Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson was a talented guitarist, whose music laid the groundwork for Delta blues.

Robert Johnson

A perfect example of undercompensated African-American talent can be found in the career of a bluesman who inspired countless superstar musicians … but who spent most of his brief and troubled life on the road, playing obscure roadhouse gigs for low pay. He chose a wandering musician's lifestyle, with all its difficulties, because he believed it was better than picking cotton or submitting to the exploitation of sharecropping—the only other career alternatives he could see in 1930s Mississippi. He was Robert Johnson.

In November of 1936, this gangly, huge-handed guitarist walked into a San Antonio recording studio and laid the foundations of the music we know today as the Delta blues. Robert Johnson's surrealistically uncompromising lyrics meshed with his incomparable guitar work in a way that won him a regional following in countless juke-joints throughout the Mississippi Delta. No one had heard anything like his music in the 1930s; no one has heard anything like it since.

On the March

To learn more about Robert Johnson, visit the Robert Johnson Notebooks website at and check out Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (Sony).

After a lot more playing and a little more recording, Johnson died in 1938, the victim of strychnine poisoning. He had, apparently, seduced one married woman too many; a jealous husband was said to have been behind Johnson's last, fatal, drink.

At the time of his death, Johnson did not know that he was tantalizingly close to being offered a slot in a New York City concert that could have brought him to national prominence. Instead of a massive estate, Johnson left behind a string of dysfunctional relationships, a rumor that he'd sold his soul to the devil for his mind-boggling guitar skills, and a handful of scratchy blues recordings.

Those 29 tracks go so far beyond the borders of the term “influential” that one is constantly tempted to coin a new word to describe Johnson's mammoth impact. He has been called the “King of the Delta Blues.” Whether any one individual can lay claim to such a title is open to debate; Johnson certainly had his own influences. What is certain is that Johnson's work inspired such artists as Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix (profiled later), the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and countless others. In fact, Robert Johnson's tiny catalog may well be the most imitated in the history of American popular music.

Johnson is one of those rare artists whose impact was incomparable, and whose entire recorded output can be listened to in an afternoon. If you haven't heard what all the fuss is about, you're in for a treat—and for a great many repeat performances.

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