robert johnson 
     
  "The thing about
Robert Johnson
was that he
only existed
on his records.
He was pure legend."

- Martin Scorcese
  
       
  "Robert Johnson to me is the most iportant blues musician who ever lived ... I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice."    Eric Clapton
     
 

He dies at age 27 ... He sees no recognition ...
That would change ... People would change that ...

A true American composer and musician ...
Poet of the people, Incarnation of the Delta
Soul

 
     
 

29 songs he created in 1936 and 1937 for San Antonio and Dallas, including Cross Road Blues, Sweet Home Chicago, and Rambling on My Mind - all blues standards ...
His music influenced the next generations of blues icons: Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones ...

A Founding Father of Blues Music, Inspiration for the Future

 
     
 

THE EARLY YEARS

     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.

THE DELTA

The Mississippi Delta encompasses most of the western edge of Mississippi from the northwestern top of the state on down to Vicksburg, tracing the Mississippi River. It's boundary on the east is the Yazoo River. About 200 miles tall and 87 miles wide. The intersection of highways 69 and 41 in Clarksdale is often referred to as The Crossroads, where one can deal their soul to the devil to become something they are not. With the amount of flooding, the land was fertile and supported one of the largest areas of cotton fields in the country. The population of the land was generally impoverished field laborers and farmers. For most of his early life, Robert Johnson's travels were up and down Hghway 49. Hazelhurst, his birthplace, is just south of Jackson in west central Mississippi. About four hours north is Robinsonville in Tunica County, where Johnson spent most of his youth. Forty miles southwest is Helena, Arkansas. And on southbound Highway 49 you go through Greenwood, the central eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta.

YOUNG ADULTHOOD

    Johnson is now in his late teens and 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. Though it was his harmonica playing that impressed people, Johnson's guitar playing was coming along and, upon his return to Robinsonville, would take everyone by surprise.
     In 1931, Johnson leaves Robinsonville and heads back south towards his birth town of Hazelhurst, searching for his father. He meets renowned guitarist Isiah "Ike" Zinnerman from nearby Beauregard, Mississippi. They became friends and Robert learned techniques from Ike, practicing until they became his own. In the spring of 1931, Johnson marries Calletta "Callie" Craft, who was many years his senior. Calletta was completely devoted to Johnson, spiritually and financially, making it possible for him to hone his craft by spending his time studying under Zinnerman. He actually lived with Ike and family.
They referred to their newly adopted family member as R.L., his initials. Over the next months Johnson experienced different music stylings in the local music scene, including the picking styles of Lonnie Johnson and Scrapper Blackwell. And following local traditions, it is rumored that Johnson and Zinnerman often practiced 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 master the guitar. The two played the local juke joints along with the nearby lumberyards that populated the fertile woodlands of the delta region. By the end, Robert Johnson had dramatically improved his finger picking and the bottleneck slide skills. For this he shad sought out Ike Zinnerman. His mission was now complete.


Son House

Willie Brown

Charlie Patton

Ike Zinnerman (age 73)


ROBERT JOHNSON RETURNS READY TO PLAY

     Now a polished blues man, Robert Johnson returns to Robinsonville but for just a short while. He headed down Highway 61 to Highway 49 (The Crossroads at Clarksdale), final destination Helena, Arkansas just across the state border. Johnson was now with Estella Coleman and her son, Robert Lockwood, Jr. (known later by Robert Jr. LockwoodJohnson was now performing with the like of Elmore James and Howlin' Wolf. ). He now must have been his happiest. He was surrounded by his favorite music and musicians. On the road people were paying to see him play. He was in his prime and he was booking gigs. It's 1933 and Robert Johnson is He covered his home state of Mississippi and hit Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit -- major hubs the the newly emerging blues highway up and down the Mississippi RIver. And he played Texas and New York.


THE SAN ANTONIO RECORDINGS

     The early 1900s, especially the 1920s, saw recordings of African-American musicians were on an increase. Music recorded by black artists sold, but really just in the African-American communities. These "race records" were becoming a hot item to the record labels as entertainment was becoming a major revenue source, both live and recorded. Don Law was in the business of finding new talent. Law was an immigrant from England. He came here in 1924 and was a farmer in Alabama. He then became a bookkeeper for Brunswick Records in Dallas. In 1931 Brunswick was bought by the American Record Company. ARC put Law together with Art Satherley to find talent. In 1936 talent scout Ernie Oertle introduced the two ARC talent hunters to Robert Johnson.

     It is now November 1936, the same year Robert Johnson and ARC met.
Don Law signed a deal to record Robert Johnson.

    

     For the Recording Sessions at the Gunter Hotel, Johnson set up in room 414 with the recording equipment and engineers next door in 413. Law was going between both rooms during the sessions, working with the recording engineer and Johnson. Johnson used "corner loading" which was a technique by which the artists faces the wall while recording.

     This method was used to lessen the high and low frequencies while amplifying the middle range, It was the preferred method for recording country blues. 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 the break in the schedule was because Johnson found himself at the Bexar County due to some public mischief. The sixteen songs recorded in San Antonio 1936: Kind Hearted Woman Blues (recorded first), Sweet Home Chicago, Terraplane Blues, Phonograph Blues, 32-20 Blues, Rambling on My Mind, (I Believe I'll) Dust My Broom, Come on in My Kitchen, They're Red Hot, Dead Shrimp Blues, Cross Road Blues, Walking Blues, Preaching Blues, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, When You Got a Good Friend, and If I Had Possession over Judgement Day.

