“King of the Delta Blues Singers”
More than half a century after his death, Robert Johnson, the legendary Mississippi Delta blues singer, remains an enigma. A provocative and influential figure in the blues field, Johnson revealed his remarkable musical skills around the age of 20 in 1931. He completed only two recording sessions--one in 1936 and the other in 1937--prior to his untimely death in 1938. Very little was known about Johnson when his first album was released in 1961. By the time Columbia Records released “Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings” in 1990, slightly more information had come to light, but the mystery endures.
Like that of other early Delta blues singers, the music of Robert Johnson arose from an oral tradition that began with a mixture of field hollers, chants, fiddle tunes and religious music and ended up as the blues. The Mississippi Delta--two hundred miles of fertile lowlands stretching from Memphis, Tennessee in the north to Vicksburg, Mississippi in the south--was one of the primary locales in which the blues originated and developed. Johnson's sound is critically recognized as the culmination of the Delta blues tradition, as exemplified by other Delta blues artists such as Charley Patton, Son House, and Skip James. Typically, Delta blues are sung by a single artist playing an acoustic guitar, often using a bottleneck or similar instrument on the frets to achieve a distinctive sound. The next generation of musicians--and those who outlived Johnson--may have grown up in the Delta, but most left it as adults to go north and sing the city blues of Chicago. Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, two prominent Chicago bluesmen, have their roots in the Delta: both knew Robert Johnson and were heavily influenced by him.
Knowledge of Johnson, like that of his music, has come largely through recollections of musicians and others who knew him. Two of the best sources of information have been legendary Delta singer Son House, himself Johnson's elder, and Johnny Shines, a contemporary who met Johnson in 1935 and traveled with him for a while. Additional information has been uncovered by researchers, who have helped to establish Johnson's birth date as May 8, 1911. Some of the circumstances of Johnson's death remain particularly unclear; there is even a dispute over the true site of his unmarked grave.
Fortunately, the recordings remain, and the 1990 issuance of “Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings,” has refocused attention on the life and artistry of this legendary bluesman. Johnson's posthumous fame and influence on younger musicians stems largely from the power of his recordings. He is said to have been heavily influenced by early blues artists like Skip James, who was recorded in 1931, around the same time that Johnson amazed his elders with his mastery of the guitar. James's eerie, distinctive style is reflected throughout Johnson's recordings, most notably in "32-20 Blues," which he adapted from James's "22-20 Blues."