Robert Johnson Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Robert Johnson 1911(?)-1938

American songwriter.

Johnson is generally considered the archetypal influence on the blues as both a musical form and as an American mythology. His mastery of the guitar as a fully articulated counterpart to the singing voice, not simply a rhythmic background accompaniment to it, inspired his contemporaries and influenced generations of later musicians, notably Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. The combination of his prodigious musical ability and the paucity of information regarding his brief life and violent death has made Johnson's one of the most enduring legends in American music.

Biographical Information

Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, the son of Julia Ann Majors and Noah Johnson. Julia was married to Charles Dodds, Jr., a successful farmer, carpenter, and furniture maker who, because of a dispute with a prominent white family, was forced to flee to Memphis, Tennessee, where he took the name Charles Spencer. Johnson was conceived and born in Spencer's absence, and his first years were spent traveling with his mother between various labor camps and plantations in the search for work. Julia and her son eventually moved to Memphis and lived with Spencer, his mistress, and their children. Julia left after a time, and her son, then known as Robert Spencer, stayed until 1918. He then left to rejoin his mother, who had married Willie "Dusty" Willis, in Robinsonville, in northwestern Mississippi. After learning of his real father when he was in his early teens, he became Robert Johnson. His interest in music apparently developed around this time. He mastered the Jew's harp and the harmonica and then started learning the guitar. While local bluesman Willie Brown gave him some informal lessons, it was Brown's friend Charlie Patton who probably exerted the most profound early influence on Johnson; Patton is regarded as a virtuoso guitarist and singer who played a combination of gospel, spiritual, and popular music that critics cite as instrumental to the birth of the blues. Johnson followed these men to the juke joints and barrelhouses where they played, and learned by studying their performances. In early 1929 Johnson married Virginia Travis, and the two lived with his half-sister on the Klein plantation near Robinson-ville. Accounts suggest that Johnson was an attentive husband and proud expectant father; Virginia died during childbirth in 1930, however, and Johnson resumed his musical apprenticeship with Brown, Patton, and now Son House, a bluesman and fallen preacher whose intensely emotional songs soon became Johnson's favorites. House has recalled that at that time Johnson was only an average guitar player, and that he, Brown, and Patton would occasionally make fun of him. In 1931, he married Calletta Craft, an older woman with three small children, near Hazelhurst in southern Mississippi. He stayed for a time, but soon abandoned Calletta, who was in frail health and died several months later. Johnson traveled north, appearing in Robinsonville with preternatural abilities on the guitar and letting it be known that he had sold his soul to the devil. Johnson did not invent the story that one's soul could be sold at "the crossroads"—it was an established part of local lore and earlier musicians had claimed to have done so. But Johnson's claim appears to have been believed more than anyone else's. For, in a relatively short period of time, his playing had improved from unremarkable to astounding; he had not only mastered and expanded on the styles represented by Brown, Patton, and House, but also had assimilated the techniques of other, non-local musicians. He was playing in a way no one had heard before. In addition, acquaintances noted a sinister quality to his demeanor. Muddy Waters, who had seen him play at this time and who was a much larger man than the rather slightly-built Johnson, recalled him with awe and fear, saying that he was widely perceived to be "a dangerous man." Johnson's reputation spread quickly and he became the most popular blues performer in Mississippi and the surrounding states. In a hotel room in San Antonio, Texas, on the 23rd, 26th, and 27th of November 1936, Johnson held the first of his two recording sessions; the second took place in Dallas on the 19th and 20th of June 1937. He recorded 29 songs all together. In August 1938, Johnson was back in Mississippi, an itinerant musician. Past accounts of his death have been sketchy. The latest and apparently most reliable is related by Stephen C. LaVere in his liner notes to Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (1990). Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson (Alec Miller), the famed blues harmonica player, were performing at a house party in Greenwood, Mississippi. Johnson was lavishing attention on a woman he knew, who happened to be the wife of the man who was hosting the party. During the evening someone handed Johnson an opened bottle of whisky, which Williamson—who had been noticing the effect of Johnson's actions on some of the men at the party—promptly knocked from his hands, warning him never to drink from an open bottle. LaVere writes that Johnson responded '"Man, don't never knock a bottle of whisky outta my hand. '" Another bottle was offered to Johnson, which he drank, and which was laced with strychnine. Johnson became violently ill, contracted pneumonia, and died three days later.

Major Works

As La Vere notes, Johnson's songwriting reflects four basic themes: unrequited love; traveling; evil thoughts; and intense, serious concentration and self reflection. For example, in "Kindhearted Woman Blues" he poetically articulates what became a staple preoccupation of blues songs: "I love my baby, ooh / my baby don't love me / But I really love that woman / can't stand to leave her be / A-ain't but the one thing / makes Mister Johnson drink / I's worried 'bout how you treat me, baby /1 begin to think / Oh babe, my life don't feel the same / You breaks my heart / when you call Mister So-and-So's name.…" The urge to travel was as prominent in his songs as it was in his life. In "Hellhound On My Trail" he says "I've got to keep movin' / blues fallin' down like hail… / And the days keeps on worry in' me / there's a hellhound on my trail.…" In one of his most famous verses, from "Me and the Devil Blues," he suggests that his restless ways will continue even after death: "You may bury my body, ooh / down by the highway side / So my old evil spirit / can catch a Greyhound bus and ride." Critic Robert Palmer states that the inspiration for this lyric may have been a song by Peetie Wheatstraw, in which he sings "When I die, ooh, well, please bury my body low / So, now, that my old evil spirit, mama, now, won't hang around your door." Palmer argues that a comparison of Wheatstraw's and Johnson's words "makes a telling case for Johnson's genius, for while Wheatstraw's image is a fairly straightforward rendering of a prevalent black folk belief, Johnson seizes on the Greyhound buses that were beginning to crisscross the Delta's growing network of two-lane highways for a contemporary, strikingly specific image." A major thematic concern of Johnson's was the contemplation of evil and, sometimes, the remorse it can cause. In one of his most vicious songs, "32-20 Blues" (a 32-20 was a powerful gun), he considers what to do "if she gets unruly and / thinks she don't wan' do": "Take my 32-20, now, and / cut her half in two / She got a. 38 special but I b'lieve it's most too light… /1 got a 32-20, got to make the camps alright.…" On the other hand, suggesting that Johnson was aware that his actions had serious consequences, he wrote in "When You Got A Good Friend" that "I mistreated my baby /but I can't see no reason why / Everytime I think about it /1 just wring my hands and cry.…" And in "Preachin' Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)" he presents a touching image of lonely self-reflection and determination: "…the blues / is a lowdown achin' heart disease / Like consumption / killing me by degrees /1 can study rain / oh, oh, drive, oh, oh, drive my blues /1 been studyin' the rain and /I'm 'on' [going to] drive my blues away."

Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 1 (songs) 1961

Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2(songs) 1970

Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (songs) 1990