R o b e r t J o h n s o n
"The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend."
- Martin Scorcese
He dies at age 27 ... He sees virtually no recognition while alive ... Time would right that ... People would change that ... A true American composer and musician ... Poet of the people,
Incarnation of the Delta Soul
Robert Leroy Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911 to Julia Dodds and Noah Johnson. At the time, Julia was married to Charles Dodds, Jr. Going back a bit to 1907, Charles Dodds had left town for Memphis because of threats made against him. Dodds even changed his name to Charles Spencer. Shortly after her husband moved, Julia began the affair with Noah Johnson, resulting in Robert's birth in 1911. While Robert was still a "babe in arms", Julia took him and his baby sister with her as she traveled between migrant labor camps.
In 1914 Charles Spencer is back in the picture as he sends for Julia, Robert and baby sister. The three of them moved to Memphis, but soon afterwards Julia takes off and leaves the two children there. Spencer, who already had a large family, decides in 1918 to send Robert and his little sister to live with their mother Julia back in Robinsonville. Julia got remarried to Willie "Dusty" Willis. Robert spends the next ten or so years with Julia and Willie, attending school as Robert Spencer.
We are now in the late 1920's. School is not appealing to Robert, and he cites problems with his eyesight as a reason to drop out of school, and does so. It is then that he picks up the guitar and, as any upstart musician will, looks for musicians that he can learn from. Fortunately for Robert (and American music), Willie Brown was living in Robinsonville at the time. Also, Charlie Patton was travelling from town to town playing the juke joint circuit. Robert learned from both these renowned delta blues players, as well as Son House, who was close friends with Willie Brown.
It was not until his late teens that Robert learned of his father, Noah Johnson. Subsequently, he started going by Robert Johnson. Johnson decides to leave Julia and Willie, moving to Penton, MS, just a few miles north of Robinsonville. There he meets Virgina Travis in February of 1929. That summer, Johnson married 15-year old Virginia. They moved in with Johnson's half sister and her husband. Then, in 1930, the marriage saw tragedy when Virginia and child died during childbirth. Legend has it that Robert then shunned his lifestyle and devoted his life to blues music, between 1930 and 1931. Johnson was introduced to Son House who was living in Robinsonville near his musical partner Willie Brown. As with Willie Brown and Charlie Patton, Johnson learned all he could from Son House. House appreciated Johnson's harmonica playing. Johnson's guitar playing was coming along and in a few years, upon his return to Robinsonville, would take House completely by surprise.
In 1931, Johnson leaves Robinsonville and heads back south towards his birth town of Hazelhurst, searching for his father. He meets Ike Zinnerman, a renowned guitarist from southern Mississippi. They became friends and Robert learned techniques from Ike, practicing until they became his own. It is rumored that the two practiced often in a graveyard, maybe for the quiet, maybe for the atmosphere. The tale fed the lore of selling one's soul to the devil to become master the guitar.
In the spring of 1931, Johnson marries Calletta "Callie" Craft, who was many years his senior. Calletta was completely devoted to Johnson, making it possible for him to spend all his time studying under Zinnerman, honing his craft.
Next: Robert Johnson returns to Tunica County a polished man of blues.
R o b e r t J o h n s o n H i s t o r i c a l M a r k e r
The Robert Johnson historical marker is located in the lobby of the Sheraton-Gunter Hotel in downtown San Antonio, Texas. The marker was unveiled on November 23, 2001 through the efforts of the San Antonio Blues Society and endorsed by the Robert Johnson Blues Society.
The marker commemorates the site of Robert Johnson’s 1936 recording sessions at the Sheraton-Gunter Hotel by the American Recording Corporation. Johnson was in room 414, and the recording engineers were next door in room 413 with cables running under the connecting door. Record Producer Don Law was shuttling between both rooms. ARC was using a new recording material for their 78rpm albums, and Johnson's arangments fit perfectly the 2½ minute target length they were looking for. The first session was on Monday, November 23 (8 songs). The second (1 song) and third (7 songs) sessions were done on Thursday and Friday. It is reported that Johnson found himself at the Bexar County due to some public mischief, therefore the break in the week's schedule.
In June of 1937, Robert Johnson completed his second (and last) recording session, at the Brunswick Records Building in Dallas, Texas. The 2-day recording produced 13 tracks. Various groups are involved in landmarking 508 Park Avenue in Dallas, the site of Johnson's second and final recording session.
The Sheraton-Gunter Hotel • 205 East Houston Street • 210.227.3241 • [gunterhotel.com]