Robert Johnson was born over one hundred years ago in Mississippi; no one could have predicted this boy would grow up, learn to sing and play the blues and eventually achieve worldwide fame. Since his death, he has become known as ‘King of the Delta Blues’ and his music is known to influence some of the biggest names in the business – the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers – all sing his praise and have recorded his songs.
Johnson was an itinerant blues singer and guitarist who lived from 1911 to 1938. He recorded 29 songs between 1936 and ‘37 for the American Record Corporation, which released eleven 78rpm records on their Vocalion label during Johnson¹s lifetime, and one after his death.
Most of these songs have been ordained with a canonical status, and are now considered enduring anthems of the genre: “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain,” “Hellhound On My Trail,” “I Believe I¹ll Dust My Broom,” “Walking Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago.”
Like many bluesmen of his day, Johnson plied his craft on street corners and in jook joints, ever rambling and ever lonely – and writing songs that romanticized that existence. What set Johnston apart, however, was his intensity, his mastery of the guitar and his expressive vocals. His music has, as a result, endured long after his own short life.
Johnson put into artistic form the reality of struggle and oppression faced by African Americans. He gave these fears an emotional depth, especially characterising what it was like to live in the South during the Great Depression and transformed and transformed that specific and very personal experience into music of universal relevance and global reach. “You want to know how good the blues can get?” Keith Richards once asked, answering his own question: “Well, this is it.” Eric Clapton put it more plainly: “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson.”
The power of Johnson’s music has been amplified over the years by the fact that so little about him is known and what little biographical information we now have only revealed itself at an almost glacial pace. Myths surrounding his life took over: that he was a country boy turned ladies’ man; that he only achieved his uncanny musical mastery after selling his soul to the devil. Even the tragedy of his death seemed to grow to mythic proportion: being poisoned by a jealous boyfriend then taking three days to expire, even as the legendary talent scout John Hammond was searching him out to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
In 1990, Sony Legacy produced and released the 2-CD box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings to widespread critical acclaim and, for a country blues reissue, unprecedented sales. The Complete Recordings proved the existence of a potential market for music from the deepest reaches of Sony¹s catalog, especially if buoyed by a strong story with mainstream appeal. Johnson¹s legend continues to attract an ever-widening audience, with no sign of abating. If, in today¹s world of hip-hop and heavy metal, a person knows of only one country blues artist, odds are it is Robert Johnson.