Overlooked No More: Robert Johnson, Bluesman Whose Life Was a Riddle

from NYTs

Little about the life Robert Leroy Johnson lived in his brief 27 years, from approximately May 1911 until he died mysteriously in 1938, was documented. A birth certificate, if he had one, has never been found.

What is known can be summarized on a postcard: He is thought to have been born out of wedlock in May 1911 in Mississippi and raised there. School and census records indicated he lived for stretches in Tennessee and Arkansas. He took up guitar at a young age and became a traveling musician, eventually glimpsing the bustle of New York City. But he died in Mississippi, with just over two dozen little-noticed recorded songs to his name.

And yet, in the late 20th century, the advent of rock ’n’ roll would turn Johnson into a figure of legend. Decades after his death, he became one of the most famous guitarists who had ever lived, hailed as a lost prophet who, the dubious story goes, sold his soul to the devil and epitomized Mississippi Delta blues in the bargain.

In the late 1960s, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin covered or adapted Johnson’s songs in tribute. Bob Dylan, who, in the memoir “Chronicles: Volume One,” attributed “hundreds of lines” of his songwriting to Johnson’s influence, included a Johnson album as one of the items on the cover of “Bringing It All Back Home.”

More here.

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9 Responses to Overlooked No More: Robert Johnson, Bluesman Whose Life Was a Riddle

  1. Jackson Beltrandi October 9, 2019 at 3:13 pm #

    As more time goes on, more African Americans will be recognized for their success and legends during times where racism was at its peak. The story of Robert Johnson just shows how the oppression in the South after the Reconstruction Era prevented black people from succeeding and becoming prominent figures in the community. The New York Times article mentioned much of the area where Robert Johnson spent his time, the Mississippi Delta. I figured that basically any colony in the South was protected by white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan leaders, but the Delta was a different beast. A historian named James C. Cobb calls the delta, “the most Southern place on earth.” In the early 1920s, this was the most dangerous place for black people in the United States, possibly the world. However, I was amazed that Robert Johnson was able to use the delta, and blues, to become a rock and roll legend. Johnson was able to incorporate new types of guitars, especially the boogie bass, to the already famous piano and rhythmic vocals of blues. He conjoined singing with guitar, contrary to many other famous musicians who just played the piano like Duke Ellington.
    As someone who really has faced no adversity in his life, I can’t imagine myself doing what Robert Johnson did. He ignored the Jim Crow laws and wandered around the deep South playing in many low-income areas, eventually finding himself up to New York City. Somehow only two recording albums from Johnson’s playing career were saved and digitally recorded. When I searched him up, I was surprised to see that his song “Cross Road Blues” had over 14,000,000 plays on Spotify. I was confused as to how a musician who only played in black communities in the Jim Crow era was able to have so much success in the music industry. Also, how were many legendary bands such as the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin able to document his music and attribute albums to him. Columbia Records was able to revive interest in blues in the 1990s when they released Johnson’s music in an album called “The Complete Records.” Selling more than two million copies, I view Johnson as an American hero who fought oppression and racism, and is still recognized as a father of blues to this day.

  2. Steven Evans October 10, 2019 at 10:32 pm #

    Robert Johnson is undeniably one of the most important musicians to ever have played. So many modern musicians would not be playing the way they do if it weren’t for his unique and groundbreaking playing techniques and songwriting style. So many of my favorite rock bands and artists – The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and (my favorite band of all time) Led Zeppelin cite Johnson as an influence. It is incredible that a man could go from virtually unknown and completely unappreciated to becoming one of the biggest icons and legends in music, known as the early predecessor of blues and rock. He infamously sold his soul to the devil, as the story goes, to gain his musical abilities. I believe this was the beginning of why rock music has always had a dark imagery around it – feared by the religious and rejected by parents all across the country.
    I wonder how Columbia Records earned the rights to release his music. It seems unfair that they should be making money off of the work of a deceased man who did not have a contract with that specific company. It seems like an ethical dilemma for the business to release his music and make a profit from it, because they did none of the artistic work – only the distribution and possible promotion of the recordings. I’m not sure how many companies would view using others’ work as their own as an ethical dilemma, but I think it should be considered. It might be for the best though, that his music was released widely after his death. Such a trailblazer should be recognized for his talent and innovation.

  3. Javier Tovar October 11, 2019 at 8:11 pm #

    Johnson’s life is very intriguing and mysterious as there is a lot of speculation different opinions on what occurred and what didn’t happen. Now, Johnson has finally been recognized as a national hero, and as a musical legend. But why did it take so long for Johnson to be finally memorialized in American history? The answer to that is that Johnson was unfortunately an African American who lived during the time of the Jim Crow south. All throughout my time in history classes we have learned so much about the racism and segregation that occurred during the twentieth century. I also had the privilege of having multiple teachers focus on music during those time periods and how African Americans weren’t credited for the music they created. Instead, white musicians took the same rhythms and beats and became famous, while the African Americans were snubbed of the credit.
    Johnson is one of the Americans who suffered from racism during his time. He is now considered one of the most famous guitarists to have ever lived and many famous musicians including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin, have adapted or covered songs in tribute to him. Bob Dylan also has given Johnson credit for the influence he had on Dylan’s many song lines. I have always considered myself as an old soul, so when it comes to music, I love to listen to Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Louis Prima and many others. I also have a love for rock n roll during the 60’s and 70’s which is why I consider myself a huge fan of the rolling stones. Therefore, I find it crazy to think that their music is influenced by Johnsons. This is not the first time I have learned that many of my favorite old musicians have been influenced by African American music. Elvis Presley is also another musician whose music was heavily influenced by African American blues.
    It astonishes me to think that so many of these notorious musicians have built long careers filled with success because they were influenced by many African American created rhythms and beats.
    Who knows what kind of fame African Americans could have achieved if it weren’t for racial inequality? Even though it has taken so long for African American musicians to receive credit for their music, it is relieving to know that they are being snubbed no more and are being recognized in American society as founding fathers of music altogether.

  4. Joe Antonucci October 12, 2019 at 4:07 pm #

    I am a big fan of Robert Johnson, and it’s always nice to see that he is still remembered here and there, though not as much as his influence on modern music may properly warrant. The mystery surrounding his life and the shortness of it, combined with his incredible music and the lasting influence it has had makes for a very interesting story. It has, as the article mentions, also led to the spread of some intriguing stories about a “deal with the devil”, which only exist because his rise to fame is so remarkable and out of the ordinary.

    To have come from so little and live in a time where he was intrinsically disadvantaged, but still emerge from it a hero and a musical icon can only cause one to wonder how far he would have advanced if he was not in a bad place to begin with!

    Even so, there are without question many such cases of people like Robert Johnson, in music as well as other areas such as politics, activism, movies, et cetera who were forgotten after they passed on.

    Even further, there are many overlooked people who were never discovered during their time in the first place, and thus never gained any renown to begin with. Robert Johnson persevered and was able to achieve in his time, but there were many other skilled blues/jazz musicians from his time who probably did not get as far as they might have deserved to get.

    This may be, in part, due to the discriminatory mindsets of many of the people at that time. One may argue, as the article implies, that the reason why the “deal with the devil” rumors came about was that many white people found it hard to comprehend that a black musician could actually achieve something given the racial atmosphere at the time, and thus devised more ‘logical’ explanations for his rise to prominence.

    But even today, we have heard the expression from a hopeful musician who is “looking for a big break” — that is, in order to gain fame, a musician (or person of any talent) must first be discovered, and that can be incredibly hard to do if the person has to also devote their time to a job to support themselves, in the event that they do not get the big break they are looking for and need something to fall back on.
    His story also speaks to something that many people fail to realize, which is that the past and the people that we admire are not necessarily exalted because they were incredible. They are elevated to a position of reverence because the places we get our information from have decided that these people are worthy of praise. There is without a doubt some degree of chance and luck involved, which is what makes devoting one’s life to some form of art such a risky undertaking.

    In any case, we can still enjoy Robert Johnson’s music as many others do, and be thankful that he was not completely forgotten. He should stand as a reminder to all of us that there are many greats out there who have been completely forgotten, never to be remembered.

  5. Tiffanny Reynolds October 14, 2019 at 2:12 pm #

    I find this article to be quite fascinating, as I am myself a musician and lover of popular music culture. I briefly studied Johnson in a class at Rider University titled History of Pop and Rock. We did not go as in depth about his life as this article did, however, I did know about the myth beforehand.
    I want to bring up a very specific point with the following quote from the article: “As Johnson’s music began to find an audience in the years after his death, however, critics — many of them white and mystified by black culture in the South — leaned into the legend.” Here, the article expresses the idea that as there were tremendous racial prejudices in the 1920s and 1930s, the white population would rather more willingly believe that an African American musician from the deep south made a deal with the devil and gave up his soul to become a musical mastermind, over the much more simple and believable reality that he was just a man that had talent. As the article suggests, he was not born with talent, but rather had “a surplus of ambition” and worked immensely to obtain his skillful playing.
    Looking back at the article in reference to the title of the work, it states that, “Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.” In my own research, seeing that the New York Times was founded and run by white American men, it is no surprise that they left out obituaries from the African American population, even of those who were highly successful. Going even further with this, with the fact that no death certificate was found, and no one knows exactly where he was buried, as multiple spots are rumoured to be the source, it further proves that not only were African Americans not treated as equal human beings in life, but also in death. Even decades after his death, compilation albums were being released, in 1961 and 1990, the latter achieving tremendous success. A Wikipedia article on the album contributes the following information:

    “The Complete Recordings peaked at number 80 on the Billboard 200 chart. The album sold more than a million copies, and won a Grammy Award in 1991 for “Best Historical Album.” In 1992, the Blues Foundation inducted the album into the Blues Hall of Fame. It also was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2003.”

    Who became credited to all of this besides Johnson and his original producer from the lates 1920s? But more importantly, who received the monetary royalties from the “more than a million copies” sold? I assure you, it most likely did not go to his family. It was not until 2000, ten years after The Complete Recordings was released, that a man named Claud Johnson was legally declared his son. Upon further research on another Wikipedia article, I found that Claud was granted over $1 million dollars in royalties at this time, but even so, I believe that was not all that was made from Robert Johnson’s success over the previous 70 or so years.
    Not only does this story sadden me with the fact that a musician, nor his family, did not receive just recognition and royalties (as those of us in the arts can attest that while it’s not about the money, the money is still important), but the simple fact that a man was not even declared equal, in life or death, simply because he was an African American man. While there is nothing that 100% clearly states that this is the case, it is not difficult to read between the lines. Because in all honesty, if he were a white American man, just as talented and successful, do you think this would still be the same scenario?

  6. Alyssa Lackland November 25, 2019 at 11:04 am #

    Ugwu’s statement “a country where the legacy of African-Americans has often been shaped by others” really sums up this New York Times article. Robert Johnson wore the chains of racial discrimination, particularly that in the south in the early 1900’s- a time and place where racism was at an all time high after black people were denied their promised rights after the Civil War. By chains, I am referencing how it appears Johnson’s career slowly came to fruition as racial equality progressed. Being that Johnson lived primarily during the segregation era, his musical talent was never recognized; what is interesting is that the year after he died, 1939, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education fund came to being. This is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which seeks structural changes to expand democracy and achieve racial justice in a society that promises equality for all. There were many discriminatory cases that were brought to the courts in the 1900s, such Murray v. Pearson, a case introduced around the time that Johnson passed away. The NAACP has influenced many cases in the 1900s and current cases in order to bring justice to discriminatory acts.

    I am making the connection between the creation of the NAACP and the time period of Johnson’s death for a reason. Ugwu notes that famous bands such as “The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin covered or adopted Johnson’s songs in tribute” which never would have happened during the segregation era. The NAACP among other organizations who promote change over the course of US history are critical to the growth of our nation and the people in it. Robert Johnson’s music is clearly good enough to be enjoyed by the majority, as musical legends have done covers of his work and paid tribute to his work. However, because Johnson was part of a minority group that has been discriminated against throughout time, his music was never given a chance until it was already too late. It is thanks to organizations who create a voice of equality, such as the NAACP, that Johnson’s music was ever truly recognized, as black people/culture have slowly been accepted more and more as time progresses.

  7. Tyler Abline November 26, 2019 at 6:56 pm #

    The way that Robert Johnson’s fame emerged reminds me of Vincent van Gogh. Both men became famous after death and died young. Johnson’s music and Van Gogh’s art transcended after their deaths and became largely appreciated by people who came after they had died. Both men lived very fascinating and mysterious lives, and I became quickly reminded of Van Gogh’s legacy when reading the article about Johnson.
    Johnson’s story has transcended throughout history and has become so influential because of his talent, ambition, and passion for music. He showed his ambition by not giving up at his passion. Despite him starting out as a poor musician and instead of giving up continued to work and refine his craft was inspiring. The story about how he came back to perform at a venue after being harassed by the audience for his poor performance and wowed the crowd upon his return shows his drive to succeed and adds to his legend. Johnson’s story of how his music became legendary after his death is a fascinating reflection of how the world can and has changed and evolved over time. Just like Van Gogh, Johnson’s work became legendary after he was gone, and he is a great example of those who came before revolutionizing what comes after.

  8. Steven Kang February 21, 2020 at 12:13 am #

    Music is, by far, the greatest mediator that humanity has ever known. It is able to transcend borders, language, and culture. Jazz, rock, rap and so many other musical genres would not exist if not for the immigrants that have lived in the United States. Reading this story and how great of a legacy he carried, I’m ashamed that I have never even heard the name, Robert Leroy Johnson, before. When all-time greats like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin are paying homage, it just shows how big of a deal he was. The quote that stood out to me was “his story is no more or less than the handiwork of the country in which it was written; a country where the legacy of African-Americans has often been shaped by others,” as it feels like his fate was sealed the moment he was born. It didn’t matter how great his music was, which it indeed was inspiring, all that mattered was how what color his skin was. He could have been a modern-day Elvis Presley, a household name. It’s unfortunate that any recount of his legacy is just from quotes from those that encountered him. The quote, “The young musician had trained on a diddley bow — one or more strings nailed taut to the side of a barn — and wasn’t much of a guitar player. But a surplus of ambition outweighed his lack of skill,” shows how much passion and respect he had for the art he was creating. Another significant statement would be, “As Johnson’s music began to find an audience in the years after his death, however, critics — many of them white and mystified by black culture in the South — leaned into the legend.” Seeing as how segregated and racist the south was in the early 1900s, a black man just impressing the white folk, was no joke. After reading this article, I am speechless of the impact that music has. Even though he had long passed, his music allows him to live forever.

  9. Mike B March 6, 2020 at 3:01 pm #

    “I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees,
    I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees,
    Asked the Lord above, ‘Have mercy, now, save poor Bob if you please.”
    ~Robert Johnson, “Cross Road Blues”

    Ask any lover of the blues to assemble their own Mount Rushmore tribute to the musical genre, and you will undoubtedly see a lot of at least one name whose music you might not have heard. Robert Johnson is often credited as one of the (if not the) fathers of the modern blues.
    As the Times article indicates, much of his life is a mystery – his birthdate is unknown; his sudden death by poisoning by a man who thought Johnson was sleeping with his wife; and the legend that he met the Devil at the crossroads, where Johnson exchanged his soul for legendary guitar prowess (echoing the German silent movie Faust, which also features a lead named Robert Johnson striking a similar accord).
    This is what makes the resurrection of his music such a gift, in many ways. One of the greatest things, in my estimation, about the information age in which we currently find ourselves, is that we can learn about, see, and hear things that would have otherwise been hidden from us – or, at the very least, difficult to experience. Blues lovers familiar with the “three kings” (B.B., Albert, and Freddie), or who were first entranced by the slide guitar with Elmore James, or found Muddy Waters by way of Rolling Stones covers, or even wound their way to Leadbelly after hearing Nirvana’s unplugged performance of his “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” can hear one of the biggest influencers of those legends.
    Even better, listening to those remastered Robert Johnson tunes always kind of transported me back in time. They are so simple sounding, yet sneakily complex in how he combines his guitar playing rhythms and his vocals. Add in the graininess of songs recorded a century ago, and there is an authentic and genuine quality about the music that – for a blues lover – is splendid.
    At the same time, we have to consider all of the angles to something like this. Most copyrights are valid for seventy years after the creator’s death, which would make his music public domain in 2008 (unless there was an extension of some kind).
    So, in the monetary sense, who benefits from the sales of these recordings? Is it his estate? Does he even have an estate? The article does not specify one way or another, but I think these are important questions. As we get further away from the advent of recorded music, more lost recordings are likely to resurface – and unlikely to be free to consume. There is a Twitter handle, Dust to Digital, that regularly posts footage (usually video) of old/forgotten/never-seen artists performing their craft. I find these mesmerizing. They vary from old blues guitarists, to islanders on a pristine beach playing a homemade instrument that is part string (a la guitar) and part drum.
    So, what are the business and ethical ramifications of these releases? In the last few years, I have obtained two very excellent “lost” albums that were reissued (one of which is a soundtrack for a French movie Les Liaisons Dangereus, recorded by Thelonious Monk in 1958, but never released due to the director of the movie commissioning an entirely new soundtrack), and I love the idea of getting “new” old music. At the same time, I feel like it is important to consider that the releases are made public responsibly, and that the appropriate parties are receiving compensation – especially as it pertains to black musicians from decades ago, as they did not enjoy the same payments and protections in the pre-Civil Rights eras.
    It is my hope that these things are handled appropriately, otherwise the gift of being able to enjoy authentic Robert Johnson, or Blind Willie McTell, or any of the other unknown recordings that are sitting under a hefty layer of dust in an old studio closet is tarnished, and ceases to be as wonderful as it should be.

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