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Julia was married to Charles Dodds born February , a relatively prosperous landowner and furniture maker, with whom she had ten children. Charles Dodds had been forced by a lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst following a dispute with white landowners. Julia left Hazlehurst with baby Robert but after two years sent the boy to Memphis to live with her husband, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer.
Robert was at school in and A school friend, Willie Coffee, who was interviewed and filmed in later life, recalled that as a youth Robert was already noted for playing the harmonica and jaw harp. She died in childbirth shortly after. McCormick believed that Johnson himself accepted the phrase as a description of his resolve to abandon the settled life of a husband and farmer to become a full-time blues musician.
Late in life, House remembered Johnson as a "little boy" who was a competent harmonica player but an embarrassingly bad guitarist. Soon after, Johnson left Robinsonville for the area around Martinsville, close to his birthplace, possibly searching for his natural father.
Here he perfected the guitar style of House and learned other styles from Isaiah "Ike" Zimmerman. He married Caletta Craft in May In , the couple moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the Delta. Caletta died in childbirth, and Johnson left for a career as a "walking" or itinerant musician. In other places he stayed with a woman he seduced at his first performance.
He used different names in different places, employing at least eight distinct surnames. With an ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, he had no trouble giving his audiences what they wanted, and certain of his contemporaries later remarked on his interest in jazz and country music.
He also had an uncanny ability to establish a rapport with his audience; in every town in which he stopped, he would establish ties to the local community that would serve him well when he passed through again a month or a year later. Shines was 17 when he met Johnson in He estimated Johnson was maybe a year older than himself. Robert was a very friendly person, even though he was sulky at times, you know. And I hung around Robert for quite a while. One evening he disappeared.
He was kind of a peculiar fellow. At about that time it was a hustle with him as well as a pleasure. So Robert and I, we began journeying off.
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I was just, matter of fact, tagging along. Johnson reportedly cultivated a woman to look after him in each town he played in. He reputedly asked homely young women living in the country with their families whether he could go home with them, and in most cases he was accepted, until a boyfriend arrived or Johnson was ready to move on.
Louis and possibly Illinois and then to some states in the East. In , Columbia Records producer John H. Speir , who ran a general store and also acted as a talent scout. The recording session was held on November 23, , in room of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio,  which Brunswick Records had set up to be a temporary recording studio.
In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played 16 selections and recorded alternate takes for most of them. He reportedly performed facing the wall, which has been cited as evidence he was a shy man and reserved performer.
This conclusion was played up in the inaccurate liner notes of the album King of the Delta Blues Singers. The slide guitarist Ry Cooder speculates that Johnson played facing a corner to enhance the sound of the guitar, a technique he calls "corner loading".
The first to be released were " Terraplane Blues " and "Last Fair Deal Gone Down", probably the only recordings of his that he would live to hear. According to Elijah Wald , it was "the most musically complex in the cycle"  and stood apart from most rural blues as a thoroughly composed lyric, rather than an arbitrary collection of more or less unrelated verses. Johnson did two takes of most of these songs, and recordings of those takes survived. Because of this, there is more opportunity to compare different performances of a single song by Johnson than for any other blues performer of his time and place.
Death[ edit ] Johnson died on August 16, , at the age of 27 , near Greenwood, Mississippi, of unknown causes. Several differing accounts have described the events preceding his death.
According to one theory, Johnson was murdered by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he had flirted.
In an account by the blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson , Johnson had been flirting with a married woman at a dance, who gave him a bottle of whiskey poisoned by her husband. When Johnson took the bottle, Williamson knocked it out of his hand, admonishing him to never drink from a bottle that he had not personally seen opened.
Johnson is reported to have begun feeling ill the evening after and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days his condition steadily worsened. Witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain.
Tom Graves, in his book Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, relies on expert testimony from toxicologists to argue that strychnine has such a distinctive odor and taste that it cannot be disguised, even in strong liquor.
Graves also claims that a significant amount of strychnine would have to be consumed in one sitting to be fatal, and that death from the poison would occur within hours, not days.
