Robert Johnson the almost mythical blues singer and musician would be celebrating his 100th birthday today. His brief career probably has had more influence on later generations than any other musician. Having visited his birthplace Hazlehurst, Mississippi and talked with some of his family and area residents adds to the stories one hears.
Johnson’s life is poorly documented. Some say he liked being secretive and kept it that way. An early death at age 27 adds to the mystery. The story of Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads continues today. (A story found in many cultures and it has been suggested that he picked it up from Tommie Johnson who lived in the same area of Mississippi. Tommie’s family points at his mystical behavior at times to back the claim up.)
The story goes he was basically laughed out of town, Robinsonville or Clarksdale by better guitar players like Son House. He left for a year and when he returned his skills were notable. That is when the Devil and crossroads story began. While Clarksdale takes credit for the crossroads most people realize he was in Hazlehurst and any crossroad would be near that town.
While in Hazlehurst, he perfected his guitar style and learned other styles from Ike Zinnerman. It is said he lived with Zinnerman during this time.
He and Zinnerman practiced in graveyards late at night. A quiet spot, away from a house filled with family. Or did the graveyard have a mystical connection?
The Zinnerman family is still in the area. The one grandson I met was considering turning the family shotgun shacks into tourist cabins.
Johnson’s records never sold in big numbers for the times with his real popularity coming after the reissue of his recordings on LP in the 60s. Then too other artists started playing his music notably the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. He is credited by many rock musicians as an important influence and could be seen as an the early developer of rock and roll.
He was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. In fact the home he was born in has been waiting more than two years to be renovated and made into another famous Mississippi tourist stop. It would have been a tourist bonanza this anniversary year. It stands fenced in and covered with tarps.
You can see a statute of him in front of the City Hall but not much else.
Johnson was an itinerant performer, playing the venues of that time, street corners, juke joints, Saturday night dances and house parties. Johnson never had the popularity in life he now enjoys. He may have had that popularity as John Hammond Sr. was bringing him to Carnegie Hall but death intervened.
After a court case settled the heirs issue was resolved and we given their due. Mr. Claude Johnson was proven to be Robert Johnson’s son and inherited the bluesman’s legacy. The family lives in Crystal Springs, Mississippi next to Hazlehurst.
Grandson Steven Johnson has done some singing and the family has put on a yearly festival.
David “Honeyboy” Edwards is one of the last musicians from that era and had been with Johnson the night he died. The story goes the husband of a woman he was seeing poisoned him. That is not what the death certificate reads, another part of the mystery surrounding Johnson.
Connecticut does have a connection at the Dodd Library on the UConn campus. Blues writer and historian Sam Charters donated his music collection which includes a wax pressing of Johnson doing “Love in Vain.” One of only four in exixtence.
Sony Legacy Recordings released “The Complete Original Masters:Centennial Edition” by Robert Johnson on vinyl in a box set earlier this year.
The photos in the Blog are of Connecticut’s Rocky Lawrence the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation’s first Artist in Residence.