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Did You Know: Robert Johnson Edition

You don’t have to be a blues fan to be familiar with the name Robert Johnson. Most who know of him know but one thing...he supposedly sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads to become a master of the guitar. Robert Johnson wanted fame and fortune, and legend says that he was willing to sell his soul to get it. Today, the idea of selling one’s soul to the Devil is considered a common trope, used and spoken about as a common thing. Although Johnson’s story took place in the 1930s, there are still people today crafting theories, making connections that “prove” modern artists have sold their souls, although these days it tends to be to the Illuminati instead of just the Devil. Johnson started something that has become ingrained in music lore ever since – the idea of selling one’s soul for fame. And us still writing about him almost 100 years later makes you wonder if it actually worked.

Many people know the basic story of Robert Johnson’s legendary meetup at the crossroads with the Devil, but do they know some of these more obscure facts about the Father of Rock N Roll?

A man of many names...

Robert Johnson has garnered many titles in the years since his passing including The King of the Delta Blues. But did you know he has also been named the Father of Rock N Roll? He gained this title in the 1960s when an album was released called The King of Delta Blues Singers that included 16 songs by Johnson. While it was impressive blues music, it also sounded like prototype rock ‘n roll. This music was recorded more than two decades before rock ‘n roll was even invented, making it all the more impressive and astounding. From there, Johnson became one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n roll. Many rock musicians including Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and Robert Plant have cited Johnson’s lyrics and musicianship as influences in their own bands. His songs have also been covered, and continue to be covered, by artists all the time. Some covers came from Led Zepplin, ZZ Top, and The White Stripes.

Mythical status...

Over time, Robert Johnson has become a mythical legend due to his ability to master the guitar in just two short years. But did you know that his mythical status didn’t happen until the King of the Delta Blues album was released in 1961? Before that, he was all but forgotten after his death in 1938. This album introduced many people to Johnson’s musicianship, and it was from these recordings that theories of his talent began to form.

Post-mortem fame...

While we’ve established that Johnson achieved myth-like status for selling his soul to the devil for fame, did you know he only had one moderately big hit song while he was alive? “Terraplane Blues” was the only hit had Johnson in his lifetime when he was actively performing and recording. It’s pretty surprising given his legendary status, but as we’ve established above, a lot of that came decades after his passing.

What killed Johnson...

While we’re here, we might as well talk about other odd theories that Johnson fits into. He is also part of the 27 Club. For those unfamiliar, the 27 Club is a slang term used to describe a shockingly large list of musicians who died at the age of 27. While scientific research has refuted any evidence of it being legitimate, it’s a cultural phenomenon that has kept people wondering if the age is cursed when artists get too big too fast. Johnson died at age 27 just as he was getting his career off the ground.

But did you know that to this day, the cause of his death remains a topic of debate? Blues musician and friend of Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson has claimed that Johnson died after drinking poisoned whiskey in a juke joint given to him because he was flirting with a married woman. Since this story made the rounds, researchers have disputed this claim, insisting that poison of that kind would be easy to notice in whisky.

His death certificate did not list a cause of death at first, but the body examination and later research determined it was likely congenital syphilis that led to his death. This was determined from an account taken by the Leflore County Registrar. Despite the case being seemingly closed, there are people to this day who insist his death wasn’t from syphilis.

A limited setlist...

We established Johnson’s collection of recordings became legendary after the 1961 release, but did you know Robert Johnson held only two recording sessions in his life? They took place in 1936 and 1937. In his lifetime, he only recorded 29 songs. There are also 13 alternate takes that have been found over time. While he doesn’t have much of an overall track list, those two sessions were enough to shock and impress listeners for decades to come.

A man of many awards...

While the 1961 album led to Johnson’s legendary status, there was another album that won him even more accolades. In 1990, Columbia Records released a boxed set, The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson. It was met with great success, but did you know the album went platinum and won a Grammy for Best Historical Recording? This was just a few years after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored him for his early influence in rock 'n roll. Since this album release, Johnson has continued to receive post-humous awards such as induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and most recently in 2023, Johnson was ranked #124 in Rolling Stone’s 200 Greatest Singers of All Time.

Graveyard tunes...

It’s a mystery to many how Robert Johnson mastered the guitar in just two years, becoming such a force of nature in the recording studio that it would captivate listeners for decades to come. When Johnson was learning guitar, he was inspired by Son House and Ike Zimmerman. But did you know that he allegedly used to practice guitar in a graveyard at night? It’s been said that Ike Zinnerman inspired Johnson to get his hours of practice in by perching atop tombstones in the middle of the night in graveyards. It had been rumored that Zimmerman learned to play his guitar supernaturally by visiting graves at night and that Johnson may have done the same. Even if it is just a rumor, it does further push theories of his alleged deal with The Devil.

Those are all the fun facts I’ve got on Robert Johnson for you...for now. Was there anything I mentioned that you didn’t know? Is there anything really interesting about Johnson that I left out? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks to the following sources for helping me put this article together.

Written by Kristen Petronio


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