I talked with the white man on whose place this negro died and I also talked with a negro woman on the place. The plantation owner said the negro man, seemingly about 26 years old, came from Tunica two or three weeks before he died to play banjo at a negro dance given there on the plantation. He stayed in the house with some of the negroes saying he wanted to pick cotton.
The white man did not have a doctor for this negro as he had not worked for him. He was buried in a homemade coffin furnished by the county. The plantation owner said it was his opinion that the man died of syphilis. Research in the s and s strongly suggests Johnson was buried in the graveyard of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City, Mississippi, not far from Greenwood, in an unmarked grave. Devil legend[ edit ] According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Johnson had a tremendous desire to become a great blues musician.
He was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man the devil who took the guitar and tuned it. The devil played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This was a deal with the devil mirroring the legend of Faust.
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In exchange for his soul, Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous. Welding reported it as a serious belief in a widely read article in Down Beat in Further details were absorbed from the imaginative retellings by Greil Marcus  and Robert Palmer.
There is dispute as to how and when the crossroads detail was attached to the Robert Johnson story. All the published evidence, including a full chapter on the subject in the biography Crossroads, by Tom Graves, suggests an origin in the story of the blues musician Tommy Johnson.
This story was collected from his musical associate Ishman Bracey and his elder brother Ledell in the s. This resembles the story told to Steve LaVere that Ike Zinnerman of Hazlehurst, Mississippi , learned to play the guitar at midnight while sitting on tombstones. Zinnerman is believed to have influenced the playing of the young Johnson.
Johnson and Ike Zimmerman the spelling reportedly given in census records for the family going back to the early s, on his Social Security card and Social Security death notice, on his funeral program, and by his daughters did practice in a graveyard at night, because it was quiet and no one would disturb them, but it was not the Hazlehurst cemetery as had been believed: While Dockery, Hazlehurst and Beauregard have each been claimed as the locations of the mythical crossroads, there are also tourist attractions claiming to be "The Crossroads" in both Clarksdale and Memphis.
The blues historian Steve Cheseborough wrote that it may be impossible to discover the exact location of the mythical crossroads, because "Robert Johnson was a rambling guy". Hyatt wrote that, during his research in the South from to , when African-Americans born in the 19th or early 20th century said they or anyone else had "sold their soul to the devil at the crossroads," they had a different meaning in mind.
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Hyatt claimed there was evidence indicating African religious retentions surrounding Legba and the making of a "deal" not selling the soul in the same sense as in the Faustian tradition cited by Graves with the so-called devil at the crossroads. It is said that the Blues singer could possess women and have any woman they wanted. And so when Robert Johnson came back, having left his community as an apparently mediocre musician, with a clear genius in his guitar style and lyrics, people said he must have sold his soul to the devil.
And that fits in with this old African association with the crossroads where you find wisdom: You sell your soul to become the greatest musician in history. The devil imagery found in the blues is thoroughly familiar from western folklore, and nowhere do blues singers ever mention Legba or any other African deity in their songs or other lore.
The actual African music connected with cults of Legba and similar trickster deities sounds nothing like the blues, but rather features polyrhythmic percussion and choral call-and-response singing. Keith Richards , of the Rolling Stones , said in , "You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it. Louis , with "a full-fledged, abundantly varied musical arrangement.
But a careful listen reveals that Johnson was a revisionist in his time These subtle inflections of pitch help explain why his singing conveys such powerful emotion. King and his personified guitar named Lucille: I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard. They were so utterly fluid. At first they went by quick, too quick to even get. They jumped all over the place in range and subject matter, short punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story-fires of mankind blasting off the surface of this spinning piece of plastic.
His approach was complex and musically advanced. The Blues, if anything, are deeply sexual. Every verse has sexuality associated with it. Son House rawness," but the train imitation on the bridge is not at all typical of Delta blues—it is more like something out of minstrel show music or vaudeville.
He croons the lyrics in a manner reminiscent of Lonnie Johnson , and his guitar style is more that of a ragtime -influenced player like Blind Blake.
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