Johnson’s music: “If I hadn’t heard the Robert Johnson record when I did, there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down—that I wouldn’t have felt free enough or upraised enough to write.”
That’s certainly some testimony. Robert Johnson, we salute you!