Robert Johnson may be the root of rock ‘n’ roll, from themes and subjects of songs all the way to mythology. Johnson’s recordings influenced many of the 1960’s early guitar players like Brian Jones and Eric Clapton who may have identified with Johnson’s poor background and itinerant lifestyle. In Robert Johnson’s biography we find a lot of correlations between his life and Jim Morrison’s.
Not much is known about Robert Johnson, a lot is in dispute even his birthday of May 8, 1911. Johnson’s early life was of being shuttled back and forth between relatives, but from reports of those who knew Johnson he seems to have picked up an education for a person from a poor upbringing, and childhood friends that remembered him mentioned he knew how to play the harmonica and jaw harp. Since a lot isn’t actually known about Johnson’s life a lot of legend surrounds him. Somewhere along the line Johnson learned to play the guitar and made his living as a musician, mostly wandering from town to town playing juke joints or on street corners playing for pennies. He was a womanizer and it was said he had a woman in every town he passed through. To avoid trouble with jealous boyfriends and husbands he traveled under many different names and biographies, adding to the confusion about the real facts of his life. Most of the legends surrounding Johnson have to do with his allegedly making a deal with the devil at a crossroads to become a great guitar player. This legend seems to stem from the blues musician Son House who remembers Johnson as a little boy in Robinsonville, Mississippi, as an embarrassingly bad guitar player. Then Johnson left Robinsonville for a year or two (and may have been searching for his father). When he returned he was said to be a supernaturally gifted guitar player. It was rumored that Johnson attained this power by playing the guitar in graveyards at night or by making a pact with the devil at a crossroads.
In the mythology of the south (the southern U.S. states) the crossroads where places where magic happened. Jim Morrison, who grew up in the 1940’s south was aware of this mythology when he wrote, in a poem entitled LAMERICA
A place where ghosts
Reside to whisper into
the ear of travellers &
interest them in their fate
Johnson himself, while not embracing the legend of making a pact with the devil didn’t deny it either. Besides giving him supernatural guitar playing abilities, it is also said to have given Johnson power over woman. Johnson may have seen this as his reputation and as a device to bring out people to hear him play as he went from town to town.
If Johnson made a pact with the devil to be a great guitar player, the devil doesn’t pay very well. Johnson never made much money from his playing, and we only know of Johnson’s guitar playing from two recording sessions: one in November of 1936 and the other in 1937. Both were in makeshift recording studios in hotel rooms. Although Johnson only had these two recording sessions he played a lot, performing two or three alternate takes of each song, enough that Robert Johnson songs were on anthology albums well into the 60’s. One of his songs, Terraplane Blues was a regional hit selling 5000 copies.
Johnson may have been the first modern musician to die at age 27, in what is now known as the 27 club, of which Jim Morrison is a prominent member. The circumstances of Johnson’s death are mysterious, it is rumored he was poisoned by a jealous husband who passed him a tainted bottle of whiskey. Whether it was poison, a bottle of bad whiskey, or an organic illness will never be known. Robert Johnson died at age 27, August 16, 1938.
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