THE DALLAS RECORDINGS

 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 thirteen songs recorded in Dallas 1937: Stones in My Passway, I'm a Steady Rollin' Man, From Four Until Late, Hell Hound on My Trail, Little Queen of Spades, Malted Milk, Drunken Hearted Man, Me and The Devil Blues, Stop Breakin' Down Blues, Traveling Riverside Blues, Honeymoon Blues, Love in Vain Blues, and Milkcow's Calf Blues.  

 

 

 











 

ROBERT JOHNSON PASSES ON TO LEGEND

     Robert Johnson's life came to an end in 1938. It is said that his muderer was a jealous husband. Johnson was playing the Three Forks, a juke joint Greenwood, Mississippi. The husband posioned Johnson on August 13, 1938. At the home of a friend, Robert Johnson died three nights later. Only 27 years old. Only 29 songs recorded. One version of the incident came from Sonny Boy WIliamson II, who was performing with Johnson. They played together on many chitlin circuit gigs. The story goes on to say that Sonny Boy warned Johson about drinking from an open bottle. Johnson downed the poisoned drink, becoming severely ill. An agonizing three days later it was all over.

Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem, I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He will call me from the Grave.

These are Robert Johnson's handwritten words put to paper shortly before his death

 

RECOGNITION OF ROBERT JOHNSON

        At the end of his short life on thie Earth, Johnson's work was being uncovered. The year Johnson died he was being sought by John Hammond to perform at Carnegie Hall. Columbia Records, and more specifically Don Law from the San Antonio Sessions and Dallas Sessions, brought the complete recordings together with the 1961 release of "King of the Delta Blues Singers", credited with bringing the modern era up to date on who Robert Johnson was. The resurgence of interest in Robert Johnson and Delta Blues music was by investigative research and by the absorption of the music by the next generations. Blues music had been evolving in the major urban blues hubs along the Mississippi. The British Invasion arrived with its strong arm of blues and blues rock inspired by the great American blues masters. The blues greats acclaim their inspiration of Robert Johnson, how his lyrics and his mastery of the guitar influenced who they became: Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and so on down the list of music royalty.

          1986 Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RRHF's first induction ceremony)

          1991 Grammy Award for The Complete Recordings

          1998 Inducted into Grammy Hall of Fame

          1998 "Cross Road Blues" inducted into Grammy Hall of Fame

          2006 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award

     Two major films were completed. John Hammond, Jr. produced The Search for Robert Johnson. The film, Can't You Hear the Wind Howl - the Life and Music of Robert Johnson features nineteen of Robert Johnson's original Vocalion recordings.

 

THE KIN OF ROBERT JOHNSON

     Rory Block  is considered among the top two or three authorities on Robert Johnson's life and music. She has taken his musical innovations, learned them completely, and performs them. She has enlightened us with her understanding of Robert Johnson and the Delta Blues. In 2006, Rory Block went to Mississippi to research Robert Johnson and the music of the Delta. That winter she found out Robert Johnson had kin and they had been located. Until then it was thought that he had no living relatives. Rory met Claud Johnson, Robert's son.  Just a short while before, she would lament at the idea this brilliant man would have died so young and alone. And now she was visiting with his decendants. Robert Johnson's bloodline. His grandson Steven Johnson is in the choir of The Straighway Ministries Church of Utica, Mississippi. This led to the colaborative effort, the "Down At The Crossroads / Blues Meets Gospel" tour.

Rory with Claud Johnson, son of Robert Johnson
photo by Shonna Valeska

Rory with Michael Johnson, son of Claud Johnson
grandson of Robert Johnson


Rory with Steven Johnson, son of Claud Johnson
grandson of Robert Johnson

Rory with Richard Johnson, son of Michael Johnson
grandson of Claud Johnson
great grandson of Robert Johnson
photo by Shonna Valeska

     In 2011 we asked Rory to headline the San Antonio Blues Society's Robert Johnson SA Sessions event. Her show was complete with true authenic Robert Johnson, Delta Blues, and soulfelt narrative. She shared a favorite story of hers. From when she went on her journey to Mississippi. Rory asked Claud if he had any last recollections of his father. He was living at the home of her mother's father. He looked out the window and saw his grandfather talking to Robert Johnson in the front yard.

     Get to Rory's website to learn more of her work.    RORY'S WEBSITE     We appreciate her continuing devotion to Robert Johnson and the Delta Blues. In 2011, Rory Block inducted as an Honorary Lifetime Member of the San Antonio Blues Society.

 

SAN ANTONIO BLUES SOCIETY RECOGNITION OF ROBERT JOHNSON

The Robert Johnson historical marker is located in the lobby of the Sheraton-Gunter Hotel in downtown San Antonio, Texas. Installed 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 the Robert Johnson’s 1936 recording sessions at the Sheraton-Gunter Hotel produced by the American Recording Corporation.


  



  The Robert Johnson Room is booked by SABS for when we have artists come in to San Antonio for one of our shows. In the lobby near the historic marker you can visit the displays commemorating Robert Johnson and his Historic Recordings.
     

 

    
     
 

  SOME REFERENCES     

  WIKI: DELTA BLUES        WIKI: ROBERT JOHNSON   

    WIKI: MISSISSIPPI DELTA   

    RORY BLOCK      BRITANNICA: ROBERT JOHNSON   

   MISSISSIPPI BLUES TRAIL      ROBERT JOHNSON FILM   

   
     






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