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Robert Johnson - Delta School
IMAGE: radio icon Listen to a sample of Robert Johnson's "Preachin' the Blues (pt. 1)" (1.45MB wav)

IMAGE: microphone icon Listen to a sample of Robert Johnson's "Preachin' the Blues (pt. 2)" (2.24MB wav)

Robert Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, May 8, 1911, but spent much of his early life in levee camps and on plantations in the northern Delta. He moved with his family to Memphis in 1914, staying there until 1918, when his stepfather sent him to live at the Abbay and Leatherman Plantation near Robinsonville, Mississippi. There Johnson began playing harmonica and associating with older blues musicians. He followed local bluesman Willie Brown to parties and fish fries, accompanying him on many pieces. Soon Johnson was playing with Brown and his partner Charley Patton when the latter came to town. By 1930, Son House was out of Parchman Farm and had settled in Robinsonville. House's guitar playing had a profound effect on Johnson, and the younger man abandoned his harmonica for the guitar. House and Brown became a team, hopping rides to Memphis to play for tips in Church's Park with Johnson tagging along. When they were drinking, House, Brown, and Patton would belittle Johnson for his lack of guitar skill. The young man soon left Robinsonville and headed back to Hazelhurst.

Hazelhurst is close to Crystal Springs, Mississippi, where popular Delta guitarist Tommy Johnson (no relation) lived and worked. Robert Johnson married while in Hazelhurst and practiced his picking, learning new songs from phonograph records. There he fell under the spell of local guitarist Ike Zinnerman, a man whom locals claim he imitated closely. Johnson re-emerged in Robinsonville many months later without his wife but displaying a dazzling guitar technique and a raft of new songs sounding suspiciously like records by Lonnie Johnson (no relation), Skip James, Peetie Wheatstraw, Scrapper Blackwell, and Kokomo Arnold. His playing was a juxtaposition of shuffling rhythms and slide guitar leads that dwarfed the playing of his contemporaries. Some believed that Johnson had met the Devil at the Crossroads and exchanged his soul for his extraordinary ability. Although Johnson's songs were derivative of other musicians', they display a personal approach to familiar themes of loss, isolation, and paranoia, while introducing diabolical references. Johnson played everywhere, from the Kitty Cat Club in Helena, Arkansas, to the streets of Friars Point in front of Hirsberg's Drugstore. His wanderlust took him to coal yards, speakeasies, levee camps, and taverns in the Midwest, on the East Coast, and even in Canada. But it was his recordings that were to have the widest impact.

Robert Johnson recorded twice, first in San Antonio, Texas, in November 1936 and again in Dallas, Texas, in June 1937. Listening to commercial records yielded artistic dividends for Johnson. The twenty-nine songs he recorded during those two sessions display an appreciation for the medium by being tight, thematically coherent, and short enough for one side of a 78 disc. Johnson's performances were unequalled. Bottleneck leads alternating with driving rhythms and lyrics sung in a high tense voice create masterpieces of the genre.

His success was cut short a year later when he was poisoned behind the Three Forks Store in Quito, Mississippi. An ailing Johnson was brought to nearby Greenwood, where he lingered for several days at 109 Young Street before dying August 16, 1938. He was hastily buried in the Mt. Zion churchyard before being re-interred in the nearby Mt. Payne graveyard.


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