Robert Johnson

King of the Delta Blues Singers:
Robert Johnson

The life of Robert Johnson, one of the most influential early blues artists, in shrouded by vague details and encompassed in mystery. His emotion filled playing and singing blends to form some of the most moving, original blues music ever produced. Ironically, despite being one of the top influences to blues music, little is known about the shy, mild mannered bluesman. "Almost nothing, is known about his life? he is only a name on a few recordings." Where did he come from? Who was Johnson?s family. Who inspired Robert to play the blues and who influenced his music? Who exactly was Robert Johnson? Only the vague recollections of his friends and family link us to the mysterious life of Robert Johnson. From these accounts the story of Robert Johnson is brought to life, and the events which fueled his powerful music are pieced together.
Robert Johnson was born on May eighth, 1911, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Robert was the eleventh child born to Mrs. Julia Dodds. Robert?s mother described little Robert as a playful little boy, who "Always used to be listenin, listenin to the wind or the chickens cluckin in the backyard or me, when I?d be singin round the house. And he just love church? Little Robert set on my lap and try to keep time, look like, or hold on to my skirt and sort of jig up and down and laugh and laugh." (Lomax, 14) Thus, Robert was first introduced by his church into the world of music and was forever captured by its beauty.
Mrs. Johnson didn?t have much trouble with Robert as a child but as he grew older, he became more and more intrigued about the extravagant life of the bluesmen, and taken by the spiritual music. He started following the musicians around, staying out all night, intrigued by the bluesman?s free lifestyle.
Anyone that had a guitar, little Robert would follow off according to his mother. "Sometimes he wouldn?t come home," Robert?s mother recalls, "and a whippin never did him no good." Mrs. Johnson feared the worst for Robert, she believed the guitar was the instrument of the devil and that the music he listened to was full of sin. Robert would ease her worries by playing church songs to her, yet this never erased the fear she held inside for her son.
Robert was captured by the mystery surrounding the life of the bluesmen. The women, gambling, seemingly unlimited freedom, and the amazing way they turned oppression into beautiful song, intrigued Robert. As a young boy, Robert was faced by terrible oppression of all sorts. The white community utilized terror as a means to subdue the African American families of the time. "Racism held sway over the land. Like a plague destroyed the hopes, and beliefs of the black community." (Finn, 211)
As a young boy living on cotton plantations, Robert witnessed the harsh treatment of fellow black African Americans. The cruel treatment of the plantation owners continued into daily life where Johnson was received as inferior by the white general public. He received unjust segregated treatment as a result of his black skin. As a small child he watched in amazement to the powerful music of the bluesmen. In beautiful song they captured the pain of injustice which Robert, as well as most other African Americans of the time, had been forced to endure all their lives. Young Robert was intrigued by these men, and dreamed of one day singing the blues himself.
His half brother Charles taught him the basics on guitar yet Johnson?s most influential teacher was the famous bluesman, Son House. Son House was a student of Charlie Patton, one of the first well known Delta Blues musicians. Son also had also learned quite a bit from a gentlemen referred to as Lemon, a name given to him for the fact that he had learned every Blind Lemon piece directly from the phonograph (Blind Lemon is was one of the first Mississippi Delta bluesmen). Son?s playing largely resembled that of Lemon?s, "The high pitch delivery, the brilliant counter melodies between phrases." (Lomax, 13) And thus, Robert Johnson unknowingly inherited the powerful influence of a long line of famous Delta bluesmen.
Son House recalls how, "We?d all play for the Saturday Night Balls and there?d be this