King of the Delta Blues
Mississippi in the early summer of 1911...a legend born…
On May 8th 1911, in the town of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, USA, a boy by the name
of Robert Leroy Johnson was born.
After a relatively settled start in life, he would quickly become accustomed to a life of
constant travel, at first with his mother, then later, by himself.
This boy would grow to be a celebrated blues musician, and recognised the world over
as the founding father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Born: 8th May 1911
Died: 16th August 1938
Active career: 1929-1938
Instrument: Gibson L1 acoustic
Education: Indian Creek school,
Tunicia 1924 and
Alias’: Robert Spencer
Little Robert Dusty
Early life…family life
Robert Leroy Johnson was born on 8th May 1911, (although this date is disputed,
as is the formal documentation of his birth). Born to Julia Major Dodds (b. Oct 1874)
and Noah Johnson (b. Dec 1884). Robert was their only child, and, the reason for the lack of
information surrounding his early life may be attributed to the fact that Julia was married to
Charles Dodds (b. Feb 1865) who was a relatively successful furniture maker and land owner,
and also fathered ten children with her. Following a dispute with white landowners Charles
was forced by lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst. Julia herself left with baby Robert, but at the age
of two would send him to live in Memphis with Charles, who had changed his name to Charles
Robert would move back with his mother in Tunicia, Mississippi, in 1919. By this time
Julia had remarried, with a man named Dusty Willis. He was 24 years her junior.
In 1924 and 1927 Robert would attend the Indian Creek School in Tunicia. Although he was
listed as ‘Robert Spencer’ most people referred to him as ‘Little Robert Dusty’.
The quality of Robert’s penmanship on his marriage certificate, suggests that for
someone of his up-bringing, and considering he only attended school for two years, he had a
very good education.
Upon leaving school he would start to
use his real father’s name, and signed himself
as Robert Johnson on his marriage certificate.
In February 1929, he married his first wife
Virginia Travis who was only 16 at the time.
Shortly after she, along with his first
child, would die in childbirth. Virginia’s family
said this was divine punishment to Robert for
singing secular songs and music, known by
African Americans as ‘selling your soul to
Robert would accept this term, and saw it
as his chance to leave the settled life, which he
never enjoyed anyway, to lead a nomadic
lifestyle as a travelling blues musician.
‘Selling of the Soul’
Around 1929 Robert moved to Martinsville, near to his birthplace Hazlehurst. This is where he
would first ply his trade as a musician, and would later perfect the styles of his mentors, Son House,
Willie Brown, and brothers’ Ike and Herman Zimmerman. At first it would be on street corners and
then in whichever juke joints would let him play. He was regarded as a competent harmonica player,
but a very bad guitar player.
“He’d sit at our feet and play during the break, and such another racket you never
hear’d. He’d make the audiences mad with his racket. They would say ‘Why don’t
you go in there and make that boy put that thing down, He’s runnin’ us crazy”. (Son
While he was still living in Martinsville, Robert fathered a child with Vergie Mae Smith, but
would marry his second wife Caletta Craft in May 1931. The following year Robert and Caletta
moved to Clarksdale in the Delta of the Mississippi. Shortly after Caletta fell ill, and Robert, perhaps
feeling he was cursed, abandoned her and would continue on his path as a ‘walking musician’.
Between 1932 and 1938, Robert’s life was very hard to document as he constantly travelled
from place to place, usually between Arkansas, Helena, Memphis and small towns in the Mississippi
Delta. Occasionally he would travel further afield, such as Chicago, Texas, New York and Canada,
where he would stay with other travelling musicians or ‘woman friends’.
The Legend…The Myth
Tired of being told he was a no good
guitarist, Robert took the advice to go to the
crossroads, at the Dockery plantation in Clarksdale at
midnight. There he would meet the ‘Devil’. Who in
exchange for his soul would tune and play his guitar.
He then handed it back to him with the ability to play
like no-one had ever done before.
“…So when he came back, me and Willie
Brown was playing and he said, ‘Can I play a
lick or two?’ I said now don’t come back with
that Robert, you know people don’t want to
hear that racket.” He said “Let them say
what they wanna say, I want you to see what
“When he’d finished, all our mouths were
standing open.”(Son House)
On August 16th 1938, in Greenwood, Mississippi, Robert died, possibly killed. There are
varying stories surrounding the incidents prior to his death, although the widely accepted account is
While playing at a country dance in a town called Three Forks, 15 miles outside of Greenwood,
Robert began flirting with the wife of the juke joint owner. Shortly after Robert was offered an open
bottle of whiskey which was laced with strychnine. Fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson had
always warned him to never drink from an already open bottle if one was offered. Roberts’ reply was
always “Never knock a bottle outta my hand.” In the early morning hours Robert had to be
helped back to his room after complaining of feeling ill. Over the course of three days his condition
would deteriorate, and he would die in a painful, convulsive state. These symptoms bear the
hallmarks of strychnine poisoning.
During his lifetime and despite his travels,
Robert was little well known. In fact if you had asked
blues fans of Robert Johnson up to two decades after
his death, the answer would be ‘Robert who?’
(Which also extended to many other black
musicians). This is down to the fact that he played
mostly on street corners, juke joints and Saturday night dances. At that
time he played a style of music that was little well thought of, and he also
died young after only recording a handful of songs.
Today he is regarded in much higher esteem, receiving many
posthumous achievements and recognitions. His impact on music and
musicians which came after him is enormous. His major influence being
in genre’s of music that didn’t even exist until after he had died. After all
he is now widely accepted as the ‘founding father’ of modern blues,
rock ‘n’ roll and rock music.
Quotes and Recognitions
“I think he’s the greatest blues, folk guitar player, and the greatest singer, writer
that ever lived.” (Eric Clapton)
“You think you’ve got a handle on playing the blues, then you hear Robert
Johnson and you think, woah, have I got a long way to go yet man! I was hearing two
guitars, and it took me a while to realise he was doing it all by himself.” (Keith Richards)
“As a musician Robert Johnson had it all.” (B.B. King)
“Robert Johnson’s songs are the bedrock upon which modern blues and rock ‘n’
roll were built.” (Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame)
Inductions and A chievements
YEAR ACHIEVEMENT RESULT
1980 Blues Hall of Fame Inducted
1986 Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame Inducted
2000 Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame Inducted
2006 Grammy lifetime achievement Award Winner
Songs of Robert Johnson’s included in the Hall of Fame’s
‘500 songs that shaped rock ‘n’ roll’
YEAR RECORDED TITLE
1936 Sweet Home Chicago
1936 Crossroad Blues
1937 Hellhound on my Trail
1937 Love in Vain
• Spin Magazine – Rated 1st in list of 35 guitar gods of all time (1990)
• Rolling Stone Magazine – Rated 5th in list of 100 greatest guitarists (2008)
• Guitar.com – Rated 9th in list of top guitarists of all time (2010)
The following are used with permission through creative commons:
1. Page background-Moody raindrops in dark blue puddle-Flickr Photo Sharing
(author-D. Sharon Pruitt)
2. Robert Johnson portrait-www.Wikipedia.com (author-none stated)
3. Tombstone picture-www.Wikipedia.com (author-Courtland Bresner)
4. Clarksdale Crossroads picture-www.Wikipedia.com (author-Joe Mazzola)
5. Map of Hazlehurst, Mississippi-www.Google.com (author-Google maps)
Some other information sourced through
www.Wikipedia.com, and through Creative Commons
Non ICT source: Escaping the Delta (Amistad books)
An article about the musician Robert Johnson by Steven Clements