Robert Johnson Biography
Life and Career
Robert Johnson Biography – Johnson’s life is not well documented, and a near-mythic legend has surrounded him for decades that has made scholarship difficult. Serious research was not undertaken until the late 1960s and early 1970s, most notably by researchers Mack McCormack and Stephen LaVere. The two known images of Johnson were located in the early 1970’s, in the possession of the musician’s half-sister Carrie Thompson.
There are five significant dates in his career: Monday, Thursday and Friday, November 23, 26, and 27, 1936 he was in San Antonio, Texas, at a recording session. Seven months later, on Saturday and Sunday, June 19–20, 1937, he was in Dallas at another session. Other facts about him are less well established. Director Martin Scorsese says in his foreword to Alan Greenberg’s filmscript Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, “The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend.”
Robert Johnson Biography – Beginnings
Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi sometime around May 8, 1911, the 11th child of Julia Major Dodds, who had previously borne 10 children to her husband Charles Dodds. Born out of wedlock, Johnson did not take the Dodds name.
Twenty two-year-old Charles Dodds had married Julia Major in Hazlehurst, Mississippi—about 35 miles from Jackson—in 1889. Charles Dodds owned land and made wicker furniture; his family was well off until he was forced out of Hazlehurst around 1909 by a lynch mob following an argument with some of the more prosperous townsfolk. (There was a family legend that Dodds escaped from Hazlehurst dressed in women’s clothing.) Over the next two years, Julia Dodds sent their children one at time to live with their father in Memphis, where Charles Dodds had adopted the name of Charles Spencer. Julia stayed behind in Hazlehurst with two daughters, until she was evicted for nonpayment of taxes.
By that time she had given birth to a son, Robert, who was fathered by a field worker named Noah Johnson. Unwelcome in Charles Dodds’ home, Julia Dodds became an itinerant field worker, picking cotton and living in camps as she moved among plantations. While she worked in the fields, her eight-year-old daughter took care of Johnson. Over the next ten years, Julia Dodds would make repeated attempts to reunite the family, but Charles Dodds never stopped resenting her infidelity. Although Charles Dodds would eventually accept Johnson, he never would forgive his wife for giving birth to him. While in his teens, Johnson learned who his father was, and it was at that time that he began calling himself Robert Johnson.
Around 1914, Johnson moved in with Charles Dodds’ family, which by that time included all of Dodds’ children by Julia Dodds, as well as Dodds’ mistress from Hazlehurst and their two children. Johnson would spend the next several years in Memphis, and it was reportedly about this time that he began playing the guitar under his older half-brother’s tutelage.
Johnson did not rejoin his mother until she had remarried several years later. By the end of the decade, he was back in the Mississippi Delta living with his mother and her new husband, Dusty Willis. Johnson and his stepfather, who had little tolerance for music, did not get along, and Johnson had to slip out of the house to join his musician friends.
It is not known whether Johnson attended school in the Delta during this time. Some later accounts say that he could neither read nor write, while others tell of his beautiful handwriting. In any case, everyone agrees that music was Johnson’s first interest, and that he had his start playing the Jew’s harp and harmonica.
In February 1929, Johnson married Virginia Travis in Penton, Mississippi, and became serious about playing the guitar. While they were married, they lived with his half-sister and her husband. His wife died in childbirth at the age of 16 in April 1930. By some accounts, Johnson briefly moved back with his mother and stepfather, where he encountered the same problems that he had found intolerable when he was growing up and soon left. In May 1931, he married Calleta “Callie” Craft, an older woman with three children. By that time, his fellow musicians were beginning to take note of his precocity on the acoustic guitar.
Johnson began traveling up and down the Delta, traveling by bus, hopping trains, and sometimes hitchhiking. According to Blues folklore, while traveling on a cross-road in the Delta, Robert sold his immortal soul to the Devil in exchange for mastery of the guitar. The source of this story is unclear, however; it may have been claimed by Johnson himself or his detractors during his lifetime or it may have been the later invention of Son House, who related the tale (adapted from an autobiographical story told by Tommy Johnson) to awestruck fans during the 1960s blues revival. Other stories say that he was taught by a mysterious figure called Ike Zimmerman.
When Johnson arrived in a new town, he would play on street corners or in front of the local barbershop or a restaurant. He played what his audience asked for—not necessarily his own compositions. Anything he earned was based on tips, not salary. With an ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, Johnson had no trouble giving his audiences what they wanted. Also working in his favor was an ability to establish instant rapport with his audiences. In every town he stopped, Johnson would establish ties to the local community that would serve him in good stead when he passed through again a month or a year later. Sometime during his travels he moved Callie and the children from Copiah County north to the Delta country of Clarksdale, Mississippi, but abandoned them soon thereafter.
Fellow musician Johnny Shines was 17 when he met Johnson in 1933. He estimated that Johnson was maybe a year older than himself. In Samuel Charters’ Robert Johnson, the author quotes Shines as saying, “Robert was a very friendly person, even though he was sulky at times, you know. And I hung around Robert for quite a while. One evening he disappeared. He was kind of peculiar fellow. Robert’d be standing up playing some place, playing like nobody’s business. At about that time it was a hustle with him as well as a pleasure. And money’d be coming from all directions. But Robert’d just pick up and walk off and leave you standing there playing. And you wouldn’t see Robert no more maybe in two or three weeks…. So Robert and I, we began journeying off. I was just, matter of fact, tagging along.”
During this time Johnson established what would be a relatively long-term relationship with Estella Coleman, a woman who was about 15 years older than himself and the mother of future musician Robert Jr. Lockwood. But Johnson reportedly also cultivated a woman to look after him each town he played in. Johnson would reportedly ask homely young women living in the country with their families whether he could go home with them, and in most cases the answer was yes—until a boyfriend arrived or Johnson was ready to move on.
Robert Johnson Biography – Death at the Crossroads
In the last year of his life, Johnson is believed to have traveled to St. Louis and possibly Illinois. He spent some time in Memphis and traveled through the Mississippi Delta and Arkansas. By the time he died, at least six of his records had been released.
His death occurred on August 16, 1938, at the approximate age of 27 (making him the founder of The 27 Club) at a little country crossroads near Greenwood, Mississippi. He had been playing for a few weeks at a country dance in a town about 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Greenwood.
There are a number of accounts and theories regarding the events preceding Johnson’s death. One of these is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance. Some say she was the girlfriend of the bartender, while others suggest she was a married woman he had been secretly seeing. When he was offered an open bottle of whiskey, his friend and fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson knocked the bottle out of his hand, informing him that he should never drink from an offered bottle that has already been opened. Robert Johnson allegedly said, “don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand”. Soon after, he was offered another open bottle and accepted it. That bottle was laced with strychnine. Johnson is said to have survived the initial poisoning only to succumb to pneumonia three days later, in his weakened state.
David Connell, in an article in the British Medical Journal in 2006 entitled Retrospective blues: Robert Johnson Biography — an open letter to Eric Clapton, has suggested that the cause of Johnson’s death may have been Marfan’s syndrome, which is connective tissue disorder. The most obvious symptoms of this are arguably visible in the photographs of Johnson, such as his long fingers, legs and arms. Other symptoms are curved spine, eye problems (Johnson was said to have ‘one bad eye’) and a slim body.
Johnson was buried in the graveyard of a small church near Morgan City, Mississippi, not far from Greenwood, in an unmarked grave. The precise location of his grave remains a source of ongoing controversy. His life was short but his music would serve as the root source for an entire generation of blues and rock and roll musicians.
Among the Mississippi Delta bluesmen believed to have exerted the strongest influences on Johnson’s music are Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, and Son House. Peter Guralnick, in Searching for Robert Johnson ( a Robert Johnson Biography ), quotes Son House, “We’d all play for the Saturday night balls, and there’d be this little boy standing around. That was Robert Johnson. He was just a little boy then. He blew harmonica and he was pretty good with that, but he wanted to play guitar.”
I will be adding much more to this Robert Johnson Biography over the next month – quotes, lyrics and more from the great and mysterious Blues legend.