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by World Music Network May 06, 2011


Robert Johnson Centennial

Celebrate the birth of a legend and explore a body of beautiful bluesy work on ‘The Rough Guide to Jazz and Blues Legends: Robert Johnson Reborn’.

The eponymous blues legend Robert Johnson was born one hundred years ago in 1911. To celebrate his centennial Sony Music has re-released his recordings on the collection, ‘Robert Johnson: The Complete Original Masters – Centennial Edition’. A Delaware brewery has also joined the celebrations by naming a new brew in his honour, the aptly named, ‘Hellhound on My Ale’. Johnson is firmly up there with the stellar constellations of blues history including Muddy Waters and Leadbelly.

Johnson started life in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He blew the harmonica and strummed the guitar from an early age. The musician Son House lived in the same area and remembered the young Johnson as an incompetent guitar player. Remarkably within a few short years Johnson navigated the guitar with flourish and style that can only be attributed to musical genius. The discrepancy between House’s account and the young player’s later miraculous skill adds to rumours of the supernatural that enshroud Johnson’s legacy. Legend has it that Johnson encountered the devil whilst lingering at some dusty crossroads. Johnson offered his guitar which the devil promptly tuned and played before handing it back. The devilish episode constituted a pact, Johnson had accepted the guitar and so traded his soul for unworldly mastery of the instrument. The story mirrors the legend of Faust and the stories of many West African musicians who have associated with djinns in their musical practice. Late Malian bluesman Ali Farka Toure relayed how a childhood possession by river spirits embued his music with a spirituality that could be dangerous if not delivered with care.

From 1932 to 1938 Johnson roamed, rambled and wandered his way through America as an itinerant musician. Playing on street corners, carousing restaurants and bars and charming ladies for tips, board and company, the bluesman eventually sought out a chance to record his music in Texas. In 1936 and 1937 he completed two recording sessions for Brunswick Records. Several tracks were released and his song, ‘Terraplane Blues’ became a regional hit.

Tragically, Johnson’s genius was extinguished at the age of 27. He died in unsolved circumstances. He was reported by blues contemporary Sonny Boy Williamson to have been poisoned by the jealous partner of one of his female flirtations. His death certificate revealed that no doctor was called. Musicologist Robert Mack McCormick claims to have tracked down and interviewed the man who killed Johnson, but has refused to reveal the perpetrators identity.

Johnson’s dusty Delta blues styles, anguished vocals and riffing guitar themes have wielded a deep influence upon popular music of the last one hundred years. Eric Clapton has claimed that, ‘following this man’s example would be my life’s work’. Whilst The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards remarked of Johnson, ‘You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it’. Johnson’s legacy lives on in glorious mystery. Celebrate his hundredth birthday by revisiting the music of a true legend.