Today, my two greatest passions in music are definitely Jazz and Blues. But it
wasn’t always so and there are two musicians who got me interested in this
music and ushered me to a whole new musical world - just as Louis Armstrong
kindled my passion for jazz, Robert Johnson did so with the blues.
The first time I heard his music, I was blown away. I only heard one song and already knew that this is what I’ve been looking for. I was mesmerized by the raw emotion conveyed within the song. I haven’t heard anything quite like it before. The singing, the guitar… it was all so powerful. And the reason I can remember all of this so clearly is because nothing has changed - the moment I put on Robert Johnson, I feel exactly like I did the first time I heard him. The only difference is, that with every listening, I hear more and more nuances in his music. Listen to Come On In My Kitchen and how he plays melody and rhythm at the same time on his guitar, and all the while he delivers this amazing singing, like it’s not even a big deal. Or maybe Terraplane Blues, where it almost sounds like there’s more than one guitar playing (it’s all just him, fyi). But maybe don’t even listen to that, just listen to the emotion and the feeling of the songs. You don’t need to know anything about music for this to blow you away, just be open to it. Huh, I get excited about Robert Johnson, I need to calm down.
So who is Robert Johnson? Let’s put on a song first, before we get started.
Of all the bluesmen, Robert Johnson’s life is probably the one shrouded in
mystery the most. Robert Leroy Johnson was born in 1911, in a small town
Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He developed an affection for music as a teenager and
started playing a harmonica. When he was around 19, he took interest in guitar
and started playing that instead. Around the same time, his wife died in
childbirth, which made him turn to his music that much more. He was learning
from any source he could get his hands on, and it was obvious that he was
still just learning. His most important mentor and source of inspiration was a
bluesman, Ike Zinnerman. It’s been told that they were playing their guitars
late every night in graveyards on tombstones, where no one would bother them.
If he wasn’t with Ike, Robert would go to the woods by himself, where he was
trying to learn everything he could about the guitar. After a couple of years
he started travelling around the state to play around different juke joints.
The musicians that had heard him when he was still just learning, were amazed.
They could not believe what kind of progress he made and how his abilities
suddenly surpassed their own.
Because of his talent and because he played all the time and everywhere, he quickly became famous around those parts. He played with many musicians and he left a mark on most of them. He played in places, where they requested all kinds of different songs, so he developed an amazing ability, where he had to hear a song only once before he was able to play it. He could be deep in a debate with a friend, with music playing in the background, and without ever stopping the conversation, he could play and sing the song perfectly afterwards. That helped him with a well-rounded repertoire for his gigs.
Robert had a big appetite for women, and women were crazy about him. He had a habit of finding a woman in any town he went to, who would give him food, money and a place to stay. His lust eventually killed him. One time, while playing in a bar, he was flirting with a woman for the whole night. What he didn’t realize, was that it was the owner’s wife. The owner was furious to see this, so he put poison in young Robert’s drink, which killed him.
That’s one way of telling the story. The other (which makes much more sense, if you ask me) goes like this: an aspiring young musician wants to become famous and is willing to do anything for it. He tries really hard but his desire is greater than his patience. One day he finds out, that if he goes to a certain crossroad at midnight, he’ll meet someone who can help him. And that’s exactly what he does. At the crossroads he meets a tall dark man, who tunes his guitar, plays a song or two, and gives it back to him. And with that, the deal is struck - Mr Johnson sells his soul to the Devil, in exchange for the incredible musical abilities and renown. He goes back to the musicians that taught him to play and surprises everyone with his skills. He’s unbeatable. But there was another part to the deal - a couple of years later the Devil gets his toll. Robert Johnson gets killed by the age of 27.
No matter what story you believe in, Robert Johnson’s music is simply amazing and incredibly influential. Apart from some testimonies about his life, 3 photos of him and his 29 songs (with alternate takes it adds up to 41 recordings) are all we are left with. Thankfully, the depth of his music makes that plenty.