Artist Biography by Cub Koda
If the blues has a truly mythic figure, one whose story hangs over the music the way a Charlie Parker does over jazz or a Hank Williams does over country, it’s Robert Johnson, certainly the most celebrated figure in the history of the blues. Of course, his legend is immensely fortified by the fact that Johnson also left behind a small legacy of recordings that are considered the emotional apex of the music itself. These recordings have not only entered the realm of blues standards (“Love in Vain,” “Crossroads,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Stop Breaking Down”), but were adapted by rock & roll artists as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Steve Miller, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton. While there are historical naysayers who would be more comfortable downplaying his skills and achievements (most of whom have never made a convincing case as where the source of his apocalyptic visions emanates from), Robert Johnson remains a potent force to be reckoned with. As a singer, a composer, and as a guitarist of considerable skills, he produced some of the genre’s best music and the ultimate blues legend to deal with. Doomed, haunted, driven by demons, a tormented genius dead at an early age, all of these add up to making him a character of mythology who — if he hadn’t actually existed — would have to be created by some biographer’s overactive romantic imagination.
The legend of his life — which by now, even folks who don’t know anything about the blues can cite to you chapter and verse — goes something like this: Robert Johnson was a young black man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi. Branded with a burning desire to become great blues musician, he was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery’s plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar from Johnson, tuned it, and handed it back to him. Within less than a year’s time, in exchange for his everlasting soul,Robert Johnson became the king of the Delta blues singers, able to play, sing, and create the greatest blues anyone had ever heard.
As success came with live performances and phonograph recordings, Johnson remained tormented, constantly haunted by nightmares of hellhounds on his trail, his pain and mental anguish finding release only in the writing and performing of his music. Just as he was to be brought to Carnegie Hall to perform in John Hammond’s first Spirituals to Swing concert, the news had come from Mississippi; Robert Johnson was dead, poisoned by a jealous girlfriend while playing a jook joint. Those who were there swear he was last seen alive foaming at the mouth, crawling around on all fours, hissing and snapping at onlookers like a mad dog. His dying words (either spoken or written on a piece of scrap paper) were, “I pray that my redeemer will come and take me from my grave.” He was buried in a pine box in an unmarked grave, his deal with the Devil at an end. – KEEP ON READIN AT AMG ALL MUSIC GUIDE
Robert Johnson’s blues played by other stunning artists: