February 10, 2021

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues

By Vanessa Bryant

I first learned about Robert Johnson in a high school history class where I intended to write a paper about Elvis Presley and the birth of rock and roll. It was then that I got some early education on white privilege and the appropriation of black music and culture by the white mainstream. To my shock and dismay, I learned that the idea of Elvis being the originator of rock music was largely white propaganda. If there is a single person who we might confer this title upon, it is likely Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues.

Although most of his biography is shrouded in confusion, gossip, and mystery, Johnson was believed to be the product of an extramarital affair and born in Hazelhurst, Miss., in 1911. Most of his personal details have been lost to the annals of time, but what’s known is that he learned guitar in his teens, got married and had a little girl who died in childbirth. The death led Johnson to throw himself into his music. He fled to Robinsonville, Miss., where he was influenced by early blues legends Son House and Willie Brown.

What is probably better known than his music is the tale of Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for his talent. Johnson tells the story in his song “Crossroads Blues.” Playing for tips up and down the Delta, Johnson because locally famous. As he became more popular, he also became a noted philanderer and man of mystery. He was known to walk off in the middle of performances and not be seen or heard from for weeks thereafter.

In 1936 he made his first recordings including “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Hell Hound on My Trail,” and his signature “Terraplane Blues.”

The recordings enabled Johnson to tour nationally and became known for his unique voice and halting guitar riffs. As legend goes, the devil caught up with Johnson in 1938. While playing at a juke joint, he flirted with a woman whose husband, in a fit of jealousy, laced Johnson’s whiskey with strychnine. Although violently ill, Johnson continued to play until he collapsed. He died four days later at age 27 according to some; conflicting accounts claim he survived the poisoning and died later of pneumonia.

Robert Johnson has at least two gravesites, contributing to the mystique around his life and death. Some believe he did not die from poisoning or pneumonia but simply disappeared. “The reason that it’s so powerful a story is because it is the outline of the tragic side of the music that followed,” said music journalist Alan Light. “Some knew him as a musician, others by legend, but his shadow touches everyone who came out of that time and place.”

Viewed through a more woke historical filter, one wonders if stories tying Johnson to the devil weren’t born of racism and dominate culture insecurities. Johnson’s extraordinary guitar virtuosity made him sound like two people playing guitar at once, something those who never got to see him play live may not have even realized. To this day, many of the greatest guitarist of our time have no idea how he did it. Johnson’s distinctive vocal delivery and musical innovations laid the groundwork for what would become known as rock and roll. So the next time you notice someone trying to call Elvis the king, you might drop some knowledge on them about the original king, Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues.

Listen: Come on in my Kitchen