Steeped in the same heavy Mississppi nightfall that shrouded his enigmatic end, very little has been unearthed regarding the humble beginnings of Robert Leroy Johnson. Preceding the grim founding of the 27-club, his rumoured deal with the devil and of course, the blues music which has long outlasted his mortal being, Johnson was born sometime during May 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. Born out of wedlock to Julia Dodds and a local field hand, Noah Johnson, Johnson saw inauspicious beginnings. In fact, no birth certificate has ever been found.
Julia’s husband, a successful farmer and carpenter named Charles Dodds, fled town before Johnson was born, not out of shame of his wife’s infidelity, but because of his own. Charles was sharing a mistress with a prominent Italian businessman. Three men had already been lynched that very year in Hazlehurst alone, and Charles did not intend to stick around and be the fourth. Disguising himself as a woman, he left Julia and her unborn son destitute; most of the couple’s other ten children went with their father. Johnson was born soon thereafter.
Any definitive facts of his youth are hard to trace, but it is widely accepted that Johnson’s proclivity for music was discovered during a piecemeal education he received in and around Memphis. If anything is certain, the scarce census records suggest that Julia and Robert didn’t settle in any one place.
At the age of seven, Julia Dodds remarried and moved herself and the infant Robert to Robinsonville, Mississippi, where Robert would spend the rest of his childhood and adolescence on a plantation there.
Yet a fate of farming didn’t appeal to Robert, who was already showing signs of being more of an itinerant troubadour that his mother had anticipated. As Tom Taylor eloquently put it in 2021, he “chose to sing the field’s song rather than toil it”. This rejection of convention ensured that Johnson was often at the sharp end of his stepfather’s beatings, and so a steely resolve was swiftly born.
During these times of hardship, Robert resorted to early forays into learning the guitar, using a diddley bow – this simple device was a piece of string nailed to the side of an outbuilding, with a glass bottle acting somewhat as a bridge.
When he wasn’t fooling around and shirking his farm duties, Robert was by no mean prodigious in his pursuit of music. He spent any off time walking the juke joints and house parties where black folk were allowed to spend time, playing his music when he could for tips and little else. At this time, however, he did get to spend time in the presence of the likes of Son House, who were already prominent on the southern circuit.
At the same time, and in his late teens, Robert met Virginia Travis, who would imminently become his wife. The two married quickly; Travis was fourteen, but they both lied for the records. Her family pleaded with Johnson to fore-go the life he was carving for himself playing the Devil’s music, Robert seemed all too happy to acquiesce.
A year later, as Robert hit manhood, Virginia fell pregnant. Two weeks before her term, she journeyed to her grandparent’s home, with Robert due to make three in a fortnight. Johnson utilised that time well, and slinging his beat-up guitar, made a swan-song effort with a run of busking performances before receding into familial hegemony.
When Robert made the journey to his wife and child, he discovered that the tragedy of his early life had seemingly shadowed him, striking from the recesses of the Mississippi nightfall once more; neither his wife nor newborn child had survived the birth. There would have been little to abate the crushing desolation that must have followed this, as his world came crashing down about him. Yet Virgina’s family, religious zealots to a fault, condemned Robert’s flaunting with the Devil and his music as reason for the tragedy. Though at odds with the Bible’s encouraging of the practice of music, it appears that contemporary discourse really did believe that the early Blues was indeed unholy.
At the same time as his immediate world was decimated, so was the world economy as The Great Depression gripped the globe like a spectre. Despite doubling down on playing the blues, maybe at least in part to spite his late wife’s family, his audiences grew smaller and his payouts diminished too.
At age nineteen, Johnson was continuing to play, performing at shows with Son House and alongside David Honeyboy Edwards, who recalled their time together fondly in 2011.
During the intermission at House’s shows (among others), Johnson would commandeer one of his guitars and force the captive audience to listen to some of his own songs; he was nothing if not self-assured. House remembered having to chase him off on occasion, worried that Johnson’s percussive playing would snap a string or three.
However, relentless jeering from the audience in these moments was enough to run Johnson out of town altogether for a while, as House recalled in a 1997 documentary about Johnson. According to those who remember these times, his playing was simply nothing special, and certainly did not suggest future stardom.
It was then that Robert Johnson headed down to the crossroads, and made a deal which would change his life, as well as the trajectory of popular music for good. Or so the story goes.
Disappearing as suddenly as he’d appeared, it is likely that Johnson returned home to Hazlehurst. It was here that, with a sullen determination, he formed a bond with Ike Zimmerman, who was a somewhat local hero as a musician and troubadour.
Now, with a distinguished lack of any devilry (or any interaction with Satan at all), Zimmerman took Johnson out to the local cemetery in the dead of night, where nobody but the aching spirits which formed their audience could complain. It was likely that this spectral tradition began to influence a rumour of deals with the devil and hoodoo magic.
