One of the most enigmatic, mysterious and celebrated musicians of all time – Robert Leroy Johnson only ever recorded two records during his short career. However, his legacy lives on long in musical history.
Born in the poor town of Hazlehurst in the Mississippi Delta region of the American South in the 1910s, much of his life is poorly documented. In fact, only two verified photographs of this legendary performer exist.
The mystery surrounding much of Robert Johnson’s time on Earth has led to a whole series of legends and tales swirling like thick cigar smoke around the facts of his life. This includes the now infamous story of his deal with the Devil, in which Johnson met with Satan at a midnight crossroads and sold his soul in return for prodigious skill with a guitar.
But what do we know about Johnson, really?
Johnson was born, as far as records show in May 1911. Born out of wedlock, his mother’s husband had been forced to leave the area a few years earlier after an attempted lynching.
Even by the age of 10, Robert was said to be a proficient harmonica player. At 16, he married his childhood sweetheart, Virginia Travis. Unfortunately, she died during childbirth not two years later. Many blamed her death on Robert’s growing dedication to the blues, that ‘Devil’s music’ as it was known by many at the time.
By 1932, Johnson was starting his life as a full time travelling musician – possibly by heading off on a journey to find his biological father. Records are nonexistent over the next year or two of his life, but many people suggest that he may have spent time learning the guitar with local legend Ike Zimmerman.
It is recorded that Ike used to play in graveyards around the local area, as his family did not approve of his ‘devil music’. This practice may have contributed to the Faustian legends surrounding Robert, after learning the guitar from Ike.
By this time Robert was an accomplished player. He would pitch up at a juke joint at a town in the Delta, play for his keep, meet (and possibly seduce) a local woman and then leave a few weeks later.
In 1936, he recorded what would be his only performances on tape of his whole career. These included classic tracks such as Kindhearted Woman Blues, Crossroad Blues and Last Fair Deal Gone Down.
Death & Legacy
Robert Johnson did not live long enough to see his records achieve modest success in his era, nor could he have envisioned the popular impact his music would have.
He died in 1938, at the age of 27 – becoming one of the first famous musicians in a now well-known trend of dying at that age. Modern examples include Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
Stories alternatively suggest Johnson may have died of syphilis or been poisoned by the jealous husband of one of many lovers.
Whatever the truth, the world lost one of its most singular and unique musicians that day in 1938. His grave has never been identified with any certainty.