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On this date in 1911, Robert Johnson was born. He was an African American singer, guitarist, and was among the most famous of the blues musicians.
Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, MS, but it is not known how he learned music. Like many blues singers, he moved frequently, playing on street corners and at parties in various towns. Eventually, his style came to Chicago and New York City. His southern roots enabled him to record 29 songs in Texas during 1936 and 1937. Johnson's voice was high and sometimes ghostly, and he was skilled in changing the sound of his guitar to echo the emotions of his singing. He also improvised melodies with a talent rarely heard previously.
He often sang about loneliness, sex, and the fear of evil. One of his most gripping songs is "Hell Hound on My Trail," 1937. If the blues has a truly mythic figure, one whose story hangs over the music the way a Charlie Parker does over jazz or a Hank Williams does over country, it's Robert Johnson, certainly the most celebrated figure in the history of the blues. Of course, his legend is immensely fortified by the fact that Johnson also left behind a small legacy of recordings that are considered the emotional apex of the music itself. These recordings, such as "Love in Vain," "Crossroads," "Sweet Home Chicago," and "Stop Breaking Down," have not only entered the realm of blues standards, but have been adapted by many rock & roll artists.
Some historical critics would be more comfortable downplaying his skills and achievements (most of whom have never made a convincing case as to the source of his apocalyptic visions). Robert Johnson remains a potent force to be reckoned with. As a singer, a composer, and as a guitarist of considerable skills, he produced some of the genre's best music and he was the ultimate blues legend to deal with. Doomed, haunted, driven by demons, a tormented genius dead at an early age, all of these add up to making him a character of mythology.
He died in 1938 after being poisoned by a man who thought that Johnson was involved with his wife.
Nothing But the Blues The Music and the Musicians
Edited by Lawrence Cohn
Copyright 1993 Abbeville Publishing Group, New York