How can we explain the incredible talent that rises clear as a bell off the scratchy old recordings of bluesman Robert Johnson? If we believe the legends, Johnson got his gift on a lonely Mississippi road when he met up with... [more]
How can we explain the incredible talent that rises clear as a bell off the scratchy old recordings of bluesman Robert Johnson? If we believe the legends, Johnson got his gift on a lonely Mississippi road when he met up with Beelzebub himself. The devil offered Johnson a musical genius that would tear open the hearts of generations of blues listeners, a genius that would immortalize the Robert Johnson name, a genius that would change the musical world forever: all he had to do was give the devil his soul. Listening to those recordings, you know Johnson made that deal and didn't look back, and you know he got the better end of the bargain.
Born in 1911, Johnson led the life of a bluesman, rambling from town to town. Taking his lessons firsthand from deep bluesmen like Son House, Willie Brown, and Johnny Temple, Johnson had the uncanny ability to recreate whatever music he heard -- and make it his own. With only his fingers, voice, guitar, and stamping feet, Johnson could make you feel like you were listening to the sound of a full band. He brought the future into the present with his 1936 recordings. In "Cross Road Blues," "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," and "Sweet Home Chicago," he anticipated the evolution of electric Blues and Rock. Although his records collected a reasonable profit for a depression-era musician -- "Terraplane Blues" sold 5,000 copies in the deep South -- Johnson lived desperate for cash. He would play for tips at house parties and even on street corners.
A few months after Johnson's last studio session, old Beelzebub realized that Johnson was cheating him and came round for a reckoning. He grabbed the 22-year-old from inside a bottle of moonshine, and Johnson, getting no treatment for the poisoned brew, died in agony. Strangely, Johnson's host, a plantation owner, reported syphilis as the cause of death.
Johnson's body of work is small: 29 compositions, 42 tracks, and only 11 78-speed-records were released before his death in 1938. Yet music critics and fans acknowledge his greatness and the universality of his work. Even without any historical or cultural context, one can feel the power of his music as easily as those who sat at his feet. Eric Clapton has described Johnson's music as "almost like a religious experience, almost too painful, just too deep for me to be able to deal with." [show less]