Robert johnson final


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An article about the musician Robert Johnson by Steven Clements

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Robert johnson final

  1. 1. Robert Johnson King of the Delta BluesMississippi in the early summer of 1911...a legend born… On May 8th 1911, in the town of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, USA, a boy by the nameof Robert Leroy Johnson was born.After a relatively settled start in life, he would quickly become accustomed to a life ofconstant travel, at first with his mother, then later, by himself.This boy would grow to be a celebrated blues musician, and recognised the world overas the founding father of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Born: 8th May 1911 Hazlehurst, Mississippi, US A Died: 16th August 1938 Greenwood, Mississippi, USA Active career: 1929-1938 Landmark 1936-1937 recordings: Instrument: Gibson L1 acoustic Education: Indian Creek school, Tunicia 1924 and 1927 Alias’: Robert Spencer Little Robert Dusty Steven Clements
  2. 2. Early life…family life Robert Leroy Johnson was born on 8th May 1911, (although this date is disputed,as is the formal documentation of his birth). Born to Julia Major Dodds (b. Oct 1874)and Noah Johnson (b. Dec 1884). Robert was their only child, and, the reason for the lack ofinformation surrounding his early life may be attributed to the fact that Julia was married toCharles Dodds (b. Feb 1865) who was a relatively successful furniture maker and land owner,and also fathered ten children with her. Following a dispute with white landowners Charleswas forced by lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst. Julia herself left with baby Robert, but at the ageof two would send him to live in Memphis with Charles, who had changed his name to CharlesSpencer. Robert would move back with his mother in Tunicia, Mississippi, in 1919. By this timeJulia had remarried, with a man named Dusty Willis. He was 24 years her junior.In 1924 and 1927 Robert would attend the Indian Creek School in Tunicia. Although he waslisted as ‘Robert Spencer’ most people referred to him as ‘Little Robert Dusty’. The quality of Robert’s penmanship on his marriage certificate, suggests that forsomeone of his up-bringing, and considering he only attended school for two years, he had avery good education. Upon leaving school he would start touse his real father’s name, and signed himselfas Robert Johnson on his marriage certificate.In February 1929, he married his first wifeVirginia Travis who was only 16 at the time. Shortly after she, along with his firstchild, would die in childbirth. Virginia’s familysaid this was divine punishment to Robert forsinging secular songs and music, known byAfrican Americans as ‘selling your soul tothe devil’. Robert would accept this term, and saw itas his chance to leave the settled life, which henever enjoyed anyway, to lead a nomadiclifestyle as a travelling blues musician. Steven Clements
  3. 3. ‘Selling of the Soul’ Around 1929 Robert moved to Martinsville, near to his birthplace Hazlehurst. This is where hewould first ply his trade as a musician, and would later perfect the styles of his mentors, Son House,Willie Brown, and brothers’ Ike and Herman Zimmerman. At first it would be on street corners andthen in whichever juke joints would let him play. He was regarded as a competent harmonica player,but a very bad guitar player.“He’d sit at our feet and play during the break, and such another racket you neverhear’d. He’d make the audiences mad with his racket. They would say ‘Why don’tyou go in there and make that boy put that thing down, He’s runnin’ us crazy”. (Sonhouse) While he was still living in Martinsville, Robert fathered a child with Vergie Mae Smith, butwould marry his second wife Caletta Craft in May 1931. The following year Robert and Calettamoved to Clarksdale in the Delta of the Mississippi. Shortly after Caletta fell ill, and Robert, perhapsfeeling he was cursed, abandoned her and would continue on his path as a ‘walking musician’. Between 1932 and 1938, Robert’s life was very hard to document as he constantly travelledfrom place to place, usually between Arkansas, Helena, Memphis and small towns in the MississippiDelta. Occasionally he would travel further afield, such as Chicago, Texas, New York and Canada,where he would stay with other travelling musicians or ‘woman friends’. The Legend…The Myth Tired of being told he was a no goodguitarist, Robert took the advice to go to thecrossroads, at the Dockery plantation in Clarksdale atmidnight. There he would meet the ‘Devil’. Who inexchange for his soul would tune and play his guitar.He then handed it back to him with the ability to playlike no-one had ever done before.