Blues Musician Robert Johnson

Blues Musician Robert Johnson

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The life and death of the blues musician, Robert Johnson, was shrouded in mystery and legacy. The "King of Delta Blues" not only left behind remnants of his heart and soul in his music but a legendary tale of his encounter with the Devil at a crossroads in Southern Mississippi. The circulation of this intricate rumor not only brought about the blossoming of the career of one of Blue's most memorable legends but aided Johnson in laying the foundation for today's music and culture.
Music was always a long-time love for Johnson. Although Johnson did not appear to bear the gift of a talented guitar musician, the legendary Eddie "Son" House taught him to play when he was a teenager. House taught Johnson not only the basics of blues guitar but many other things that Johnson would use throughout his career. House became a role model for Johnson and he encouraged Johnson to take his music seriously and to achieve his dream of becoming a professional musician.
In order to escape the backbreaking work with little reward that was accompanied the life of a sharecropper in those days; Johnson left the guitar scene he had become accustomed to and traveled across Mississippi playing in small clubs, juke joints, and at small gatherings. He traveled from town to town spreading his blues. When Johnson finally returned to Robinsonville, the musicians that once mentored Johnson and encouraged him to follow his dream were astounded by his development. Nevertheless, with the arrival of Johnson's sudden musical genius, came the immediate spark of a rumor that Johnson had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for becoming a master in the art of guitar playing. The devil that many believe Johnson sold his soul to be most likely a Haitian voodoo god named Papa Legba who serves as a "gateway" between an ancient group of divinities called Loa and humans. He is also known as the "God of the Crossroads" because he "opens the roads" (Ellis 1) of the world of the divinities. He is depicted as an old man sprinkling water or an old man with a crutch along with his symbolic animal, the dog. However when Christianity made its way to Africa, the pagan that was once worshiped became labeled as being similar to the Devil. Therefore, Legba, "God of the Crossroads" is mostly like the devil rumored to have endowed Johnson with his musical genius.

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("Legend" par.5) Although Johnson never denied the rumor, he utilized his lyrics in such songs as "Hell-Hound on my Trail", "Me and the Devil Blues", and "Cross Road Blues" to unofficially validate them. Johnson had capitalized on capitalized on the devil-at-the-crossroads concept and became a household name. (Pearson par. 2)
The story of Johnson's success, although fascinating, is unrealistic to many people who have come across it. However if Johnson did not obtain his musical genius from the Devil or other supernatural evil, where did he learn to play? Many believe that Johnson was taught to play by a man by the name of Ike Zinnerman after he left Robinsonville to travel and play around Mississippi (qtd. in Rothenbuhler 68). Zinnerman, who was less well-known in the Delta, "was from Alabama and claimed to have learned to play by visiting graveyards at midnight" (qtd. in Rothenbuhler 68). This may explain Johnson's latter use of elements with origins outside the Delta and also Johnson's grim lyrics (Rothenbuhler 68). In addition, there is some evidence that suggests that Johnson learned to play from records and may have used records to hone his guitar-playing skills. Johnny Shines, a fellow blues musician and a friend of Johnson's, reported that Johnson did learn songs from the radio, at least when they were traveling together, after Johnson had become a professional musician (qtd. in Rothenbuhler 68).
Learning from records verses the traditional the method, proves to produce quicker results for both individuals and the pace of change for large musical cultures (Rothenbuhler 69). Johnson's sudden emergence as a masterful guitarist is probably due to him straying from the traditional method of oral learning and "entered a growing national blues culture mediated by the phonograph" (Rothenbuhler 69). This would allow Johnson to accumulate the many elements used in his lyrics much quicker than those who learned to play only by listening to the local network of musicians. This would also make Johnson a fixture in the new stylistic culture growing throughout the Delta (Rothenbuhler 69). However, Johnson never received the success he rightfully deserved while he was alive. Johnson met his unfortunate end in August of 1936. However, exactly how he died is just as controversial as the life he lived. One version of Johnson's death was that a jealous husband poisoned his whiskey because he suspected Johnson of sleeping with his wife. Another version suggests that Johnson was stabbed by a jealous husband. Whatever the case may have been, Johnson died three days later at the age of twenty seven.
Even after his death the influence of Johnson's innovative style of music went on to play an essential role in today's music and culture. Rock legends such as Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley were all inspired by the legacy and works of Robert Johnson. And their music has gone on to have a huge impact the music scene ("Johnson's Influence" 1). One of the first people to remake Johnson's work was Tommy McClennan who remade "Sweet Home Chicago" released it as "Baby Don't You Want to Go?" on his first session on November 22, 1939. In addition, probably one of the most recognizable Rock and Blues legends, Eric Clapton, started by playing Americans blues which included Johnson's work. He also remade "Cross Road Blues" and "From Four until Late" while recording with Cream ("Johnson's Influence" 1).
Johnson's life much like that of his death was encompassed in mystery and unanswered questions. The most mysterious aspect of Johnson's life was the legend of his encounter with the Devil at a crossroads in Southern Mississippi not only gave people something to speculate about but it also provided him with the inspiration he needed in order to change the musical culture of the Delta and cement himself within the legacy of blues. Although his career was just as short as his life, it made a lasting impact on the on the music and culture of his time and also on that of today's culture. Remnants of Johnson's music could be found in the works of many of today's Rock and Roll legends. Although the Devil returned to collect on the deal made at the crossroads that day, the "King of Delta Blues" still lives on.
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