A year after leaving, Johnson strutted back into Robinsonville, straight on to a stage with Son House. Whilst once he may have been shooed away from the stage, his swagger and unique seven string guitar ensured that everybody paid attention. No sooner was Johnson on stage than his fingers were deftly working the instrument and sounding like two people were accompanying one another; his voice, too, had matured inexplicably. To those watching, there could be no other explanation for what they were seeing than the darkest of magic.
Whilst his professional life began to flourish, the burdens of his personal life seemed to be omnipresent, despite the drinking and womanising. Johnson consorted with another young woman, Virgie Cain, and she fell pregnant with the musician’s child. In an eery, near-inevitable reckoning, her family forbade Johnson playing any part in the lives of of their daughter or granddaughter, and history was seemingly repeated for a second time. Claud Johnson, his son, recalls only ever seeing his father twice; one particular instance saw Johnson hand over cash to pay for what the boy might need, but he was ushered from the premises (though his money was accepted).
In 1936, Johnson was given his first opportunity to record his music, under the patronage of the American Record Company. The regional success of this session, which saw 5000 copies of “Terraplane Blues” sold, earned him a second. Ever secretive, Johnson would play into the corner of the booth, keen to retain any secrets which gave him the ability to play so enchantingly. Johnson recorded a total of twenty-nine songs in his brief career, with many recorded in only two years between 1936 and ’38. There was, amongst others, the oft-covered “32-20” and of course, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.” The latter was recorded in 1951 by Elmore James, who’s version went onto be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Of course, “Come On In My Kitchen” has long since taken on a life of it’s own, whilst other songs have been recorded by, among others, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers (with Eric Clapton).
The foreshadowing-named of juke joint, The Three Forks would be the place whereby Johnson’s complicated trail he had blazed through the Delta caught up with him. “Whiskey and Women”, as Honeyboy Edwards remembered, were the only two things Johnson seemed to care about, and they would be the two things which would, according to popular myth, be his ultimate undoing.
Robert Johnson had been flirting with a woman, as was his way. Unfortunately, this woman was the wrong woman with which to be fraternising. Handed a bottle of whiskey by a kindly gentleman, Johnson took a fatal swig of the woody nectar. Robert had failed to notice that the seal of the bottle had been broken, and that the stranger who had handed it to him was in fact that scorned husband of his new attraction. The year was 1938, and the date was August 16th.
Poisoned, and dying agonisingly over a number of days around Greenwood, Mississippi,, Johnson found some strength with which to crawl into the cool night air, which gave him some relief as his physical life finally ebbed to nothing. His mortal vessel was found by the side of the road the next day, under the same Mississippi sky under which he had been born just twenty-seven years before. Johnson would be the founding father of a tragic club of musicians and prominent artists who would meet their demise before the turning twenty-eight, which would come to include Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain before the century ended.
Other causes of death have been disputed, namely by Gayle Wardlow, who investigated Johnson’s demise in 1968. He managed to unearth a supposed death certificate, whilst also discovering that Johnson may have been born with congenital syphilis, and this and a heady appetite for hard alcohol may have caused an aneurysm.
The only real truth, despite poisoning being the most widely accepted method of execution, is that Robert Leroy Johnson was found dead and that the location of his real grave is just as confused as the circumstances of his death. Three headstones exist in and around Greenwood. In 1990, Columbia Records erected a monument to Johnson at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, where many believed Johnson had been lain to rest in an unmarked grave. That same year, Atlanta-based band The Tombstones (rather aptly named) put a small marker down in Quito, Mississippi. In the year 2000, an 85-year-old lady stepped forward and claimed that her husband had been one of the party to bury Johnson beneath the shade of a pecan tree, and a third headstone has sat here since her revelation.
There was to be no footage of Johnson ever put to film, and only two photos remain to this day.
Despite a cataclysmic life, as instantaneous as the Big Bang and in terms of the Blues, maybe as important, those who have been influenced by Johnson and his music are innumerable. Many have also achieved fame and fortune beyond anything that Robert could have imagined in his own lifetime.
Keith Richard, or Keef, the swaggering axeman for The Rolling Stones, is said to owe so much of a debt to Johnson and his playing that had The Stones not be firmly placed in the pantheon of rock music, he may well have been an “eccentric vicarious biographer”.
As covered in our segment on Muddy Waters, the original intention of those folk archivists who stumbled upon him was to find Robert Johnson, not knowing he had died years before. Not only would we likely not heard of Muddy had he not been found rather serendipitously as a result of Johnson, but Waters cited Johnson as a direct influence alongside other Delta greats like Son House.
As suggested by music journalist Tom Taylor, Johnson also lived an authentic life symbiotic with the Blues, not because of the want to play a carefully curated character, but out of pure necessity. As Taylor puts it, he lived a life all kinds of shades of blue, resultant of his personal hardships, but also because of the historic hardships suffered collectively by persons of colour. As Nina Simone once said, “funk, gospel and blues is all out of slavery times, out of depression, out of sorrow.”
From these times of toil, despair and hopelessness was borne the magical, ethereal sound of the Blues and from that, modern popular music, so intangible that for people like Johnson, the only explanation that could be levelled against him was that it had to be the work of the devil.