“…So when he came back, me and WillieBrown was playing and he said, ‘Can I play alick or two?’ I said now don’t come back withthat Robert, you know people don’t want tohear that racket.” He said “Let them saywhat they wanna say, I want you to see whatI learned.”“When he’d finished, all our mouths werestanding open.”(Son House) Steven Clements
  4. 4. Death On August 16th 1938, in Greenwood, Mississippi, Robert died, possibly killed. There arevarying stories surrounding the incidents prior to his death, although the widely accepted account isas follows. While playing at a country dance in a town called Three Forks, 15 miles outside of Greenwood,Robert began flirting with the wife of the juke joint owner. Shortly after Robert was offered an openbottle of whiskey which was laced with strychnine. Fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson hadalways warned him to never drink from an already open bottle if one was offered. Roberts’ reply wasalways “Never knock a bottle outta my hand.” In the early morning hours Robert had to behelped back to his room after complaining of feeling ill. Over the course of three days his conditionwould deteriorate, and he would die in a painful, convulsive state. These symptoms bear thehallmarks of strychnine poisoning. Legacy During his lifetime and despite his travels, Robert was little well known. In fact if you had asked blues fans of Robert Johnson up to two decades after his death, the answer would be ‘Robert who?’ (Which also extended to many other black musicians). This is down to the fact that he played mostly on street corners, juke joints and Saturday night dances. At that time he played a style of music that was little well thought of, and he also died young after only recording a handful of songs. Today he is regarded in much higher esteem, receiving many posthumous achievements and recognitions. His impact on music and musicians which came after him is enormous. His major influence being in genre’s of music that didn’t even exist until after he had died. After all he is now widely accepted as the ‘founding father’ of modern blues, rock ‘n’ roll and rock music. Quotes and Recognitions “I think he’s the greatest blues, folk guitar player, and the greatest singer, writerthat ever lived.” (Eric Clapton) “You think you’ve got a handle on playing the blues, then you hear RobertJohnson and you think, woah, have I got a long way to go yet man! I was hearing twoguitars, and it took me a while to realise he was doing it all by himself.” (Keith Richards) “As a musician Robert Johnson had it all.” (B.B. King) Steven Clements
  5. 5. “Robert Johnson’s songs are the bedrock upon which modern blues and rock ‘n’ roll were built.” (Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame) Inductions and A chievements YEAR ACHIEVEMENT RESULT 1980 Blues Hall of Fame Inducted 1986 Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame Inducted 2000 Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame Inducted 2006 Grammy lifetime achievement Award Winner Songs of Robert Johnson’s included in the Hall of Fame’s ‘500 songs that shaped rock ‘n’ roll’ YEAR RECORDED TITLE 1936 Sweet Home Chicago 1936 Crossroad Blues 1937 Hellhound on my Trail 1937 Love in Vain • Spin Magazine – Rated 1st in list of 35 guitar gods of all time (1990) • Rolling Stone Magazine – Rated 5th in list of 100 greatest guitarists (2008) • – Rated 9th in list of top guitarists of all time (2010) The following are used with permission through creative commons:1. Page background-Moody raindrops in dark blue puddle-Flickr Photo Sharing (author-D. Sharon Pruitt)2. Robert Johnson (author-none stated)3. Tombstone (author-Courtland Bresner)4. Clarksdale Crossroads (author-Joe Mazzola)5. Map of Hazlehurst, (author-Google maps) Some other information sourced through Steven Clements
  6. 6., and through Creative CommonsNon ICT source: Escaping the Delta (Amistad books) Steven Clements