Flynn Amps and the value of enthusiasmK is for Knopfler, MarkM is for Modes

0
J is for Johnson, Robert
September 27, 2013

Robert Johnson is considered to be one of the greatest blues performers of all time. His hits include “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” which has become a blues standard. Part of his mythology is a story of how he gained his musical talents by making a bargain with the devil. This story has been reused and retold many times as a part of rock mythology.  Johnson was born on May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. As a singer and guitarist, Johnson is considered to be one of the greatest blues artists ever, but this recognition came to him largely after his death.

During his brief career, Johnson travelled around, playing wherever he could. The acclaim for Johnson’s work is based on the 29 songs that he wrote and recorded in Dallas and San Antonio from 1936 to 1937. These include “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” which has become a blues standard. His songs have been recorded by Muddy Waters, Elmore James, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. Johnson came to the attention of many musicians and won over new fans with a reissue of his work in the 1960s. Another retrospective collection of his recordings released in the 1990s sold millions of copies.

But much of Johnson’s life is shrouded in mystery. Part of the lasting mythology around him is a story of how he gained his musical talents by making a bargain with the devil: Son House, a famed blues musician and a contemporary of Johnson, claimed after Johnson achieved fame that the musician had previously been a decent harmonica player, but a terrible guitarist—that is, until Johnson disappeared for a few weeks in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Legend has it that Johnson took his guitar to the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61, where he made a deal with the devil, who retuned his guitar in exchange for his soul.

Strangely enough, Johnson returned with an impressive technique and, eventually, gained renown as a master of the blues. While his reported “deal with the devil” may be unlikely, it is true that Johnson died at an early age. Only 27, Johnson died on August 16, 1938, as the suspected victim of a deliberate poisoning or perhaps congenital syphilis.  Several movies and documentaries have tried to shed light on this enigmatic blues legend, including Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? (1997) and Hellhounds on my Trail (2000).

/harry