August 06, 2009

Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues

Robert Johnson, "King of the Delta Blues Singers", was born in Hazlehurst, MS in Copiah County, on May 8, 1911. Crystal Springs, MS is the sister city and host of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation Spring Festival which commemorates the birth of the Mississippi blues legend. Robert and his mother did not stay long in Hazlehurst. After working as migrant labor, his mother moved the family to Memphis where he lived for several years.


Early in life Robert developed an interest in music. He played Jews Harp and harmonica for the next few years until he became interested in guitar in the 1920's. Robert was a good looking boy and he became very popular with the girls. Eventually he became serious and married a young Virginia Travis in 1929. She and Robert's first child died during childbirth in 1930.After this early tragic experience, Robert became absorbed in his music.


While living in Robinsonville, Robert met other blues singers who influenced his early style. Among these are Son House and Willie Brown. Bluesman and preacher Son House particularly influenced Robert with his 'raw and intensely pure emotional music. 'Robert went back to his birthplace Hazlehurst searching for his real father, and became more serious about his music. Though during the depression, there was ample work and cash being made from the railroad and WPA highways being built, enough for people to live and have a good time. Bluesman Ike Zinnerman, became Robert's coach and mentor, and began to teach Robert.


Robert's understanding of women deepened and he began to understand that they could provide everything he needed. He met a kind and loving woman more than 10 years his senior with three small children. Robert and Calletta Craft were married her in 1931. She totally loved and took care of Robert. Robert wasn't particularly respected at the time because he was not a hard laborer like many people at the time, his work seemed too easy to many people. He had beautiful hands, wavy hair and looked younger than his age.


No one knew he was married, and thought he was being kept by an older woman.

This trip to Mississippi in the 30's was really important to Robert. During this stay, Johnson's personality developed into the man he would be. Also of great importance was the musical talent and ability that blossomed while he was in Hazlehurst. He would spend time alone practicing songs until they were just as he liked them. When he felt ready for more learning, he packed up his family and moved to the Delta.


When Robert returned to Robinsonville, he had surpassed his friends Son House and Willie Brown. He played in bars and on street corners for a new months and then would move on. Robert began to spend time on the Arkansas side of the river, across the river from Memphis in a town called Helena. All the great musicians of that time passed through Helena and west Helena, and many were influenced by Robert.


There was a special young man to whom Robert took a liking named Robert Lockwood, Jr. Robert Johnson lived with young Robert's mother, Estella Coleman. Robert J. tutored the young man who had an admirable musical talent. He shared much of what he knew with Robert Jr over the next four or five years. His style took on many of the characteristics of Robert Johnson's. Estella was good to Robert, she took good care of him. Robert stayed in Helena with Estella and Robert Jr, and from this base traveled to play all Rover Mississippi and the Arkansas Delta. Robert had the opportunity to meet and play with all the great blues contemporaries.


Robert guarded his musical style well. If he felt someone wanted to be like him, play like him, he would leave in the middle of a performance. He loved traveling and seemed always on the move. Robert could play most anything requested of him. He had an ability to learn music and lyrics quickly, after only hearing a song once, he could play and sing it, not only the blues, but pop, ballads, and other styles as well.


By the mid-thirties, Johnson was well known through the Delta, Mississippi, and Tennessee, and began to think about recording his music. He contacted H. C. Spier in Jackson, MS, who connected him with someone who could help him. In 1936 he began to record his songs, among them his most popular Terraplane Blues. He made eleven records which increased his fame.


Johnson is one of the most admired and influential Delta blues artists despite his short life and the small number of recordings that he left. His songs, such as "Sweet Home Chicago", "Come on in My Kitchen", and "Crossroad Blues", are blues classics -- played by thousands of blues artists and adapted by rock 'n' roll artists such as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton. His life and work would later influence the growth and talent of such famous musicians as Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and yes, Elvis.


Robert Johnson was a gifted singer, guitarist and songwriter whose life story is wrapped in mystery and legend. Only two photographs are known to exist of him and he recorded only 29 songs before his death in 1938 at the age of 27.


Many of his contemporaries believed that he met the Devil at a lonely crossroads at midnight and made a deal to sell his soul in return for becoming the greatest blues musician of all time. More likely, he was blessed with enormous talent and spent a lot of time learning from other blues masters and honing his skills. He achieved some success and fame from recordings and performances during his life and was scheduled to perform at the first "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall when he died.


Read the full article here. Source: Robert Johnson Blues Foundation

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