Robert Johnson Biography

Robert Johnson was born on May 8, 1911 to Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. Until his late adolescence, his name was Robert Spencer after his stepfather, who had to change his name from Dodds to Spencer when he ran from Mississipi after a personal vandetta with the Marchetti Brothers (Lavere 7). Johnson took the name of his natural father as a teenager, even though he had not met him. 

Music was a long-time interest for Johnson, and his first instruments were the Jew's harp and the harmonica. Before he became seriously involved with the guitar, he married Virginia Travis in February 1929, and the young couple soon became expectant parents. But tragedy struck when Virginia, only sixteen years old, died in childbirth in 1930. 

Around June of 1930, blues musician Son House came to Mississippi. His music deeply affected Johnson, for it was the "rawest, most direct pure emotion Robert had ever heard, and he followed House and [Willie] Brown wherever they went" (Lavere 11). But Johnson did not appear to be gifted with a musician's talent for guitar, as Son House asserts, " Such another racket you never heard! It'd make people mad, you know. They'd come out and say, "Why don't y'all go in there and get that guitar from that boy!" (Cobb 289). 

Unhappy and unwilling to be caught in the sharecropper's world of backbreaking work with little reward, Johnson left the regular scene around Robinsonville, Mississippi and went to Hazelhurst, MS. There he played at the "jook joints of the road gangs and lumber camps," and found a "kind and loving woman more than ten years his senior" named Calletta "Callie" Craft (Lavere 11). The couple was married in May 1931, but they kept the marriage a secret. 

This time in Southern Mississippi was very important for Johnson, because his musical talent came to fruition. When he returned to Robunsonville, Son House and Willie Brown were astounded by his development (Lavere 13). Rumors began about Johnson trading his soul to the devil in exchange for the guitar expertise. His career took off. 

In performance, Johnson played his own songs as well as those of other bluesmen and generally popular music by performers such as Bing Crosby. When he made up his mind to record, in 1936, he approached H. C. Speirs, a white record store owner in Jackson, MS. Speirs sent him to Ernie Oertle, an ARC scout. Oertle and Johnson went to San Antonio late in November 1936, where, in 5 days, he recorded Kindhearted Woman Blues, I Believe I'll Dust My Broom, Sweet Home Chicago, Rambling On My Mind, When You Got a Good Friend, Come On In My Kitchen, Terraplane Blues, Phonograph Blues, 32-20 Blues, They're Red Hot, Dead Shrimp Blues, Cross Road Blues, Walking Blues, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil), and If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day. When he was done, he returned home to Mississippi. 

Johnson returned to recording in June of 1937, this time in Dallas. He did two takes each of Hellhound On My Trail, Little Queen of Spades, Malted Milk, Drunken Hearted Man, Me and the Devil Blues, Stop Breakin' Down Blues, Traveling Riverside Blues, and Honeymoon Blues, and three takes of Milkcow's Calf Blues, and four takes of Love in Vain. 

During the next year, Johnson traveled to such places as St. Louis, Memphis, and back home to the Delta. On Saturday night, August 13, 1938 at a jook joint named Three Forks, Johnson played his last gig. Of the many rumors concerning Johnson's death in 1938 (stabbing, poison, the devil catching up with him), poisoning is the most prevalent and most substantiated. His death certificate was found in 1968, verifying his death in Greenwood, Mississippi. He is buried at a small church in Morgan City, MS, which is near Greenwood. It was soon after Johnson's death, but before the news was wide-spread, that John Hammond began looking for Johnson to perform at Carnegie Hall in a "From Spirituals to Swing" concert. 

In 1990, Columbia reissued Johnson's recordings in their Roots 'n' Blues series. Johnson was featured on a U.S. Post Office stamp in 19XX. Johnson's songs have been recorded by artists as diverse as Lee Roy Parnell and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Johnson's poetry is currently being taught at the University level, in particular, Victor Cabas' "Mississippi in Story and Song" at the University of Virginia.